A Contextualised Interpretation for a Common Standpoint on Polygamy | Wasat No. 36 / Disember 2020



A Contextualised Interpretation for a Common Standpoint on Polygamy

01 December 2020 12:03 am // Written by Nur Sabrina Nizam

The idea of polygamy in Singapore is considered as a taboo issue. It is rarely talked about in mainstream media and seldom discussed within a typical family setting.

However, according to the Singapore Fifth CEDAW Periodic Report, polygamous marriages make up 0.3% of Muslim marriages registered from 2009 to 2014.[1] However, this may not represent the actual number as some couples register their marriages outside of Singapore and not under ROMM.

Firstly, to reach a common standpoint on this issue, we must investigate the historical origin and the ideas or standards during the time in which the verse was revealed. This is where a contextualised interpretation is applied to achieve a relevant and reliable conclusion.


A contextualized interpretation

What is a contextualized interpretation?

In Abdullah Saeed’s, Reading the Qur’an in the 21st Century: A Contextualized Approach, he establishes a framework consisting of four steps to reach a contextualized interpretation. From his explanation, it can be concluded that the steps are:

1. Preliminary considerations and thoughts which include understanding the world of the text, the world of the reader and the language and meaning behind it.

2. Beginning with the task of interpretation such as confirming the accuracy and dependability of the text as there are different qira’at (variations) of the Qur’an.

3. Identifying the meaning of the text.
From here, the interpreter should then carry out research on the linguistic analysis and investigate the literary background that will help him or her reach a proper interpretation. This allows the interpreter to specifically address the issue and cover key elements of the topic.

4. Linking up the interpretation of the verse to the present-day context. This means that one should compare opinions and content which are related to the discourse and engage with a wide variety of scholarly writings, traditional and contemporary. This is to ensure the interpretation to be reasonable and relevant.[2]


Secondly, after understanding the pre-requisites of interpreting a verse, when discussing the issue of polygamy, the Qur’an and sunnah often brings up the question of whether the man can be fair and just.

Islam emphasises the importance of treating the wife with respect and dignity, where all her needs – spiritual, mental, and physical – should be met. Therefore, Islam encourages Muslims to be moderate and engage in matters that we know we can manage and care for properly.

The Prophet s.a.w mentioned that a heavy punishment awaits men who are unjust towards their wives, “When a man has two wives and he is inclined to one of them, he will come on the Day of resurrection with a side hanging down.”[3]

Any forms of biasness or unequal treatment which upsets the wives in a polygamous marriage is a grave sin in Islam.


How should we understand the verse?

Allah Taala mentions in the Qur’an, “And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].” (The Qur’an, 4:3)

Islam permits a man to marry more than one wife in situations where it can heal tough human emotions such as the longing for a family and a lifelong companion and a way to deter them from fulfilling their desires through prohibited acts. As we know, Islam provides relief in matters that are complex, and its solutions are suitable at any time and place. During the time of the Quraish, before Islam came, seventh century Arabia was rampant with evil acts and crimes of injustice targeting women and children. The Qur’an was sent down to eliminate these cruelties and alleviate the social problems they faced.[4]

At a time where the wars left many women without a husband and they were unable to make a living for themselves, Islam came and permitted men to have four wives so as to ease the situation of the widowed women. It was a way to protect them from harm and poverty. The solution where she becomes a co-wife brings forward much more advantages such as not depriving her of a healthy marital life and the delights of motherhood. However, these situations are unique to the time of seventh century Arabia thus, applying the verse into today’s day and age requires a different understanding and approach.

Therefore, in today’s context where most women are self-dependent and due to their upbringing in this modern world, have different expectations of a marriage. It is clear that it is more favourable for a man to marry one woman and only in unique cases where he shows absolute capability in treating all his wives justly, can he be in a polygamous marriage. Furthermore, the man should provide for not only the material aspects of his marriages, but also in terms of spiritual needs where he expresses devotion and closeness with each of them.[5]

From a legal standpoint, polygamy is allowed in Islam but that should not be the main fact of the interpretation. There must be a deeper explanation on the matter to avoid giving an insensitive opinion. Abdullah Saeed uses as an example from the tafsir of Fazlur Rahman in his book, Major Themes of the Qur’an, Fazlur’s interpretation on polygamy resonates with today’s era because he understood that the message underlying the verse is to protect the rights and uphold the respect and dignity of women. He also stressed that an interpretation must relate back to the objectives and principles of the Qur’an. Abdullah concluded that the opinion on any issue must be accepted by the Muslim community as a whole and ultimately does not hinder the progress towards an honest and just society.[6]


There are many discussions that are relevant to the topic of polygamy but ultimately, we should understand that any ruling or opinion must be aligned with the core values in Islam which are the Maqasid Shari’ah (objectives of the shari`ah).

Islam promotes moderation in all aspects of our lives. Any forms of unjust actions onto another human being is despised. It is thus evident that Islam upholds justice and does not allow emotional hurt and mistreatment of women. Even though many interpretations emphasize the permissibility of it, how then can a man conveniently get into a polygamous marriage despite the requirements that Allah s.w.t has placed in the verse?

Though polygamy remains permissible, applying the concept must fit in the to the standards of today. Thankfully, with the current existence of the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) and help from the Syariah Court, a Muslim man has to undergo several procedures and tests to ensure his second marriage is considered a necessity or with acceptable reasons approved by the judge.

Research on polygamous marriages has also revealed that it is not encouraged for men to have more than one wife because some of these men view polygamy as a means to satisfy their desires. Sadly, this has led to many failed polygamous relationships due to their inadequate treatment of their spouses and failure in family planning.

A polygamous marriage where no parties are oppressed by the arrangement, can bring upon benefits. It can also positively affect the rate of social and long-term complications in a community. In today’s modern world, how many polygamous marriages are practised out of selfless reasons? Most of the time, it is the opposite case.[7]

Hence, having a contextualized understanding of polygamy should be normalised within the society so as to help both Muslim men and women make informed decisions when it comes to marriages and familial issues. As our prophet Muhammad s.a.w said: “The best of you is he who is best to his family” [8]




[1] Singapore Fifth CEDAW Periodic Report, Article 16, paragraph 1(a), p. 66.

[2] Abdullah Saeed (2014), Reading the Qur’an in the Twenty-First Century: A Contextualist Approach, London: Routledge, pp. 94-107.

[3] Hadith – Book of Marriage (Kitab Al-Nikah) – Sunan Abi Dawud – Sunnah.com – Sayings and Teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). (2020). Retrieved November 5, 2020, from Sunnah.com website: https://sunnah.com/abudawud/12/88

[4] Saeed (2013), p. 99.

[5] Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1937), The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text with an English Translation and Commentary, India: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf, 3rd Ed, vol 1, p. 179, note 509.

[6] Saeed, (2014), p. 107.

[7] Nabilah Mohammad (2019), “More Than One: A Look at Polygamy in Muslim Marriages in Singapore”, Karyawan, vol. 14, no. 1, January. Retrieved November 6, 2020, from Rima.sg website: http://www.rima.sg/commentary/more-than-one-a-look-at-polygamy-in-muslim-marriages-in-singapore/#.X6TWR2gzY2x

[8] Hadith – Book of Marriage – Mishkat al-Masabih – Sunnah.com – Sayings and Teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). (2020). Retrieved November 6, 2020, from Sunnah.com website: https://sunnah.com/mishkat/13/170

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