13 July 2024

Polygamy is a right of the man, but marriage is not a one way street, writes academic Dr. Quraysha Ismail Sooliman in this first of three part series.

Part One

I recently came across a saying which highlighted pertinent issues in our community and the impact of a colonised Islam on the matter of gender justice. The words read as follows, “Ladies, just in case you’re confused, God will not send you someone else’s husband.”

There is a worrying trend emerging in the South African Muslim community, corrupting both Indian and African Muslims. I make this distinction because of the effect of racism and apartheid on our communities and the fact that apartheid and colonization contributed to the racial divide amongst believers. The trend of taking a second wife in both race groups is being justified by those who are seemingly more financially endowed considering their social contexts. It is an issue of class and economic status. Certainly, it seems that women are more inclined to accept the idea of being a second wife where the potential of economic benefit is greater. It is on this that I wish to address the sisters.

Despite challenging the patriarchal mentality of some scholars in the South African Muslim community I need to clarify that my comment to the women in this instance is not one of women as fitnah but one that humbly appeals to the woman’s self-respect and ethical development. Muslim sisters have an ethical obligation to ensure that they act with integrity and justice in their associations; specifically in instances where they are sought in marriage by married men or where they become inclined to married men. There is a fundamental practice in Islam that undergirds relationships – that of the ethical. There should never be desperation and – and clinging to a married man is a sign of desperation.

Desperation signals a disrespect of Allah’s position in one’s life as Al-Raaziq, or a decline in the dependence on Allah as is understood from the concept of tawakkul. It is here that women lose sight of the ethical as embodied in the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) when he said to the effect that none of us are believers until we love for our brothers/ sisters what we love for ourselves. This refers to the ethical, not only the material. Thus, when women say, he ‘pursued me,’ or men say, ‘she is a good woman, I pursued her, she was refusing me,’ these comments highlight gross misunderstandings of the ethical and what Islam advocates – honesty and transparency.

How the justifications unfold

Very often men claim an unhappy or unfulfilled marriage. In interrogating the excuse of the man I am curious as to why women rarely, if ever, verify the information? If the man is honest, and respects the woman he is pursuing, then he will have no problem with her telling him that she is going to call his wife and verify the details.

Secondly, some men insist that the (first) wife has no right to refuse being in a polygamous marriage because he has a right to take more than one wife, and though he no longer loves his wife, and loves the new girlfriend, he still wants his wife to stay in a ‘loveless’ marriage with him, refusing to release her. Such approaches need deliberation. What about the choice and rights of the wife in the decision-making process? Polygamy (allowed on very specific conditions) is a right of the man, but marriage is not a one way street and not only about the rights of men. If a woman knows that her husband has entered into an illicit relationship with another woman (nafs) and there is no shari’i excuse of her as a wife (re: child bearing, breakdown in the relationship, illness etc.), then she has every right to claim her right to be free from the marriage should her husband marry another woman.

Unexposed opinions of classical scholars

Ash-Shirbeeni said: “It is a Sunnah not to marry more than one wife if there is no apparent need.” (Mughni al-Muhtaj 4/207).Significantly, with regards the man who is capable of being justand who is able to manage with two wives, some classical Islamic scholars have stated that it is preferable for the man not to take a second wife. Al-Mawardi, said: “Allah has permitted a man to marry up to four wives, saying: (…two or three or four…), but Allah advised that it is desirable for man to marry only one wife, saying: (But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one)” [al-Hawi al-Kabir 11/417]. IbnQudaamah(Ash-Sharh Al-Kabeer) said “It is more appropriate to marry only one wife (ibn Taymiyyah said this), based on Quran 4:3 “But if you fear that you will not be just, then (marry only) one.”

For these scholars, limiting oneself to one spouse, even if one is capable of being just, is the best possible route. It reduces the risk of oppression by the man in a polygamous marriage. ImanShafi’ also stated that the verse 4:3, which is a divine decree, requires that if the man cannot be just he should only marry one. However, Imam Shafi’s focus is on the man’s obligation to maintain his spouses and offspring (financially). Polygamous marriages create greater financial burdens. Thus, it is “legislated for a man to marry just once as an increase in the population of a family due to multiple marriages could potentially harbour harmful monetary consequences for the man who marries more than once.” Imam Ahmed ibn Naqib al Masri said, ‘’It is fitter to confine oneself to just one’’ and Imam Ghazali stated: “It does not call for two wives, [since] plurality may render life miserable and disrupt the affairs of the home” (Kitab al Nikah, Ihya Uloom ud Din).

* Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman is a postdoctoral Fellow at the UP Humanities/Mellon Foundation Public Intellectual Project

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