Citation for Polygyny

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Kusha, Hamid R. . "Polygyny." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 22, 2022. <>.


Kusha, Hamid R. . "Polygyny." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 22, 2022).


The practice of one man simultaneously having several wives is a controversial issue in modern Islamic societies. Before the advent of Islam polygyny was practiced in many societies of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean; some observers have attributed this pattern to the predominance of patriarchal systems in the region, but it should be noted that elsewhere in the world, polygyny may occur in nonpatriarchal societies. This traditional practice continued under Islam, where it is supported by the authority of the Qur'ān (4.3, 24, 25) and sunnah.

The religious justification for polygyny is found by some in the marriages of the prophet Muḥammad. He is said to have had a strictly monogamous relationship with his first wife, Khadījah, until her death in 619 CE. He subsequently married two women, Sawdā' and ῾Ā'ishah, and later took Ḥafṣah and Umm Ḥabībah as his ῾aqdī (concubines) Shī῾ī tradition also offers the multiple marriages of certain imams in support of polygyny.

Polygyny has historically been practiced by both Sunnī and Shī῾ī Muslims, with certain differences, primarily in the number of secondary wives permitted. In the Sunnī tradition the number of wives is restricted to four, but the Shī῾ī tradition does not limit the number. Even among Sunnīs, rulers and other wealthy men often kept much larger harems.

Many modern Islamic nations have either outlawed or regulated polygyny; such laws were promulgated in Turkey (1917), Egypt and Sudan (1920, 1929), India (1939), Jordan (1951), Syria (1953), Tunisia (1956), Morocco (1958), Iraq (1959), Pakistan (1961), Iran (1967, 1975), and South Yemen (1974) (see Coulson and Hinchcliffe, 1978). In Iran, for example, modernizing legislation in 1967 attempted to create legal obstacles to men's unilateral exercise of the privileges of multiple marriage and of terminating marriages at will. The more conservative 1975 Family Protection Act provided that a man who wished to take a second wife must seek the permission of the court; furthermore, his first wife must either consent or be proven unwilling or unable to fulfill her conjugal responsibilities because of illness, imprisonment, or infertility. With the success of the Islamic Revolution, however, the 1975 act was repealed and the rules of the sharī῾ah reinstated.

Beyond ordinary marriage, another form of polygyny exists in some Islamic societies in the form of mut῾ah, a temporary relationship between a man and a woman based on mutual consent and certain contractual obligations. A form of concubinage, mut῾ah requires exclusivity on the part of the woman for the duration of the contract and two months thereafter; the man provides her with financial support and a stipulated payment at the termination of the contract. Mut῾ah has been the subject of ongoing legal and religious controversy in Iran: during the modernizing period attempts were made to ban it, but under the present regime it is not only permitted but actively promoted by the government.

See also Family; Family Law; Marriage and Divorce; Mut῾ah; Sexuality; and Women and Islam, article on Role and Status of Women.


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