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The Lost Sunnah
Of the many misconceptions that exist about marriage amongst the Shi'a today, is the idea that polygamy is something permisible but undesirable. Some lay Shi'a even believe that polygamy is only allowed if there is some overriding benefit for the other wives, such as that one is seeking to marry an older widow, or an orphan, or somebody else who needs to be taken care of. At the most liberal wing of understanding, people believe that polygamy is allowed but in no way recommended by Islamic law. Once again, the existence of these beliefs demonstrates the profound distance the Shi'a have been taken from the body of ahadeeth in which we can find the words of the Prophet (s) and the Imams (as).
There are a number of ahadeeth which discuss the fact that is from the akhlaq of the Prophet's to take more than one wife. The following are some of these ahadeeth, which have been quoted in our discussion on the sanctity of sex in Islam:
Imam Ar-Rida (as) said: "Three things are from the sunnah of the Messengers: Perfume, trimming the hair, and many wives."
Imam Ar-Rida (as) said: "In the white rooster there are five traits from the traits of the Prophets: Knowledge of the prayer times, jealousy, generosity, bravery, and many wives."
These are explicit statements that it is from the sunnah of the Prophets (s) to engage in polygamy. Beyond this, we know from history that the Prophet (s) and the Imams (as), as well as a great many prophets from the past, engaged in polygamy. The Prophet had at least nine wives, possibly eleven according to some narrations, and there are further indications in many ahadeeth that the Prophet (s) did mut'a with other women that we do not know about. The Imams (as) each had several wives, as well as having slave girls. Some of the Imams (as) were born from slave girls, most notably Imam al-Mahdi (as). The argument is often made that this was a custom at the time that Islam sought to remove. But again, we must ask what need was there for Prophets and Imams to engage in polygamy if it is something so detestable, since many other minor makruh things they avoided at all costs.
We see, as well, that the ahadeeth indicate upon the impermissibility of women being jealous of their husbands in this regard, and that it is haram for them to prevent their husbands from taking more than one husband. Some of these narrations are as follows, and most of these narrations have been related in several places with different isnad. The number of narrations on this, then, may come close to the level of tawatur, by which they are narrated so much that there is no way to deny them. Furthermore, there are no ahadeeth contradicting these.
Imam as-Sadiq (as) said: "Indeed, Allah the Exalted and Glorified has not given [or allowed] posessiveness to woman. Evil woman are posessive, and believing [mu'min] woman are not. However, Allah the Exalted and Glorified has given [or allowed] posessiven to men, because it is allowed for a man to have up to four wives or his slave girls, whereas a woman is only allowed her husband. Therefore, if she desires another husban along side of him, then she is a fornicator before Allah."
Imam al-Baqir (as) said: "Possessiveness from woman is jealousy, and jealousy is the root of kufr. Indeed women, if they are posessive, will become angry, and if they become angry they will disbelieve. This is so for other than the Muslims from amongst woman."
Imam as-Sadiq (as) said: "Indeed, Allah has given men a jihad and woman a jihad. The jihad of men is to expend their blood and money until they are slain in the cause of Allah, and the jihad of a woman is that she have patience with her husband when he is annoyed and when he is jealous."
Imam as-Sadiq (as) said: "No posessiveness is allowed except to men. Possessiveness from women is jealousy, and possessiveness is just for men. This is because a woman is only allowed a single man, whereas men are allowed four wives, and Allah is too generous that he would allow for them jealousy, while it is halal for a man to have three wives other than her."
In Nahj al-Balagah, Imam Ali (as) says: "Posessiveness from women is kufr, and posessiveness from men is faith."1
None of this means that it is unexpected for women to be jealous of their husbands. Quite the opposite; it is seen that this may be something natural for women but must nonetheless be struggled against as part of her spirtual jihad in seeking nearness to Allah (swt). Isaaq ibn 'Umar asked Imam As-Sadiq (as): "Women are posessive of men, and annoy them because of this." To which the Imam (as) said: "This is because of love." It is, perhaps, to be expected that a woman may feel jealous in this situation, but this does not mean that it is in accordance with the character (akhlaq) that a mu'min woman would have. It may be expected that a man could be angry, for example, if someone who owes him money does not pay him his debt. But it is part of the desirable akhlaq of a man (or woman) that, in such a situation, he be forgiving towards his debtor. The fact that people may naturally feel a certain way does not mean that this is a desirable character attribute, for there are many natural feelings and emotions which arise in men and women which people must struggle against this. If it were not for the natural nature of such feelings, then there would be no need for jihad an-nafs, the struggle against one's self.
As has been discussed, one thing that is misunderstood is that marriage is primarily a business contract. In this case the man is the buyer and the woman is the seller, and what she is selling (in exchange for dowry or for financial supprot) is the use of her body for sexual purposes. Once she has entered into this contract, it is like she has leased a good to the buyer, and she cannot then lease it to somebody else. The buyer, however, has the right to lease as many other commodities as he wants. If somebody thinks the rulings on polygamy are unfair, they should also claim that the rulings on dowry and financial support are unfair. For a woman has the right over the man's money to a very high degree. She does not have to take care of any household tasks, including even breastfeeding the children, if the husband does not pay her for these things. The duties of childrearing must be borne by the man, in the form of hiring a childminder or a wet-nurse. If a poor man marries a rich woman, he does not have any rights over his wife's money, while the wealth of the woman is immaterial in determining her rights over her husband's finances. The woman does not have to pay any dowry, while the man does. The woman does not have to work to support the family, while the man does. If the man desires a divorce, he still has to support his wife for three months once he has made the divorce. The primary burden in all of these things lies upon the men. Privelages come with responsibility in Islam, and vice-versa. Those who condemn polygamy should also condemn the high level of responsibility given to the man in marriage.
Many apologetic arguments are offered for polygamy. One is that there are often wars, especially as it was during the early period of Islam, and as such it would be necessary for war widows to be able find new husbands and be supported. Others say that, at times, women outnumber men, and so polygamy would become necessarily. Certainly, under such situations, polygamy would be useful. But this assumes that polygamy would not have any value in those situations, which is to contradict the frequent statements of the prophet and the Imams (as). Polygamy is not isolated to a man marrying orphan or widowed women, or others in distress, though certainly if a man chose to marry more wives in order to help those wives financially he would be doing a commendable action. But for him to do so solely for the sake of sexual pleasure is not a problem. By making these types of apologetic arguments, we then fall into the trap of assuming the basic premise of the Western mentality: that polygamy is wrong, and therefore needs to be justified on some kind of practical basis. In reviving the sunnah, we must be very careful to begin from right premises. We must not assume that we have to respond to critiques from the West withint he same ethical world-view as the West. Once we accept that world-view, then we are condemnded to spend the rest of our life justifying Islamic practices in Western terms. This is a corrupt means of argument, but there is hardly any literature on marriage issues that does not fall into this trap.
1 All of these ahadeeth are to be found in Wasa'il ash-Shi'a, vol. 20, p. 152-157.