although it is found in many religious and cultural traditions, polygamy is most often identified with islam in the minds of westerners.
however, one does not find any limit to the number of wives in the talmud, bible, hindu scriptures or others. therefore, polygamy is not something exclusive to islam. there was no restriction on hindu men regarding the number of wives until 1954, when indian civil law made it illegal for a non-muslim to have more than one wife. it continued among the jewish sephardic communities until as late as 1950, when an act of the chief rabbinate of israel declared it unlawful to marry more than one wife. and christian men were originally permitted to take as many wives as they wished since the bible placed no limit on the number. it was only in recent centuries that the church limited the number of wives to one. unrestricted polygamy has been practiced in most human societies throughout the world until fairly recently.
in a world which allowed men an unlimited number of wives, it was islam which limited the number to four. before the qur'an was revealed, there was no upper limit and many men had scores of wives, some into the hundreds. islam placed the limit at four and gave a man permission to marry two, three or four on the condition that he must deal with all of them benevolently and fairly, as indicated in the qur'an:
"but if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry] only one."1
the qur'an is the only religious book that says, "marry only one." the idea that it is compulsory for a muslim man to have more than one wife is a misconception. polygamy falls into the category of things that are permissible but not obligatory. taking an additional wife is neither encouraged nor prohibited. islam allows a man to marry up to four wives provided he can support them all adequately and treat each one fairly. just and fair treatment involves what is within the husband's ability, such as the time spent with each, expenditures, gifts, etc.2 if he knows or even fears that he will be unable to do so, it is not permissible for him to marry more than one wife. this qur'anic directive strengthens the position of the family and of women, for it provides legal security for many women who would otherwise remain unmarried.
it is a known fact that the world female population is now more than the male population. infant mortality rates among males are higher when compared to that of females. during wars, more men are killed as compared to women. more men die due to accidents and diseases than women. the average lifespan of females is longer than that of males. thus, at almost any given time and place, there is a shortage of men in comparison to women. and when men are taken out of the marriage market by wars or economic difficulties, it is women who suffer.
what are women of honor and self-respect to do in such situations? how can they fulfill their natural desire to have companionship and sexual relations without resorting to fornication, adultery, lesbianism or other perverted practices? the only options open to unmarried women are to remain deprived of a relationship for the rest of their lives, to become "public property," or to marry a married man. islam prefers giving women the advantage by permitting and facilitating legal marriage and prohibiting irresponsible relationships.
the western insistence on monogamy is essentially false. in their societies today it is not uncommon for a man to have extramarital relations with girlfriends, mistresses or prostitutes. seldom is this disapproved of despite the harm that comes about from it. soaring divorce rates, broken homes, deadbeat dads, increasing numbers of children born out of wedlock, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases are just a few of the negative consequences of this common practice. additionally, the woman in such a relationship has no legal rights. she will easily be cast aside to fend for herself should she become pregnant or when the man simply tires of her.
within marriage the woman has a husband who is obligated by law to provide for her and her children. there is no doubt that a second wife lawfully married and treated honorably is better off than a mistress without any legal rights or social respect. islam has allowed more than one wife in order to protect society from immorality and to uphold the honor and dignity of women.
polygamy protects the interests of women and children within society and also prevents the spread of venereal diseases, herpes and aids, which are rampant in promiscuous societies where extramarital affairs abound. after world war ii, when suggestions to legalize polygamy were rejected by the church in germany, prostitution was legalized instead. the rate of marriage has been steadily declining there as the new generation finds marriage increasingly unnecessary and irrelevant.
yet polygamy continues to be banned even though it preserves the honor and chastity of women. in western societies men prefer to keep polygamy illegal because it absolves them of responsibility. legalized polygamy would require them to spend for the maintenance of their additional wives and offspring, while the status quo allows them to enjoy extramarital affairs without economic consequence.
granted, there is the problem of natural jealousy among wives.3 however, they are encouraged to overcome it to the best of their ability on the principle of liking for others what one would like for oneself. if the first wife should find such a situation unbearable, she has the option of requesting divorce. and an unmarried woman is not under obligation to accept the proposal of a man already married; she is free to decide for herself. in some societies, a wife will seek a second wife for her husband to be a companion for herself and share in some of her responsibilities.
islam takes the society as a whole into consideration, seeking to maximize benefit and reduce harm. as long as there are certain individual and social problems whose solution lies in the taking of an additional wife, it cannot be prohibited. yet, in spite of its legality in most muslim countries, it is a small minority of muslims that actually enter into a second marriage, as most men cannot afford the expense of maintaining more than one family.