Islam grants a man the right to take up to four wives, as long as he can provide for and treat them equitably.
As it has been explained to me, the original allowance came early in Muslim history when the male population was greatly reduced by warfare.
Some Muslims argue the original reason for revelation indicates the provision was temporary. Others argue the high standard of practice is nearly impossible, rendering the provision irrelevant.
But many others see it as God’s eternal permission. Only Turkey and Tunisia have outlawed polygamy, though restrictions exist in many nations.
Egypt, apparently, may enter this minefield.
According to al-Monitor, a draft law has been proposed to require the permission of a first wife before her husband can legally marry a second. The marriage would become null and void unless he can submit to the court her written agreement.
The article does not delve into the details of Islamic jurisprudence, and I am in no position to judge. But it does provide several reactions that illustrate how modern Muslims in Egypt regard the practice.
Here are a few excerpts:
Asserting that the draft law is compatible with Islamic Sharia, he [the draft law author] indicated that the Islamic Research Academy would approve it because Islamic Sharia allowed both spouses to add conditions to protect their rights, to preserve their interests and to have guarantees.
One traditional Salafi parliament member deferred to the Azhar to decide if the law is compatible with Islamic sharia. But he had an objection of relevance, akin to the original Muslim situation:
Khalil added, “What second marriage are we talking about at a time when the number of spinsters in Egypt stands at more than 11 million? Egyptian young men are barely capable of getting married once, let alone a second marriage.”
The head of Azhar University’s fatwa committee did not object:
“This is a permissible condition that has a sound purpose, which is to prevent the harm that may be caused to the first wife in case her husband decided to marry a second woman without her consent.
If a man has the right to marry more than one and consents to waive this right, then the condition [of the first wife’s prior approval] would therefore be valid.
A man can still be capable of having another wife without harming his first wife, since in Islam doing justice between wives is a prerequisite for polygamy.”
The female head of the Arab League’s Women Department disagreed:
“At the beginning of their marriage, both spouses would have strong emotional feelings and would rule out the idea of a second marriage. But as life goes on, a man could consider a second marriage.
I think that the husband should submit to the court the reasons for which he wants a second marriage, and it would be up to the judge to decide whether to allow him or not to do so. The first wife is not a neutral party, and certainly she would not want her husband to take on a second wife.”
A member of Egypt’s National Council for Women said the stipulation is already in personal status law, though not in the marriage contract. But she supports the amendment because there is a one year statute of limitations for divorce, from the time the wife becomes aware of the second marriage. Lawyers (and husbands) have exploited this loophole and kept women in the dark.
But she also finds a supporting rationale:
She further pointed that Muhammad did not allow Ali bin Abi Talib to take on another wife besides Muhammad’s daughter Fatima Zahra because this would hurt her, which confirms that the marriage contract condition of the first wife’s approval on the second marriage is in accordance with Islamic Sharia.
But a Salafi leader dismissed this reasoning:
“Prophet Muhammad and his companions were married to several women, and no one reported that they ever waited for their first wife’s permission.”
He explained that Muhammad’s rejection of Ali bin Abi Talib is a special case related exclusively to Fatima because the second wife was the daughter of Abu Jahl, an infidel.
Hawari added, “Moreover, the prophet did not forbid Ali from getting another wife, but he asked him to divorce Fatima if he insisted on marrying the daughter of Abu Jahl.
After Fatima’s death, Ali married eight women. Therefore, this example cannot be cited when talking about polygamy.”
We had one friend who kept giving birth to girls. She was constantly afraid her husband would take a second wife.
We have another friend whose father’s second marriage proved a source of tension with his children.
A third friend invited us to the marriage of his first wife’s son. We had previously only met his second, but at the door he told us not to mention her name. The first wife didn’t know about it. We had the impression the children did, though, and didn’t object.
Polygamy is complicating, certainly.
Instead of parliamentarians, it would be better to probe instead the Muslim sources and what their commentators have ruled throughout history. It would be better to explore the process by which Turkey and Tunisia outlawed the practice, and see if it had socially acceptable legal justification.
Sometimes bypassed in interpretation of law – divine or otherwise – are the personal stories of those involved.
But in lieu of further study, please make do with the examples above. What do you think?
Here, I only advise to speak with graciousness and humility, holding whatever convictions you deem appropriate.