Polygamy and the Qur’an

by Vijay Chandra


Those people who have modeled their thinking after the New Testament  Christianity are, to say the least, a bit surprised (if not shocked and appalled) to learn that the religion of Islam countenances polygamy. This polygamy was propagated by none other than Muhammad. But the Christian mind must realize that Muhammad’s Islam arose out of Arabia in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D.


The Arab culture was well-known for the practice of polygamy, in which the men were allowed to have as many wives as they desired. The Qur’an addressed these social circumstances by placing a limitation on the number of wives a man could have. The wording of the pronouncement is in a Surah titled “Women”. “And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice [to so many] then one [only] or [the captive] that right hands possess” [Surah 4:3].


Setting aside the issue of why Muhammad himself was exempt from this limitation [Surah 33:50—see Miller, “ Muhammad’s polygamy” (2004)], the divine origin of the Qur’an is discredited on the basis of its stance on polygamy.


  1. In the first place, for all practical purposes, the Qur’an authorizes a man to have as many wives as he chooses since its teaching on divorce contradicts its teaching on marriage. Unlike the New Testament, which confines permission to divorce on the sole grounds of sexual unfaithfulness (Matthew 19:9), the Qur’an authorizes divorce for any reason. One only has to look at these Surahs: Surah 2:226-232, 241; 33:4, 49; 58:2-4: 65:1-7. If a man can divorce his wife for any reason, then the ‘command’ that limits a man to four wives, is effectively meaningless—merely restricting a man to four legal wives at a time. Theoretically, a man could have an unlimited number of wives—all with the approval of Allah. So how could Allah allow this when the Bible clearly teaches one man one wife (Genesis 2:24)?
  2. In the second place, Jesus declared in no uncertain terms that “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery, and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). Jesus gave one, and only one, reason for divorce in God’s sight. In fact, even the Old Testament affirmed that “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:15). The teaching of the Bible on divorce is a higher, stricter, nobler standard than the one advocated by the Qur’an. The two books, in fact, contradict each other on this point.
  3. In the third place, the question is asked as to why the Qur’an stipulates the number ‘four’? Why not three to five wives? The number four would appear to be an arbitrary number with no significance—at least, none is given. Though the passage in question indicates the criterion of man’s ability to do justice to those he marries, there is no reason to specify the number four, since men would vary a great deal in the number of women that they would have the ability to manage fairly.


The answer may be seen in the influence of the contemporaneous Jewish population. Sixth century Arabia was a tribal-oriented society that relied heavily on oral communication in social interaction. Muhammad would have been the recipient of considerable information conveyed orally by his Jewish, and even Christian, contemporaries. Many tales, fables, and rabbinical traditions undoubtedly circulated among Jewish tribes of Arabia. The Jews themselves probably were lacking in book learning, having separated from the mainstream of Jewish thought and intellectual development in their migration to the Arabian peninsula. The evidence demonstrates that the author of the Qur’an borrowed extensively from Jewish and other sources. The ancient Talmudic record [Arabian Turin, Ev Hazer, 1] stated: “A man may marry many wives, for Rabba Smith stated it is lawful to do so if he can provide for them. Nevertheless, the wise men have given good advice, that a man should not marry more than four wives”. The similarity with the wording of the Qur’an is too striking to be coincidental. It can be argued quite convincingly that the magic number of four was drawn from currently circulating Jewish writings.


Just as the Qur’an contains material from the Bible, so folk writings have been integrated into the Qur’an.


We need to look at the Bible and how it views polygamy. The Bible is an incredibly candid book when it is compared to the religious writing of another tradition. Rather than covering up the faults and flaws of its key figures, the Bible in many ways shows us humanity in its deepest sin. A prime example of this is the transparency of David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah (1 Samuel 11).

These sinful actions have real consequences from which we can draw lessons, and David’s repentance gives us a model to follow when we fall into sin. The Bible records many instances of polygamy in the Old Testament, involving some patriarchs of Israel. Though our common usage of polygamy is applied to a man with multiple wives, the word ‘polygamy’ simply means ‘multiple spouses’, while polyandry would be one woman with multiple husbands. Bigamy is another word used for having two spouses. As we look at the Bible, none of these arrangements matches the structure of marriage given by God from the beginning.



When God created the universe, he did things in a very specific manner. Those descriptions are provided for us in Genesis 1-2. In Gen 2, we learn details of the creation of mankind. After creating the beast of the field and birds of the air, God created Adam from the dust of the ground. When Adam found no suitable ‘helper’, God formed the first woman from Adam’s side as recorded in Genesis 2:18-25.


Let us look at this passage and note several key phrases that indicate for marriage to be monogamous—one man for one woman. God intended to make ‘a helper’ for Adam, not several helpers. Secondly, from one rib God made one woman for Adam (Genesis 2:21, 22, 24), revealing the pattern of a man leaving his family to be joined to his wife (not wives).


The first reference to ‘polygamy’ is found in Genesis 4 in the line of Cain. Lamech, a descendant of Cain, as we read in Genesis 4 of Lamech’s actions and deeds, had more than one wife. He was the first polygamist before the Flood. We have seen the description of what God had intended for marriage already in Genesis 2. To confound Lamech’s sin, God ultimately sent the flood which was brought upon the earth to judge the sinfulness of mankind.


After the flood, there are many mentions of polygamous relationships, including among the patriarchs of Israel—Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon all had multiple wives and concubines.


It is interesting to note that there are no passages in the Bible that clearly state “No men should have more than one wife”. So what are the consequences of polygamous relationships? We will bring out the following cases in the Bible record: Abraham—it led to bitterness between Sarah and Hagar her maid, and the eventual dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, which led them to be driven into the desert. Jacob—it led to Rachel’s jealousy of Leah and to Joseph being betrayed and sold by his half-brother to the Ishmaelites. The only direct command against polygamy is given to the kings that were to rule Israel: they were told not to multiply wives for themselves (Deuteronomy 17:17). Jesus did not command polygamy—he cited Gen 2:24 (see Matthew 19:4, 5 and Mark 10:7).

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