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“I am convinced about the veracity of my opinions, but I do consider it likely that they may turn out to be incorrect. Likewise, I am convinced about the incorrectness of the views different from mine, but I do concede the possibility that they may turn out to be correct.” — Imam Shafa’i
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Rationale behind polygamy and the consent of wife

Question:
I heard a thing a couple of days back and I could not believe it at first. I heard that a muslim man can marry again without the consent of his first wife. And that every muslim wife should expect and should not mind her husband marrying again. Is it true?

Response:
Legally speaking, a husband is not required to seek permission from his first wife before getting married to a second one. Had that been a condition, no second marriage would ever have taken place, because no woman would permit her husband to get married to another, unless if she is an extraordinary person or the circumstances are exceptional. However, it is highly recommended that, given the nature of the decision, the husband should do so or else he will have an extremely difficult time ahead, and would be in many cases guilty of being unfair as well. However, informing the new wife that he is already married is a legal requirement, otherwise he will be held guilty of deceiving her.

About plural marriages, one should always bear in mind that it is not something that is obligatory on Muslim men, nor is it highly recommended. It is only allowed. There is a huge difference between the two. Moreover, despite this permission, the vast majority of Muslim men have all along Islamic history married only once. Therefore, ladies need not worry about the prospects of living with another 'fellow wife'. One of the reasons that have acted as a deterrant against plural marriages has been the strict Qur'anic principle that in case of plural marriages, a husband must remain absolutely fair in providing all his wives exactly the same attention and facilities.

The reason why several marriages have been allowed to men is that sometimes the conditions of a society are such that allowing men to marry more than one wife is an absolute necessity or else, great harm is likely to be caused. In case of wars, for instance, more men are killed than women, thus causing great harm to the man-woman balance in the society, as was the case in Germany after the Second World War. If polygamy were to be banned in such situations, then there would be many women who will have to lead husband-less lives. Moreover, the chances of moral degeneration are greatly enhanced in such situations. Also, even in normal situations, if the first wife has developed some medical problems, for instance, which prevents her from performing the normal functions of a wife, a ban on polygamy would leave the husband who is not prepared to make a life-long sacrifice with only one choice: He would divorce his first wife to marry another. How very unfair! Even if we were to imagine that a husband isn't quite as careful in his conduct as Muslim men should be while dealing with the members of the opposite sex and as a consequence he gets interested in another lady to the extent that he wants to marry her, why should the first wife not be given the option to either live with her husband, adjusting to the new reality, or leaving him? Similarly, in such a situation, if plural marriages are banned, a husband is left with the choice of either divorcing his first wife or maintaining illicit relations with the other lady. The contemporary Western society, as a consequence of adopting a stubborn stance against polygamy, have settled for the latter choice.

If polygamy is allowed why is polyandry (allowing women to have several husbands) not allowed as well? The reason is simple: It is important that in case of every child parents should be clearly identified so that both parents and children could attend to the respective obligations they owe to each other. In case a woman has several husbands, that identifiaction would become impossible.

The Qur'an has mentioned clearly that the reason why prophet Muhammad, Alaihissalaam, married several women was that he had a special mission to achieve for which it was necessary that he should be given that privilege. Otherwise, as a scholar has rightly pointed out, the ideal Muslim household under normal circumstances is comprised of one husband and one wife. Had that not been the case, God Almighty wouldn't have arranged only Eve to accompany Adam, Alaihissalaam. There should have been several wives with him at the beginning of man's arrival in this world.

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