Living The Quran
From Issue: 480 [Read full issue]
Al-Nisa (The Women)
Chapter 4: Verse 3 (Partial)
"If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then (marry) only one."
From this verse a number of facts are evident:
That polygamy is neither mandatory, nor encouraged, but merely permitted.
That the permission to practice polygamy is not associated with mere satisfaction of passion. It is rather associated with compassion toward widows and orphans, a matter that is confirmed by the atmosphere in which the verse was revealed.
That even in such a situation, the permission is far more restricted than the normal practice which existed among the Arabs and other people at that time when many married as many as ten or more wives.
That dealing justly with one’s wives is an obligation. This applies to housing, food, clothing, kind treatment etc., for which the husband is fully responsible. If one is not sure of being able to deal justly with them, the Quran say: “then (marry) only one.”
This verse, when combined with another verse in the same chapter (Quran 4: 129), shows some discouragement of such plural marriages. The requirement of justice rules out the fantasy that man can “own as many as he pleases.” It also rules out the concept of “secondary wife,” for all wives have exactly the same status and are entitled to identical rights and claims over their husband. It also implies, according to the Islamic Law, that should the husband fail to provide enough support for any of his wives, she can go to the court and ask for a divorce.
The verse says “marry,” not kidnap, buy, or seduce. What is “marriage” as understood in Islam? Marriage in Islam is a civil contract which is not valid unless both contracting parties consent to it. Thus no wife can be forced or “given” to a husband who is already married.
It is thus a free choice of both parties. As to the first wife:
She may be barren or ill and see in polygamy a better solution than divorce.
She may divorce him (unilaterally) if he is married to a second wife provided that the nuptial contract gives her the right of unilateral divorce (Ismah).
She can go to court and ask for a divorce if there is evidence of mistreatment or injustice inflicted upon her.
"Polygamy in Islamic Law" - Jamal A. Badawi