Thank you for your question.
Actually this is one of the main accusations used to attack Islam with and a very frequently asked question.
Polygamy, in its two forms preceded Islam; those two forms are polygyny or marrying several wives and polyandry or marrying several husbands. Islam came restricting it to polygyny alone, as well as limiting the number of wives to a maximum of four wives under the condition of being extremely just in treating them equally.
What is funny is that those attacks on Islam are not coming from monogamous societies, but rather polygamous ones too.
Recent studies reveal that 45-55% of married women and 50-60% of married men engage in extramarital sex at some time or another during their relationship. (Atwood & Schwartz, 2002 – Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy)
Most experts do consider the ‘educated guess’ that at the present time some 50 to 65 percent of husbands and 45 to 55 percent of wives become extramaritally involved by the age of 40, to be a relatively sound and reasonable one. Peggy Vaughan, The Monogamy Myth, first published in 1989 by Newmarket Press, third edition published 2003.
Therefore western societies are not necessarily monogamous ones.
What is the difference between Islamic polygyny and western polygamy?
1. In Islam, a woman can not have more than one husband because it is the right of every child to know his/her biological father; while in some countries, there is a huge percentage of children who do not know their fathers.
2. In Islam, the second woman will be a legitimate wife and her children will be officially legitimate children who will inherit and carry the names of their fathers, while in western polygamy the second woman is a mistress who ends up as a single mother and her children neither inherit nor carry the names of their fathers.
3. In Islam, a man marries more than one wife under the condition of being extremely fair and treating them equally; while in the west it is just to enjoy himself out of wedlock not caring for any consequences that may occur to the woman.
4. In Islam, cheating on one’s wife is strictly forbidden, while according to the law in most — if not all — western countries cheating on one’s wife is legal.
In some Muslim countries, like Egypt, informing the first wife is a must, after that she can choose whether to accept to stay as a wife or get a divorce. In all cases no one will be forced to live a life against his/her wish, neither the man will be deprived of his right to marry the woman that he wants, nor will a woman be forced to live with a man that she dislikes.
And the Shariah in all cases gave the woman the right to Khul` (divorcing the man through a judge) even without the need for giving a strong reason. For example, the woman who asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) to divorce her from her husband, when he asked her for her reasons, she said; “I dislike him.”
The argument on this legislation is about the right of the man to marry in secret and not let his first wife learn about his marriage to another.
Men were created polygamous because of a need in human society. There is normally a surplus of women in most human societies:
1. The surplus is a result of men dying in wars, violent crimes and women outliving men;
2. The upsurge in homosexuality further increases the problem.
If systems do not cater to the need of surplus women, it will result in corruption in society. For example, after World War II, when suggestions to legalize polygamy were rejected by the Church, Germany legalized prostitution.
German prostitutes are considered as workers like any other profession. They receive health benefits and pay taxes like any other citizen.
Furthermore, the rate of marriage has been steadily declining as each succeeding generation finds the institution of marriage more and more irrelevant.
Divine legislation looks at the society as a whole seeking to maximize benefit. Dr. Abu Aminah Bilal Philips says, if a certain legislation benefits the majority of the society and causes some emotional harm to a minority, the general welfare of the society is given precedence.
I totally agree with Dr. Philips. But, I would actually like to add that legislating polygyny is not in fact hurting most women. It is actually hurting those who are married among women and are not ready to share their husbands with other women who are unmarried and are ready to share in those men who are financially able to marry. Because it is the right of every woman to have a man and fulfill her social and sexual needs.
I always mention this personal experience on this matter. As one of my aunts who lived a 35-year love story with her husband and was never able to have children, decided to make the dream come true. So she married him to another woman, rented for them an apartment in the same building.
And when the new wife got her first child, who happened to be a baby girl, she named her Hanan, after my aunt’s name. Today, the man goes to work everyday and both women take breakfast together with three children playing around them.
The question is: if there are people who accept such solutions for their problems, why would any other people prevent it?
Finally, polygyny means more women getting married and more men having extra social and financial responsibilities. This is why it is rarely practiced. In Egypt, less than 2% of the marriages are plural marriages; while the percentage increases in higher economies up to 10%. The question remains, in whose favor is it?
Dear brother, I like your approach in attempting to answer. It just needs fine tuning.
First, when it comes to explaining to a non-Muslim that we should follow some instructions even though we might not comprehend the wisdom behind them, we need first to explain to him what the meaning of the word Islam is, being submissive to the will of God, who created the man and the woman and therefore knows what is best for both of them.
So, sometimes we can understand the wisdom behind some of God’s instructions and sometimes we do not, but we always have to follow it in order to live a happy life. The number 4 in case of polygamy is a perfect example.
Second, only talk about Islam, you should not speak on behalf of other religions, and say (in all religions people should follow ….) because this can cause you embarrassment, if he tells you: this is inaccurate, the XYZ religion does not ordain blind following on its followers etc.
I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.