Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Qur'anic Interpretations of Marriage

I thought I'd stay on the theme of multiple wives today.  The basis for polygyny in the Islamic tradition derives from Quran 4:3. The Prophet permits Muslims to marry “two, three, or four” women. Many conservative exegetes in the patriarchal tradition interpret this verse straightforwardly. They might advise a young man to marry only one wife for economic reasons, however.

The hermeneutics of more liberal Koranic commentators devote more attention to the preceding and subsequent statements and thence offer two divergent interpretations. First, the caveat that follows, “But if you fear that you cannot maintain equality among them,” indicates for some a kind of tongue-in-cheek negation of polygyny. Who could ever treat his wives equally? The passage, in this sense, essentially advises only monogamy. Other expositors argue that the verses are descriptive, not prescriptive; they reflect historical conditions particular to the early Muslim community. The Prophet sanctioned polygyny as a solution to a social problem, namely, the surplus of orphan girls and widows. If the passage is indeed prescribing a general precept for all times, it wouldn’t be polygyny carte blanche; instead, social justice for unprotected women is the prerequisite for the taking of multiple wives. According to the historian Reza Aslan, the survival of the umma (Muslim community) depended on polygyny after the early Muslim warriors fell in battle. Muhammad’s small community in Medina faced overwhelming odds against the Meccans and their allies; to carry on the fight they had to replenish the fallen.

Beyond the use and abuse of Q 4:3, advocates and practitioners of polygyny, most of whom come from tribal societies, assert that the life of the Prophet himself provides the paradigm on marriage. Mostly for political reasons, Muhammad took nine wives after the death of his beloved Khadija. The applicability of Muhammad’s life to the individual (male) believer today, however, is a discussion for another day.

For those interested, I gleaned the information above from the following sources:

1. Jane D. McAuliffe, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an (2006), 262-266
2. Reza Aslan, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, & Future of Islam (2006),60-5.
3. “Decoding the Past – Secrets of the Koran” (History Channel DVD, 2006)