This is a continuation of a multi-post article. You can read the first post here and the previous post here. This is also part of a larger series called "The Koran from a Christian perspective." You can find other posts in this series here.For millennia, polygamy had been practiced as a way of life. Even some of the greatest personages in the Jewish scriptures were polygamists including Abraham, Moses, King David, and perhaps the greatest of them all, King Solomon who had "seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines." (1 Kings 11:3) So much for being the wisest man to have ever lived! While the Jewish and Christian scriptures acknowledge the reality of polygamy present within the culture of their times, it never prescribes it or affirms it as an acceptable practice before God. God may tolerate polygamy but the scriptures contain no direct condoning of it from God Himself. However, polygamy is directly taught by the Koran as a divine precept and something that is normal, acceptable, and honorable before God.
"If you fear that you will not act justly [fairly] towards the orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, three, four; but if you fear you will not be equitable, then only one, or what your right hands own [slaves whom ye have acquired]; so it is likelier you will not be partial." (Koran 4:3)To the faithful, permission is given to marry up to four wives, not counting any slaves with which they may live in concubinage with. The "fair acts" which Muhammad is referring to here are the obligations that men had to provide for the needs and futures of the orphans.
"Give the orphans their property, and do not exchange the corrupt [worthless things] for the good [your valuable ones]; and devour not their property with your property [after adding it to your own]; surely that is a great crime." (Koran 4:2)In other words, after having taken on the care of an orphan and their property, if you should later rue the idea of giving up that property, then go ahead and marry them and keep their property as your own. There is no discussion of love or any real desire to care for the orphan girl, it becomes simply a financial matter as to which is better, to let her and her property go or to marry her and keep her property.
Polygamy has its own challenges, as the Koran readily acknowledges.
"You will not be able [have it at all in your power] to be equitable between your wives [treat your wives alike], be you ever so eager; yet do not be altogether partial so that you leave her as it were suspended." (Koran 4:128)The great wisdom of the Koran is "just try!" You will not be able to do it but at least try to do your best. In fact, if it gets too bad, give up marring other wives and just take concubines from your slaves where at least there is no expectation or requirement that you be equatable towards them.
"but if you fear you will not be equitable, then only one, or what your right hands own [slaves whom ye have acquired]; so it is likelier you will not be partial." (Koran 4:3)
Sometimes it is better to take slaves than to have to worry about pleasing multiple wives. In fact, the Koran places no limits on the sex permitted between a man and the female slaves he owns. They are property and he has God's permission to go into them as he pleases. He may lay with them without having to worry about treating them as people or as one of his wives.
"Any one of you who has not the affluence to be able to marry believing freewomen in wedlock, let him take believing handmaids that your right hands own [as slaves]." (Koran 4:29)
"[and who] guard their private parts [control their desires] save from their wives and what [the slaves] their right hands own [have won], then not being blameworthy" (Koran 70:29-30)
Polygamy demeans women and reduces them to objects for a man's pleasure and satisfaction. He is in control of the relationship and uses his wives as he sees fit and when it suits him. Little thought is given towards the wives; their part in the relationship is at the total discretion of the man.
"Thou mayest put off [decline for the present] whom thou wilt of them, and whom thou wilt [take to bed] thou mayest take to thee; and if thou seekest any thou hast set aside [long for of those thou shalt have before neglected] there is no fault [crime] in thee. So it is likelier [easier] they will be comforted [to give them the desire of their eyes], and not sorrow [put them to grief], and every one of them will be well-pleased [satisfied] with what thou givest her [accord to each of them]." (Koran 33:51)
In such relationships, women are powerless except for the influences their charm and sexual wiles may have upon their husband. Philip Schaff writes this concerning the evils of polygamy that is so freely permitted by the Koran,
"Polygamy and servile concubinage destroy the dignity of woman, and the beauty and peace of home. In all Mohammedan countries woman is ignorant and degraded... A Moslem would feel insulted by an inquiry after the health of his wife or wives. Polygamy affords no protection against unnatural vices, which are said to prevail to a fearful extent among Mohammedans, as they did among the ancient heathen" (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume IV, Section 45)
While the Jewish and Christian scriptures do not speak directly to polygamy, it is clear from a careful reading that such was never God's intent. From the beginning, "He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created." (Genesis 5:2) He did not create them man and many women but one man and one woman. Similarly, when speaking of their oneness God says, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." (Genesis 2:24) Not the many should become one flesh but the two should become one flesh. Paul later teaches on marriage when he says, "each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband." (1 Corinthians 7:2) The clear implication is that each man is to have but one wife and a wife should have her own husband and not have to share him between many wives. Later, in speaking of his own celibacy, Paul says, "Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?" (1 Corinthians 9:5) Here he speaks of the "right" as being that of a single wife not many wives.
There may be many reasons why one would justify polygamy and concubinage, but the benefits always accrue to the man and never the woman. Such social practices demean woman and keep them repressed in the social structures that tolerate such practices. In advocating for such practices as the social norm, the Koran, once again, displays Islam as a religion built for men, not women.
More to come...