Islam, Multiple Wives

Apologies if this has been asked previously.

My colleague (who is a Muslim) insists that it is referred to in the Koran that men can take multiple wives (capped at 4).

Is this the case? or are multiple wives a man invention/interpretation.


In Malaysia, Moslem men are allowed as many wives as they can afford up to a maximum of four. In an interesting twist, the first wife can veto any potential future wife and is in charge of the household. Practically speaking, only sultans and other very, very wealthy men have more than one wife. Typically, each new wife is a decade or so younger than the previous one.


I’m not sure what the Koran has to say on the subject, although I’m sure someone else around here must. However, Muhammad himself had four wives. I once read that when he announced to his wives that Allah had informed him that he could take another, his youngest wife made a quip along the lines of “Funny how Allah is always so quick to tell you to do what you’ve already decided to do!”

Anyway, I believe it is widely accepted in the Muslim world that a man may have up to as many wives as the Prophet, provided that he treats them equally. However, some interpret this to mean that multiple wives are practically impossible if theoretically permissable, as no ordinary man could hope to really treat four women equally.

The limit of one wife per man is not as common as you might think. Polygamy was biblically permitted, and was sanctioned in Judaism until approximately the year 1000, when the great Rabbi Gershom (known as the “Light of the Exile”) banned it due to its creation of an appearance of promiscuity amongst Christian society.

So as far as Islam goes…what’s so shocking?

I’m in an Introduction to Islam class, so I can give you what my teacher has said, but it shouldn’t be counted as perfect information.

Apparently, the relevant passage in the Qu’ran says something along the lines of (like Lamia says), “A man may take four wives, but only if he treats them equally,” and then goes on to say, “but this is not humanly possible.”

Yes, Muhammad took four wives. However, opponents to Muslim polygamy point out that Muhammad was never seen as flawless, and claim that he actually did it for political reasons.

Correct, except I’m fairly certain that the second part is not from the Qur’an ( “but this is not humanly possible” ). Rather that is the reasoning of some modern ( 19th century and on, I think ) Islamic theologians on the subject. Muhammed gets a pass for various reasons, but the general line of thought is that though it is permissable to have up to four wives, that little caveat of having treat them all exactly equal, means that in practice almost nobody is going to be able to pull it off without being in violation.

However this is by no means a universal reading in the Muslim world. There are still, I’m sure, plenty of Muslims that would agree that up to four wives is permissable and sanctioned by the Qur’an. And of course in centuries past even this restriction was worked around ( by the extremely wealthy and powerful ) by the use of concubinage.

The origins of polygamy in this case, of course, grew out of the harsh desert culture where Islam was incubated. In fact Muhammed’s restrictions on numbers of wives, as with many of his specific pronouncements and enumerating of rights for women, was a rather radical and progressive message for the time. “For the time”, being the operative phrase hear, I think :slight_smile: .

  • Tamerlane

Sorry for the hijack, but…

Was it then still permitted in non-Christian cultures?;j And did it persist in Ethiopia, where I assume Rabbi Gershom was not well-known?


Yes, it was. Although polygamy was rare amongst non-European Jews (for the same economic/equal treatment reasons as others have mentioned about Muslims), it was never truly banned by Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jewish authorities until the mass emigration/exile of Sephardic Jews to Israel in the middle of this century. At that time, for the sake of unifying the rules (since both Jewish communities would now be living together in large numbers), the Sephardic Rabbis declared their communities to be bound by Rabbi Gershom’s ban as well.

As for the Ethiopian Jews specifically, I really couldn’t say, but I assume that the leaders of those who came to Israel in the 80’s did similarly.

Chaim Mattis Keller

It was never banned among the Yemenites. The Sephardim rabbis in Israel banned it, but I don’t know if that would apply to Sephardim outside of Israel. Technically, Rabbi Gershom didn’t ban it outright. He said that if someone could get the approval of 100 rabbis in at least 3 countries, then he could marry again. (And, the original decree expired in 1260, but it’s been extended indefinately.)

Just to second Tamerlane - Mohammed’s restrictions are seen as very progressive and pro-women, as previously a man could marry as many women as he wanted, and not have look after their economic wellbeing or anything.

From talking to Muslim colleagues and other Muslims here, it seems that the practice of multiple wives is definitely on the wane. There is even some disapproval of it in certain quarters. That said, very, very rich and important men such as sheikhs may have multiple wives. This is often for political reasons - such as to align with more than one other important family, or to increase the chances of male heirs etc.

But from talking to more man-on-the-street Muslims, it may be mentioned that “an uncle” or “a grandfather” had two wives, but it never seems to be a brother or a cousin, which has led me to understand that it is a practice that is reducing over the generations.

I have also noticed that divorce does not seem to carry the same stigma here that it carried until quite recently in Western/christian society, especially for women. This is probably because the Quaran makes provision for it, so you don’t have the “can’t marry again in church” thing that we still get today, or the phenomenon of having to “catch your partner in the act” before no-fault divorces came out. When a man divorces his wife in Islam he is required to make provision for her and her children. It’s also a common practice for a man to settle money on his wife so she is economically independent.

No, in fact that part really is in a Qur’an verse. I think the original wording was “You will never be able to be perfectly fair and equal between all your wives, even if you tried.” That verse is in a different place from the verse about marrying up to four wives, but in interpreting they have to be considered together.

Jomo Mojo: Ah, thanks for the correction :slight_smile: . That makes sense then - So modern theologians having linked the two together, which seems eminently reasonable.

I was taught that this was mostly a more recent ( last century or two ) interpretation. If that’s the case ( and a correction here wouyld be welcome as well ), why do you think that linkage was only recently made? A matter of the context in which the separate passages are found? Or is this in fact an old idea that is just becoming more popular and “mainstream” as international culture has begun to lean more and more heavily towards an anti-polygamy stance?

  • Tamerlane

Found it, I think :slight_smile: .

(4:129) Ye will not be able to deal equally between ( your ) wives, however much ye wish ( to do so ). But turn not altogether away ( from one ), leaving her in suspense. If ye do good and keep from evil, lo! Allah is ever forgiving, merciful.

Hmmm…Seems to leave just a little wiggle room. Certainly there is an implication of multiple partners being an accepted norm in the passage. On the other hand I see some web discussions arguing that this was a temporary exception made in acknowledgment of the tense war times when the Qur’an was composed. I can see where battling theologians could have a field day with this. Curse these open-to-interpretation religious passages :wink: .

  • Tamerlane