Sunday Special: The Polygamy Myth in Islam

A news headline that grabbed my attention recently was from the Pakistan about three men who among them have fathered nearly 100 children making their modest contribution to Pakistan’s skyrocketing population, which is being counted for the first time in 19 years. Allah, they say, will provide for them, a standard reply of most Muslims in Pakistan.
Fortunately in India, religion is not a factor for high birth rate among Muslims. Nor is the birth rate comparable in the two countries. While in Pakistan it is 3.7, in Indian Muslims it is 2.4 ( national average 2.3) (2016 World Population Data). It is clear that the prevalence of family planning among them is the lowest of all communities but that is because they are at the bottom of the ladder in education, economic status and the access to health services – the main determinants of fertility behaviour. That can be analysed in a separate article. Here I examine if religion is the contributor to high birth rate. This is a subject which is characterised by mass ignorance and it is time someone explodes the myths.
At the centre of the debate is the belief that Islam encourages polygamy which leads to a spurt in population growth. The reality is that though Islam does permit polygamy but it is subject to not one but two conditions – that they are orphans and will be treated with absolute equality.
“And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you , two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one”. ( Al Nisa:4.3)
The polygamists conveniently miss both the conditions. This is the only verse in the Quran that refers to polygamy and that too in the context of fair treatment of orphan girls. The emphasis of the Holy Quran is very clearly on monogamy.
Is polygamy widely prevalent among Muslims? The only report on the subject is that of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, 1974, which revealed that polygamy was not exclusive to Muslims but was prevalent among all communities of India: tribals (15.2), Buddhists (9.7), Jains (6.7) and Hindus (5.8). Muslims were, in fact, found least polygamous(5.7).
Polygamy is not even statistically possible in India as the number of women per 1000 men is only 940. Experts have opined that polygamy cannot lead to high birth rate, since the number of polygamous men, small though they are, would leave an equal number of men unmarried. It is also observed that second wife of a man has lesser number of children than the first/only wife. A study showed that the average number of children from the second wife of Muslims was only 1.78 as compared to 4.67 from the first wife.
Polygamy apart, what does Shariah say about family planning?
Quran and Hadith are replete with verses and traditions supportive of the concept of family planning. It is extremely important to note that nowhere has the Quran prohibited family planning! There are only interpretations, whether for or against.
Anti-family planning interpretation is based on the following concepts: Tawakkul (Reliance on Allah), Qadr (Predestination), and Rizq (Provision).
“Do not kill your children (for fear of poverty); We make provisions for you, and for them too.” (Sura 6:152 and 17:31). “And Allah has made for you, your mates from yourselves and made for you, out of them, children and grandchildren.” (Sura 16:72). “Your wives are as tilth unto you, so, approach your tilth how you wish” (Sura 2:223)
Pro-family planning interpretations, on the contrary, are many more and these are based on: Tranquility of conjugal life, emphasis on ease, injunction about breast feeding (that delays conception and promotes spacing), preference for quality over numbers, and permission for Al Azl (withdrawal method), etc.
Foe me the clinching verse of the Quran is: “Let those who find not the wherewithal for marriage, keep themselves chaste, UNTIL Allah gives them means out of His grace”. (Sura 24:33). This is amplified by the Prophet: “O young men! Those of you who can support a wife and household should marry. For, marriage keeps you from looking with lust at women and preserves you from promiscuity. But those who cannot, should take to fasting, which is a means of tempering sexual desires”. (Bukhari).
Then there is Hadees that refers to restricting the size of the family. Abu Sa’ad, a companion of the Prophet, reported, ‘A man came to the Prophet to ask about the practice of al-azl ( withdrawal) with his mate. He added “I do not like her to get pregnant and I am a man who wants what other men want. But the Jews claim that al-azl (withdrawal) is minor infanticide.” The Prophet strongly dismissed this contention saying “The Jew lied, the Jew lied.” (Authenticated by Abu Dawoud, lbn Hanbal and al-Tahawi).
Please note that the first is the Quranic injunction, the second is the elaboration of the same by the Prophet and the third describes the method of birth control. I consider this a complete prescription for family planning.
This interpretation is strongly reinforced by the following narrative based on Quranic versus and traditions of the Prophet.
Islam is a Religion for Ease. This is what the Quran says: “Allah desires for you ease (yusr); He desires not hardship (usr) for you”.(Sura 2:185). “No soul shall impose (upon it) a duty but to its capacity; neither shall a mother be made to suffer injury on account of her child, nor shall he to whom the child is born (be made to suffer) on account of his child”. (Sura 2:223). And know that your wealth and your children are a persecution (or trial) (Fitna). (Sura 8:28 and 64:15).
And the Hadees amplifies it. “The most gruelling trial is to have plenty of children with no adequate means”. (al-Hakim). “A multitude of children is one of the two poverties (or cases of penury), while a small number is one of the two cases of ease”. (Musnad al- Shahab).
Importantly, even the Purpose of Marriage is conjugal tranquility.
“It is He who created you from a single soul (nafs) and therefrom did make his mate, that he might dwell in tranquility with her.” (Sura 7:189). “And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts.” [Sura 30:21)
Islam is a Religion for Quality. “How oft, by Allah’s will, has a small force vanquished a numerous force”. (Sura 2:249). “Allah has given you victory in many battles; but on the day of Hunayn, when you exalted in your multitude, it availed you naught. And the earth, vast as it is, became tight for you, then you turned back in retreat.” (Sura 18:46)
The prophet is emphatic about quality. “The right of a child on his parent is to be given good breeding and good name”. (al-Baihaqi). “To leave your heirs rich is better than leaving them dependent upon people’s charity.”( al Bukhari)
Quran also prescribes the right of children to breastfeeding which not only ensures their health but also helps child spacing. “And mothers shall suckle their children two full years to complete breast-feeding” (Sura 2:233) and (Sura 31:14)
Islam’s emphasis on gender equality is also important. There are numerous Hadees on this. “Men and women are equal halves.” (Abu Dawoud). “Do not hate having daughters, for they are the comforting dears.” (al-Tabarani). “It is a woman’s blessing to have a girl as her first child.” ( Mardaweih )
It is well known that many Indians, driven by the cultural/traditional son preference, continue to have children ending up with a large family. Islam enjoins gender equality. Fortunately,
Indian Muslims have less discrimination against the girl child and least female foetus abortion. This explains the marked improvement in their female gender ratio.
The opinion of the great Imams:
Based on their understanding of the Islamic law, the opinion of the great Imams is supportive of family planning. Interpreting verse 4:3 of the Holy Quran, Imam Shafei opined that more children should not be produced if they cannot be properly supported. Imam Raghib, interpreting 17:31 verse of Quran, says that it is not only the physical killing of children which is prohibited in Islam, but also spiritually and intellectually. The denial of access to education, for example, amounts to killing them intellectually. “Those few (qalil)”, records a Hadith, “who are virtuous are superior to those many who are undesirable”. It implies that the number of children should be restricted to the capacity of parents to make them virtuous. Imam Ghazzali, a sufi of great eminence, mentions a tradition from the Prophet: Smallness of a family (qillat al’ayal) is a facility (yusur) and its largeness (kathrat) results in faqr (indigence, poverty).
A plethora of opinions of contemporary Ulama and fatwas strongly support family planning. For example, Sheikh Sayyid Sabiq (Saudi Arabia, 1968) opined, “The use of contraception is allowed, especially if the husband already has a large family, if he cannot bring up his children correctly, if his wife is weak or sick or has repeated pregnancies, or if the husband is poor.” (See more opinions and fatwas in full article in IE Online).
There is no verse in the Quran forbidding the wife or husband to practise family planning. I, for one, do not feel that Islam interdicts family planning to ward off hardship in Muslim married life”. ( Haji Nasiruddin Latif, Indonesia, 1974).
“Family Planning in Islam starts with the choice of the wife and places a great emphasis on raising children physically, educationally and spiritually, that is why quality is favoured over quantity.” (Sheikh Abdel Aziz, Jordan, 1985). Several Hadiths listed by Imam Ghazzali underline benefits of ‘Azl’: (1) preservation of wife’s beauty and charm; (2) protection of her health and life; (3) shielding her from hardship (kathrat al-haral) on account of child birth; and (4) keeping away financial hardship from the family.
Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltout, Great Imam of Al-Azhar in his fatwa of 1959 “strongly endorsed the use of contraceptives on an individual basis for health, social or economic reasons.” Under certain conditions contraception becomes mandatory, he added. Fatwa of Advisory Council on Religious Matters (Turkey, 1960) allowed contraception with the wife’s consent and even without wife’s consent in case of war, turmoil or conditions where bringing up children becomes difficult.
Opinion of Indian ulama is on the same lines:
Allama Shah Zaid Abul Hassan Farooqi, Delhi.
All the four Imams regard Azl as permissible. However, in one Hadith, a condition has been prescribed that it should be done only with the wife’s consent. Ibn Abidin, Tahtawi and Abus Saud opine that even a woman has the right to shut off the mouth of her uterus without the permission of the husband to avoid pregnancy.
Anti-pregnancy pills and medicines are also permissible.
When permissibility of Azl is proven, the use of other comparable measures (like condom, etc.) stands automatically endorsed. (Maulana Masood Ahmad Qasmi, Nazim-e-Deeniyat, Aligarh Muslim University). “Preventing conception temporarily which does not lead to permanently impairing the capability is legal. The use of loop (IUDs) and Nirodh (condom) is equivalent to the practice of Azl.”(Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani, Sadar Mudarris, Dar-ul-Uloom, Sabeel-ul-Islam, Hyderabad).
To prevent short space between children which will make them naturally weak, use of temporary contraceptive methods like loop (IUD), Nirodh (condom), medicine or ointment is valid. (Maulana Jamil Ahmed Naziri, Jamia Arabia, Ahya-ul-uloom, Mubarakpur, Azamgarh).
“If there is a valid reason or disease because of which a woman cannot bear the hardship of pregnancy, in such a situation, Shariat allows temporary birth control measures.” (Mufti Zafir-ud-din Miftahi, Mufti, Darul-Uloom, Deoband)
“It is thus amply clear that Islam is fully supportive of the temporary methods of family planning. However, sterilisation or irreversible methods are disallowed by almost all sections of the Ulama though some Ulama have a positive interpretation about sterilisation too.
Prof Abder Rahim Omran (1992) of the most respected Islamic University, Al Azhar, observes, “It is a wonder to the thinkers of today that Islam should give so much (importance) to child spacing and family planning so early in human history, and in the absence of compelling population pressures,“
The above analysis should cause a rethink among those who think that Islam is opposed to family planning. On the contrary, it should be understood that Islam is indeed the originator of the concept. It is true that Muslims are most backward in family planning practices but the reason lies in their socio- economic backwardness, not their religion. Literacy, income and better delivery of health services hold the key to planning of family size. The future of the country and all its constituent communities lies in the quality of upbringing of the children, with education as the key strategy.


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