Some people are of the opinion that Islam has allowed a Muslim to have up to four wives at one time since having four wives is a man’s essential physical and psychological need. This inference is not correct. In normal circumstances, a family comes into being through wedlock between one man and one woman. A subtle reference to this is made by the Qur’ān(4:1) where it alludes to the fact that when the Almighty created Adam, he made Eve for him as his only wife. Naturally, had a man physically needed more than one wife, the Almighty would have created more wives for Adam instead of just one.
In this regard, it should be understood that the issue of polygamy has been mentioned in the Qur’ān as a means to make use of this pre-Islamic practice to solve a certain social problem that had arisen in those times: Many men were martyred in various battles leaving behind orphaned children. The Qur’ān appealed to men of that society to come forward to help these orphaned children by marrying their mothers, since these mothers, if supported, would be in the best position to ensure their upbringing. In other words, the view of the Qur’ān is that people were taking to polygamy for various reasons and they would do a great service if they marry to solve the plight of these orphans. The Qur’ān says:
وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تُقْسِطُوا فِي الْيَتَامَى فَانكِحُوا مَا طَابَ لَكُمْ مِنَ النِّسَاءِ مَثْنَى وَثُلَاثَ وَرُبَاعَ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَلَّا تَعُولُوا وَآتُوا النِّسَاءَ صَدُقَاتِهِنَّ نِحْلَةً فَإِنْ طِبْنَ لَكُمْ عَنْ شَيْءٍ مِنْهُ نَفْسًا فَكُلُوهُ هَنِيئًا مَرِيئًا (4: 3-4)
And if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry [their mothers] that are lawful to you, two two, three three, four four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly [with them], then only one, or those which your right hands possess. That will be more suitable to prevent you from doing injustice. And give these women their dowers also the way dowers are given; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it and consume it gladly. (4:3-4)
It needs to be appreciated that it was basically due to social, psychological, political and cultural needs that the need for polygamy arose. Such needs existed in various societies to different extents. To cater for these very needs the Almighty never forbade this practice in the sharī‘ah He gave in various periods of time. Here, in these verses, Muslims are directed to make use of this practice to solve a social problem that had arisen in the time of the Prophet (sws).
The next thing that a person should know is that as per the Qur’ān if a person cannot maintain justice between his wives in this regard he should not marry more than one even for a purpose as noble as supporting the orphans. One can be more attached to one wife than the others. This is but natural and to demand justice in this matter is injustice itself. What is required from the husband as verse 4:3 points out is that as far as the rights of the wives are concerned, he must always deal fairly and equally among them. The Qur’ān has further clarified this issue in the following words:
وَلَنْ تَسْتَطِيعُوا أَنْ تَعْدِلُوا بَيْنَ النِّسَاءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ فَلَا تَمِيلُوا كُلَّ الْمَيْلِ فَتَذَرُوهَا كَالْمُعَلَّقَةِ وَإِنْ تُصْلِحُوا وَتَتَّقُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ غَفُورًا رَحِيمًا وَإِنْ يَتَفَرَّقَا يُغْنِ اللَّهُ كُلًّا مِنْ سَعَتِهِ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ وَاسِعًا حَكِيمًا (4: 129-130)
And even if it is your ardent desire, you will never be able to be totally just between wives; [so it is enough] if you do not completely incline yourself to a wife altogether, so as to leave the other aside. And if you come to a friendly understanding, and fear Allah; Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most-Merciful. But if they disagree and [eventually] must part, Allah will provide abundance for each from His bounty. He is Bountiful and Wise. (4:129-130)
There is another issue here that needs clarification since women often ask the reason for forbidding them to marry more than one husband. In this regard it needs to be understood that if a family is to come into being not only should there be only one head but also one person should not be placed under the command of multiple heads otherwise, great anarchy would result. So, just as a state cannot have more than one ruler, a family cannot have more than one head. Since, in the family set-up envisaged by Islam, husbands are to head the family, if a wife has multiple husbands, she would be placed under the authority of many husbands at the same time.