In this final three-part series Dr. Quraysha Ismail Sooliman writes that marriage is a sacred contract, not a site to satisfy material ambitions.
It is surprising that men who justify taking more than one wife by referring to the Prophet SAW, conveniently forget that he lived with just one wife, Khadija RA and dedicated himself to her in the initial stage of his Prophethood.
He only married his other wives after her death and as a result of specific conditions as set out and adequately discussed in Islamic history. This fact is ignored, often obfuscated, just as many of the moral, ethical and political lessons one can derive from the Makkan period. In our male dominated societies, emphasis unfortunately is on number, not on justice.
Very importantly, a reading of the Quran and hadith will clearly highlight that issues of desire and lust should be handled through lowering the gaze, fasting, re-affirming one’s relationship with one’s spouse (this especially includes making love to her) and desisting the urge or attraction with absolute effort.  Taking a second wife has not been proffered as a solution.
In elaborating on the claims that ‘Islam allows me to take a second wife,’ or that ‘I do not need my wife’s permission to take another wife,’ I maintain that these remarks manifest ignorance and arrogance and a selective approach to Islamic ethics, especially when men believe that this issue is simply about the question of ‘permission.’ Marriage and relationships have become sites of lust – where the western emphasis is on the accumulation of the marital estate. There is thus the romanticising of the benefits of the material, ‘I want a rich man,’ which generates a specific notion of love – of expensive dinners/overseas holidays and measuring love by the shiny toys one accumulates. This contradicts the understanding of love from a spiritual aspect. Love of God makes us long for His love in everything and even in those we choose as marriage partners. Thus, the starting point should be to take love to another level – which is about respect and listening.
In Sura al-Isra (17:32), it states: “Do not draw near to any unlawful sexual intercourse; surely it is a shameful, indecent thing, and an evil way (leading to individual and social corruption).”
Additionally, it is from the foundations of honesty, respect and transparency in the Islamic tradition that we are taught that the nikah should be announced. It is rather curious then that many men secretly take a second wife (a direct disregard of this prophetic tradition) then come back and claim ‘rights’ from the same tradition. The selective application of the din also translates into a disregard for responsibilities. Abdullah Ibn Utbah (RA) said, “The worst of marriages are secret marriages.” According to Imam Malik (RA) a secret marriage includes that marriage in which there are two witnesses, but they are asked not to tell anyone.
In responding to the claim of ‘I have the right to take a second wife,’ yes, it is permitted, but conditionally, because embedded therein are ethical values of justice and responsibility and the right to maintain respectful and moral behaviour. I could then also ask but what about the adaab and etiquette of the din? What about that aspect of the din that does not tolerate that you humiliate, betray and belittle wives by going out with girl-friends, engaging in unlawful conduct whether it be flirting, kissing, online sexuality or more? Yet these seem to be insignificant because the retort is always, ‘but Islam allows me!’ What about the preceding actions, the ones that Islam did not and does not allow? How can homes be built on faulty and problematic foundations? The Prophet (SAW) said: “There shall be no harm or the causing of harm”.  It is not just the husband who has rights, both husband and wife have rights, and this points to alignment and mutuality in the institution of marriage.
Islam is a system of values, ethics and beliefs. Within this system there are institutions. As an institution, marriage occupies a prominent value in the system’s hierarchy. And like any institution, all parts and components must be aligned for the effective functioning of the institution and for the overall productive and beneficial output of the system.
In my opinion, Islam is not in any need of reform, revival or re-interpretation. Muslims are. The colonised Muslim mindset has wreaked havoc on an ethical system that is grounded in justice. A fundamental aspect of this system is to realign that which is disjointed or broken, like a well-designed engine that hums silently, in perfect unison with its parts. It manifests excellence, creativity, intelligence, power, alignment and functionality. When there are mal-functions or disruptions, the issues are readily, expertly and efficiently addressed and remedied. The secret is to know what to fix, how to fix it and to have the tools and desire to fix it. The wisdom is to fix it or attempt to fix it, not to discard it. This is because it has value. This ideally should be the ethos and structure of the Muslim, where the alignment is with all of Allah’s creation, manifesting in all relationships and interactions.
I see marriage and the well-being of the family in the framework of this integrative model. Thus, it is important that women learn to say ‘no’ to another woman’s husband. Marriage is a sacred contract, not a site to satisfy material ambitions or appease desperations. As women we need to re-introduce the ethical foundations of this beautiful din into our lives. Through it we achieve gender justice and maintain our self-worth. We set the standard.
 Sunan Ibn Mâjah (2341) and Musnad Ahmad (1/313)
*Dr. Quraysha Ismail Sooliman is a Postdoctoral Fellow UP Humanities/Mellon Foundation Public Intellectual Project, PhD (UP), Faculty of Law, BA Journalism, University of Pretoria.