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Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

Islam recognizes as a rule only the union of one man and one woman as a valid form of marriage. Under exceptional circumstances, it allows the man more wives than one, but does not allow the woman more husbands than one. Thus while a married woman cannot contract a valid marriage, a married man can do it. There is no difficulty in understanding this differentiation, if the natural duties of man and woman in the preservation and upbringing of human species are kept in view. Nature has so divided the duties of man and woman in this respect that while one man can multiply children from more wives than one, but one woman can have children only from one husband.

The reason behind sanction of polygamy in Islam was historical and circumstantial. In abnormal circumstances like war when large number of men was decimated and balance between the sexes was seriously shaken, on such an instance polygamy was permitted to overcome the social problems. Further, polygamy was one of the various measures to prevent illegal relations or delinquent sexual behaviour. The rules of polygamy in Islam are said to have become established in response to certain pressing situation. In pre-Islamic Arab society polygamy was unlimited, but Islam imposed a restriction and limitation upon it.

In the first place it must be borne in mind that polygamy neither is obligatory or highly recommended, merely allowed in Islam only as an exception. It is expressly so stated in the Koran: "And if you apprehend that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you apprehend that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one" (4:3). This is the only passage in the Koran speaking of polygamy. It only permits it, and that, too, conditionally. Before we consider the significance of this verse, it must be known clearly that polygamy is allowed here only when there are orphans to be dealt with, and it is feared that they will not be dealt with justly. This condition relates more to the welfare of society than to the needs of the individual.

The commentators have suggested three explanations in this context. The first of these is that this verse (4:3) is only meant to prohibit the marrying of more wives than four, so that not having too many wives they may not be tempted to embezzle the property of the orphans, when their own proved insufficient. The second is that if you fear that you cannot be just to orphans, you should also fear that you cannot be just to too many wives. The third is that if you fear that you cannot be just to orphans, you should also fear the great sin of adultery, and to shun it you are allowed up to four wives.

It will be seen that these explanations are even less satisfactory than the one gives in the Bukhari. The meaning of this verse is really explained in other passage of the Koran: "And they ask you a decision about women. Say, God makes known to you His decision concerning them, and that which is recited to you in the Book, concerning orphans of the women to whom you do not give what is appointed for them

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