Dr. Susmit Kumar

Ancient Arabia probably suffered a shortage of men because of frequent tribal warfare, leaving a surplus of unmarried women, who were often badly exploited. The Quran is most concerned about this problem and resorted to polygamy as a way of dealing with it.[1]

The Sharia, basing itself upon the Quran and the example of the Prophet, allowed a man to have more than one wife, to a limit of four provided he could treat them all with justice and did not neglect his conjugal duty to any of them. He could also have slave concubines to any number, without their having any rights over him.[2] Of note, these particular codes were revealed after the loss of several Muslim men in the battle of Uhud.

Those who have referred to Muhammad’s plural marriages as evidence of his sensual nature make little mention of the fact that in the prime of his youth and adult years, Muhammad remained thoroughly devoted to Khadija, his wife, and would have no one else as his consort. This was in an age that looked upon plural marriages with favor and in a society that in pre-biblical and post-biblical days considered polygamy an essential feature of social existence.[3] The Bible also records polygamy: King David had six wives and numerous concubines; King Solomon was said to have had as many as 700 wives and 300 concubines; and Solomon’s son Rehoboam had 18 wives and 60 concubines.[4]

A woman was unable divorce her husband in pre-Islamic Arabia, but the Quran gave her this right under limited conditions. According to the Sharia, while a wife can divorce her husband only for good reason (impotence, madness, denial of her rights) and only by recourse to a qadi (judge) or by mutual consent, a husband can repudiate his wife without giving any reason by a simple formula uttered three times in the presence of witnesses. A marriage contract can provide some protection against this if it stipulates that part of the dowry, the so-called “postponed” part, should be paid by the husband only if and when he repudiates his wife. A wife can also hope for support from her male relations, and if repudiated, she can return with her property to her family home. She will have custody of the children and the duty of bringing them up until they reach a certain age, defined differently in the various legal codes; after that, the father or the ex-husband’s family obtains custody.[5] The custom of proclaiming divorce thrice to end a marriage was, incidentally, practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia, and is not original to Islam.[6]

1 Armstrong, Karen, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, Harper San Francisco, New York, 1992, p. 190.

2 Hourani, Albert, A History of the Arab Peoples, MJF Books, New York, 1991, p. 121.

3 Farah, Caesar E., Islam, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY, 6th ed., 2000, p. 67.

4 Ibid. and references therein.

5 Hourani, Albert, op. cit., p. 121.

6 Vaziri, Mostafa, The Emergence of Islam, Paragon House, New York, 1st Ed., 1992, p. 15.

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