• What would we do if we lived in a world where there are many more women than men and to remain childless is considered a disgrace?  What if the reason for the scarcity of men were due to war?
  • What should a man do if he is married to a woman who has reproductive complications and cannot get pregnant, especially if the stigma of not producing children were great?
  • If you lived in an agrarian culture where children amounted to workers, would it be advantageous to have many children even if they came from several different women?
  • Maybe the best way to take care of a widow is to bring her into your home as another wife?
  • What if a wife is okay with the idea of sharing a husband because of the benefits she receives from marriage?
  • If you are capable of meaningful, respectful, financially responsible relationships with several different women in separate towns, is that so bad?
  • What if a man has a sexual appetite a single woman cannot satisfy?

In our modern American society these questions seem irrelevant, morally clear, or even reprehensible.  We don’t have many war widows.  The male to female ratio in America is roughly equal.  We have medical options and adoptions to help the barren.  We see children as an option and bend over backward to make sure childless couples don’t feel excluded.  Child labor is illegal.  A resourceful woman doesn’t need a man to take care of her financially anymore.  We would not look kindly on a woman who reduces marriage to “benefits.”  Men who carry on with many different women across the country at the same time?  Well, you saw what happened to Tiger Woods’ popularity.  We would compare men who claim they aren’t made for monogamy to dogs.

But the Qur’an wasn’t written in 21st century America, was it?

For that matter, nor was the Hebrew Bible, starring such notable polygamists as Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon.

Today’s section runs against the grain of our modern sensibilities and plays into another anti-Muslim stereotype: Islam as rationale for sexual exploitation of women.  Today we come to clear permission for polygamy.

We need to remember the context.  This surah started with an appeal to let justice guide one’s ethics (4:9).  Today the surah turns to what is just in marriage.  Marriage is the appropriate avenue to fulfill one’s sexual appetite; it is unjust to turn a woman into an object for “fornication” (4:24).  Both partners must agree to the marriage (4:24).  A man should refrain from marrying women from within his family (4:23).  Women taken as a wife should be given a fair bride-price (4:24).  Earlier we saw that a man could take up to four wives (4:3).  Most of all, a wife is to be treated with respect as one blessed with great goodness from God (4:19) and one who completes the missing part of a man (4:1).

So, how can polygamy actually be an arrangement that promotes justice?  The surah was written shortly after the devastating Battle of Uhud in which many Muslim men were killed.  A widow could not expect to have much of a life in their patriarchal world.  Children needed fathers.  Family names needed to be carried on.  The Muslim people — God’s messengers in the world — needed to grow exponentially.  Allowing men to take on up to four wives, always with mutual consent, actually created situations for life, provision, and perpetuity.  Their’s was also a culture that valued sexual purity, that is sexuality expressed within the confines of marriage.  Is it not better for a man inclined towards other women — especially if driven towards other women because of the frigidity or barrenness of a wife — to be able to find satisfaction for his desires within these newly defined parameters for marriage?  Is it not better for the original wife to be kept on with the new wife or wives instead of be sent away in divorce?

Well, at least that is how the argument goes.  Understood in context, the Qur’anic permission of polygamy is not as offensive as it may seem at first.  An unchecked desire for sex need not be seen as the main driving force behind God’s permission (though, notice it is not an advocacy) for polygamy.

Still, it does not seem as sacred as one man, one woman for life.