POLYGAMY IN HISTORY
One must be reminded of the fact that Islam extends over a great space of time and embraces a vast portion of the earth’s geography that enjoys varying climates. There are communities of people ranging from the smallest of tribes to the greatest of empires, dealing in such a wide range of activities so that agricultural pursuits alternate with industrial ventures in diverse social and political milieus and cultural backgrounds, of different customs. The universality of the Quran befitting every situation, differing customs, conditions and milieus has been achieved thanks to the vastness of its latitude. So far we have covered the attempts at the creation and the perpetuation of an ‘Arabic Islam’ in which the turban, the robe with long sleeves reaching down to the ankles and the wearing of a beard were some of the conspicuous characteristics; these attempts had untoward effects on the spread of Islam. The elbowroom that the Quran has conceded to mankind allows the people of different cultural backgrounds to wear their customary apparel. The same holds true for polygamy. Polygamy is not prohibited in the Quran; however, it is not especially promoted and encouraged.
Different cultural backgrounds had different practices. In communities where a great many of the male population died in battle and the balance between the male and female population was disrupted, polygamy had become indispensable. In agricultural societies where crowded families wielded immense power, polygamy had been the solution to lighten the burden of women in household affairs, and there were times when the wives went to look for consorts for their husbands. In Islam, the intention to marry is expressed by both sides and the woman does enjoy the right to divorce her husband. In other words, in cases where there are matrimonial disputes in a family, the wife is free, according to the Quran, to ask for a divorce. The so-called prohibition for the woman to have recourse to divorce, or the supremacy of the decision of her family on that issue has nothing to do with the Quran, but are merely traditional practices. Polygamy was not only a product of Eastern cultural background since it has also found favor in the West under certain conditions. In the wake of the two world wars such a solution was sought, and an article that appeared in the Daily Mail had suggested polygamy as the only solution on the grounds that there had been a considerable rise in the female population. In 1949 the people in Bonn, to be precise, women’s associations, had applied to the authorities concerned demanding that the institution of polygamy be incorporated into the constitution. The European authoress Annie Besant, who made an assessment of the plight of the Western post-war cultural and social situation, writes as follows: “Monogamy no longer exists in the West. What prevails at present is an irresponsible state of polygamy. When a man has had enough of his mistress, he abandons her, after which the abandoned woman gradually falls prey to the state of a prostitute. Her plight is much worse than the state of the woman who happens to be one of the wives of a single husband. If we take into consideration this state of affairs, we must own that we Westerners are far from being justified in condemning the institution of polygamy. Rather than being defiled, seeking a refuge, deprived of all affection and care, abandoned with her illegitimate children, dispossessed of all rights of inheritance and submitting in servility to the pleasure of any chance encounter, to enjoy the honor of being one of the lawful wives of a man and live in his household is far better.”