Monday, August 4, 2014

Muhammad’s Polygyny

(left) Polygyny, (right) Polyandry
          Polygamy, the practice of having more than one spouse, has two subsets: (1) polygyny, and (2) polyandry. Polygyny is where a man has more than one wife whereas polyandry is where a woman has more than one husband. While polygamy has been practiced in Judaism and Christianity, in recent years polygamy has been seen as crude, brutish, and unsavory. Polygamy has even being labeled (alongside slavery) as the “twin relics of barbarism”1.

In Islamic studies, there has been much discussion of polygyny for several reasons. One reason is to better understand Muhammad and attempt to piece together his life and motivations. Other popular reasons are to explore polygyny in Islam in the light of political and social issues, such as gender equality, human rights, and spousal laws. This paper will examine Muhammad’s wives in order to try to understand the Islamic view of polygyny.

          In Islam, polygamy has been practiced since its inception. For Muslims, limited polygyny is acceptable before Allah. However, polyandry is expressly forbidden as the Qur'an states that a man is prohibited from marrying a woman who are already married unless the man has captured them in battle2, in which case their previous marriage is viewed as abrograted3. Further, sexual activity with anyone out of one's spouse, slave, or captive is prohibited (zinā)4. The Qur'an states that if an unmarried woman or an unmarried man is found guilty of sexual intercourse they should be lashed with a hundred lashes5.

The chief scriptural justification of polygyny is found in the Qur'an. Regarding guardians who wish to marry their wards but may not have sufficient funds to provide an adequate Mahr (dowry), The Qur'an states:
If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry [other] women of your choice, two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly [with them], then only one or [a captive] that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.6
Muslims have commonly interpreted this verse to mean that it is acceptable before Allah to have up to four wives. While the Qur'an may limit the number of wives one can have, it also allows for concubines, or female captives, that the Qur'an permits sexual intercourse with:
And those who guard their private parts, except from their wives or those their right hands possess, for indeed, they are not to be blamed - but whoever seeks beyond that, then they are the transgressors…7
There are records that Muhammad, the founder and prophet of Islam, married at least thirteen women as well as several concubines8. According to some interpretations of the Qur’an, Muhammad’s excess of four wives was specifically allowed for only Muhammad by the Qur'an9.

Muhammad’s first marriage to Khadija was his only monogamous marriage and lasted for 25 years until Khadija’s death in 619CE. The advent of Khadija’s death seemed to set in motion the polygyny of Muhammad. While some have postulated that Muhammad did not take additional wives previously because of the high social status of Khadija10, the cause for Muhammad's previous monogamy is unknown. Regardless of the reason, the same year Khadija died Muhammad married two additional wives: Sawda bint Zamʿa11, and Aisha bint Abi Bakr12 13. In the fourteen years between Khadija’s and Muhammad’s death, Muhammad married at least twelve times.

Early Islamic Art with Faces
 whited-out out of respect
(right) Muhammad
 (left of Muhammad) Aisha

Some have claimed that these marriages reflect a desire for sexual gratification in Muhammad14. However, while Muhammad most certainly consummated his marriages, twelve of the thirteen wives were widows. Further, the one wife who was not a widow, Aisha bint Abi Bakr, was six-years-old when she married Muhammad.  Muhammad did not consummate this marriage until she reached nine-years-old15. Viewing Muhammad's selection of wives, it would seem unlikely Muhammad was looking solely for sexual gratification. The culture of the day dictated that a virgin was more desirable than a widow who has previously had sexual intercourse.  Additionally, it seems very unlikely that Muhammad would marry a six year old out of sexual yearning and then wait three years to consummate it. Ultimately, if Muhammad wished to be sexually gratified he could have more easily found pleasure through non-committal relationships, such as with concubines, rather than formally committing to several widows and a child. Evidenced by this, Muhammad likely married for reasons other than sexual desire.

The fact that almost all of Muhammad’s wives were widows suggests that Muhammad was trying to aid those who were uncared for and needed help. Indeed, the Qur’an dictates to all Muslims to take special care of orphans16. There is additional evidence from hadiths showing that Muslims opted to support orphaned families through guardianship on a fairly regular basis17.  This guardianship often led to plural marriages as Muslim men desired their ward’s beauty and company.  Their initial financial support often led to marriage.  Muhammad apparently sought out widows because he was financially capable of helping them whereas other may not have been. This might help explain why Muhammad had so many wives while Muslims accept that the Qu'ran only allows up to four wives.

The name of Muhammad with the names of
 the four rightly-guided caliphs surrounding
Another possible reason for Muhammad’s polygyny was socio-political ties. In fact, examining the marriages of Muhammad and his children, all four of the Rashidun, or the four “rightly guiding Caliphs” (the companions of Muhammad and rulers after his death), are connected to Muhammad through marriage.  Muhammad possibly desired to marry his friends’ children to solidify friendships and faith while strengthening the bonds between some of the most powerful families in the Muslim world.

 Aisha, the six-year-old wife of Muhammad was the daughter of Abu Bakr, who would become the first Caliph18. Ḥafsa bint Umar, the daughter of Umar ibn al-Khattab, who would be the second Caliph, eventually married Muhammad as well. Umar first offered to marry his widowed daughter to Abu Bakr, and then to Uthman Ibn 'Affan. Both refused. Upset, Umar went to Muhammad, complaining that Abu Bakr and Uthman both rejected his daughter, Hafsa.  Muhammad told Umar that Allah had greater plans for Abu Bakr, Uthman, and Hafsa. Subsequently, Muhammad offered to marry Hafsa19.

Similar to Muhammad’s efforts to strengthen socio-political ties through marriage, several Islamic leaders sought to strengthen their ties to Muhammad and Islam through marrying Muhammad’s relatives. Uthman Ibn 'Affan, who would become the third Caliph, married Muhammad’s second daughter, Umm Kulthum bint Muhammad. The last Rashidun, Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, eventually married Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah whom both Umar and Uthman sought to marry as well20.

Some studies have shown that over a ten-year time, arranged-marriages
demonstrate more love/compassion in the latter measured  portion of the
 marriage than choice-marriages21 (though other studies disagree)22 23
All of these examples help to illustrate how early Islam viewed marriage and polygyny as a method of creating and maintaining socio-political ties. Much of reasons why people got married in the early Islamic world had more to do with their parents and situation rather than their physical or emotional attractions.

 In the current western culture, the idea of marriage for any reason other than love is abhorrent. In recent years, marriage has been emphasized as a matter of love rather than logic or commitment. Arranged marriages have decreased, polygamy has decreased, marriage ages have increased, and divorce rates have increased. Subsequently, as many modern readers reflect on Muhammad's polygyny, many have emphasized the sexual nature of Muhammad’s marriages and minimized, or misunderstood, the pragmatic reasons. Muhammad did not marry solely for sexual gratification. He married to help those in need, to strengthen Islam, and to ensure that the work he did would carry on for generations to come.


1. John A. Wills. The Twin Relics of Barbarism. Historical Society of Southern California, Los Angeles. 1(5). 40-44
2. Qur'an, 4:24; Sahih Muslim. Book 008. Number 3432
3. Sahih Muslim. Book 008. Number 3432
4. Qur'an, 24:2; Qur'an, 70: 29-31; Kecia Ali (2006), Sexual Ethics and Islam, ISBN 978-1851684564, Chapter 4
5. Qur'an, 24:2
6. Qur'an, 4:3; Sahih Bukhari. Volume 3, Book 44, Number 674
7. Qur'an, 70: 29-31
8. Zaad al-Ma'aad, 1/114;  Ibn al-Qayyim, Biography
9. Qur'an, 33:50
10. Walther, Wiebke (1993). Women in Islam. Markus Wiener Publishing Inc. 104.
11. F. E. Peters (2009). A Guide for Jews and Christians. Princeton University Press. 83.
12. Abbott, Nabia (1942). Aishah The Beloved of Muhammad. University of Chicago Press. p. 1.
13. Sahih Muslim Book 008, Number 3309.
14. Silas (2006). Muhammad, Islam and Sex. Retrieved from
15. Sahih Muslim Book 008, Number 3309.
16. Qur'an, 2:83
17. Sahih Bukhari. Volume 3, Book 44, Number 674
18. Esposito, John L. "A'ishah In the Islamic World: Past and Present". Oxford Islamic Studies Online.
19. Ibn Saad/Bewley vol. 8 pp. 56-58
20. "Fatimah", Encyclopaedia of Islam. Brill Online.
21. Gupta, Usha; Singh, Pushpa (1982). An exploratory study of love and liking and type of marriages.Indian Journal of Applied Psychology. 19(2), 92-97.
22. Walsh, M., & Taylor, T. (2010). Understanding in Japanese Marriages. The Journal of Social Psychology. 118(1). 67-76.
23. Myers, J. E., Madathil, J., & Tingle, L. R. (2005). Marriage Satisfaction and Wellness in India and the United States: A Preliminary Comparison of Arranged Marriages and Marriages of Choice. Journal of Counseling & Development. 83(2). 183-190.


cheryl j said...

Very enjoyable reading. I have wanted to learn more about Islam. It is interesting Western culture really began to focus on "love" marriages only a couple of centuries ago, and this paradigm now perceives all unions as necessarily sexually-based. Also, it appears most modern people have no difficulty with multiple sexual partners, providing they sequential, and therefore seems a bit hypocritical to condemn other cultures simply because they have multiple consenting partners but concurrently. I suppose the key word is consenting.

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Naomi Hudkins said...

Why are you so cool?!


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