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Boundaries to polygyny

August 12, 2011



As far as I know, if a woman is in a polygamous marriage, the husband cannot force her to have relations with his other wives. Is this true?
What I am asking is whether the wives in the multiple marriage situation are compelled by the sharī`ah to be friends with each other, live together and have communal meals.
If they are not compelled by the sharī`ah to do so, and if the husband forces
them or bullies them to do the above, what rights do the wives have to get out of that situation? Is there any protection for them?


As-salāmu ‘alaykum

The fiqh peremptorily requires that the man should provide a separate apartment to each wife (be it a fully-fledged house or a self-contained unit within the same building, hosting all necessary facilities such as separate kitchen, bedroom, and living room, according to one’s financial capabilities and the prevailing customs), unless, and only unless, they freely and voluntarily waive such right (which is clearly the opposite to the scenario you have painted).
Each has a separate marital relationship based on its own unique founding contract of marriage between the same man and distinct female personas. Woman’s natural jealousy requires such legal condition to be heeded. Islam is the natural way of realism chosen for man by the Real who created them and knows them better than they know themselves.
When a Sufi shaykh, viewing things from the point of view of the haqīqah,  suggests for instance that a collaborative relationship would be the ideal, one must not lose track of the truth that the sharī`ah works on the basis of the average norm, rather than the exception. If you can go higher, and people intimately know whether they have crossed the relevant threshold of excellence or not, that becomes a “moral obligation on those who possess ihsān” only (haqqan ‘ala’l-muhsinīn, to borrow the applicable oft-repeated Qur’ānic phrase concerning the higher demands Muslims who have reached the station of excellence place on their own selves).
The fact that the person you are referring to is bullying his wives into the opposite of what the fiqh demands transparently evinces the fact that the foundational basis of the man’s Islam is shaky. Let alone can he be said to hover around the station of ihsān.
When I was confronted with a friend’s multiple marriage setting identical to the one you sketched, years ago, I exhorted the husband to adhere to the fiqh. He retorted that he was not interested in the “arid letter of the fiqh”, but only in the higher “social engineering project” of actualizing his concept of polygyny, being that the wives ought to be friends, have all their meals together, etc.
Not surprisingly, such union (grounded on utopian idealism and the artificial attempt to engender it in existence) lasted only a few months, as the new wife resisted such coercion, and she was eventually physically beaten in a severe manner.
Moral of the story: The fiqh is from Allah and His Messenger, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-sallam, and thus superior to what a self conceives, however well-meaning.
It is not for us to restructure people’s innate beings and psyches, but to adapt to reality in order to uplift what exists in it.
Wives can only live under a common roof if they consent to that.
There is no debate on such ruling in the Mālikī madhhab of Ahl al-Madīnah, East or West, old or modern.
In the event that the man coerces them into the opposite, each of the wives, or both jointly, can institute action for dissolving the union due to substantial harm, one, that is, in the face of which a continuing marriage relationship could not be envisaged. That is clearly the case where unwilling co-wives are compelled to operate in each other’s presence.
They are unhappily embroiled in constant struggle, their jealousy is aroused, they are unable, due to such oppressive context, to fulfill their husband’s rights, their obligations to eventual children are undermined, their rapport with family, friends, neighbours and the larger Islamic community is adversely affected, they gather psychological and existential scars, and so on.
If such harm as you are referring to is proven or admitted, the man should be cautioned by the judicial officer to eliminate the cause of such just complaint within a reasonable time (which, in my view, would be extremely limited in the scenario you depicted, in fact, basically immediate, as nothing stands in the way of an immediate behavioural u-turn on his part), failing which the presiding officer (who can be selected in South Africa, freely and gratuitously, in terms of the Arbitration Act) should pronounce a dissolution of both marriages by one irrevocable divorce, i.e. one clearly separating him from each of his wives who cease to be his spouses and who can only remarry him by their consent and the normal requirements of a valid marriage contract.
Polygyny is a lofty sunnah, and it must not be exploited so as to feed undeveloped male egos, especially as kuffār and modernist Muslims are waiting for every opportunity to castigate such practice and propagate its harmful nature, whence the need to set the highest standards in revitalizing such noble sunnah of the Prophets, peace be on all of them, and Allah knows best.

Lastly, a few textual supports for the afore-detailed ruling: We have selected only three, from different ages, as all our jurisprudential sources concur on such legal position:
The Andalusian Ibn Juzayy, in Al-Qawānīn al-Fiqhiyyah:
“It is not permissible (lā yajûzu) for a man to join two (or more) co-wives in a single habitation, unless that takes place by their consent. He ought to reserve a separate habitation for each of them, and visit her there”.

The Sudanese jurist Sidi ‘Uthmān b. Hasanayn al-Ju`alī in Sirāj as-Sālik – Sharh Ashal al-Masālik:
“What the husband is obliged to observe is to give each wife what suffices her, in terms of basic food, condiments, clothing, and separate residence, all of that in accordance with his financial capability”.
Finally, the contemporary Dr. al-Gharyānī from Libya, who inter alia emphasized the general duty of a husband to be able to maintain his wife (which he cannot circumvent by forcing cohabitation within a single residential unit): “It is incumbent on the husband to provide each spouse with her own suitable residence, to the extent of his capability. A separate residential unit consists in what, once the door is closed, can be regarded as a self-contained dwelling, and what includes all the necessary amenities, such as separate kitchen and lavatory. If the building is made up of different self-contained apartments, the husband is entitled to make each of his co-wives reside in one such apartment within the general building. In such a manner, in fact, each co-wife can live in a personal apartment supplied with all basic amenities. If, by contrast, those amenities (kitchen, bathroom, etc) are common to one and the same residential unit, then it is not permissible for the man to keep his co-wives there save on the basis of their consent thereto (Cf. Az-Zurqānī’s commentary on Khalīl’s Mukhtasar)”.


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