Polygamy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

                            Ehteshaam Gulam

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)’s polygamy has been an attack from Anti-Islamic Christian as well as Atheist/Secularist for a long time dating back to the Crusades. However it is not the purpose of this paper to give the reasons why Prophet Muhammad was polygamous. Rather it is the purpose of this paper is to note that polygamy had already been established in the Bible, and Prophet Jesus, as will be seen had come from Prophets Abraham and David who were polygamous. In fact there are 40 polygamists in the Bible! Both the Old and New Testaments say nothing about forbidding polygamy and in fact the Old Testament even allows it and sets laws regarding it. The following is a list of Prophets, Kings of Israel and Judges who all were polygamous in the Bible.

Prophet Abraham had three wives, Sarah, Hagar and Keturah and had several concubines (Genesis 16:1-4, 25:1 and 25:6). Prophet Abraham’s brother, Nahor, had both a wife and concubine. (Genesis 22:20-24). Prophet Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah and used their two female slaves as concubines (Genesis 29:21-30:22, 31:17). Esau, the brother of Prophet Jacob was polygamous, having at least three wives (Genesis 26:34; 28:6-9). Eliphaz had two wives in Genesis 36:11-12. Prophet Moses had two wives, Zipporah and an unnamed Ethopian woman (Exodus 2:15-16, 21, 18:1-6, Numbers 12:1).

Ashur, from the tribe of Judah had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5). Shaharaim, from the lineage of Benjamin who was a son of Prophet Jacob, had two wives (1 Chronicles 8:8). Even the so-called Mosaic Law of Judaism set rules for a polygamous marriages  (Exodus 21:10, Deuteronomy 21:15). Prophet Moses also had set instructions to his men about their wives implying the children of Israel were polygamous (Exodus 19:15). Gideon, a judge in Israel had multiple wives and at least one concubine (Judges 8:30-31). Other Judges appear to be polygamous as Jair the Gileadite had 30 sons (Judges 10:3-4), Ibzan of Bethlehem had 30 sons and 30 daughters because of his multiple marriages (Judges 12:8-9) and Abdon had 40 sons (Judges 12:13-14). Elkanah, the Bible’s father of Prophet Samuel, had two wives (1 Samuel 1:1-2).

Polygamy was also practiced with kings of Israel, Prophets and other leaders. King Saul had multiple wives which were later given to Prophet David (II Samuel 12:7-8). Prophet David had 8 wives and 10 concubines (1 Samuel 25:39-44, II Samuel 5:13-16 and 1 Chronicles 3:1-9 and 14:3). Prophet Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-3). Benhadad, a king of Syria had several wives in 1 Kings 20:3. Heman had many wives by implication of the number of sons he had in (1 Chronicles 25:4). Rehoboam, the son of Prophet Solomon and a King of Judah, had 18 wives and 60 concubines (II Chronicles 11:18-21). Abijah had 14 wives (II Chronicles 13:21). Jehoiada had two wives (II Chronicles 24:3). Jehoram, another king of Judah, had multiple wives (II Chronicles 24:1-3). King Ahab also had multiple wives (1 Kings 20:1-7). Jehoiachin, King of Judah, had multiple wives (II Kings 24:15). King Zedekiah of Judah also had many wives (Jeremiah 38:14-24). Hosea had two wives (Hosea 1:3, 3:1).Belshazzar, a king of Babylon had many wives and concubines (Daniel 5:2). Ahasuerus was polygamous because of the “women in his royal house” in Esther 1:9.

Further in the Bible, polygamy is regonized by various people and even God in Israel. For example God is offended when Israelites take forgien wives in Ezra 9:2. God Prophetically has many wives in Ezekiel 23, Jeremiah 3, Ezekiel 23:4, Jeremiah 3:6-14,  Jeremiah 31:31-34. Further Prophet Ezra reconizes polygamous marriages with his people in Ezra 10:2-3,10-11. Nehemiah rebukes the men for marrying their "strange wives" in Nehemiah 13:25-27. Also as seen before and as read in John 5:46-47, Jesus upheld the so-called Mosaic law, and by doing so he santionced polygamy and concubinage since those things have already been established in Exodus 21:10, Deuteronomy 21:15. Moreover in 1 Timothy 3:2, a Bishop can have only wife however it seems okay that a layman can have more than one, implying the anonymous author of 1 Timothy implies it is okay for polygamy. Titus 1:6 also states a bishop only is required one wife, stating nothing about laymen (common men). So this also implies that polygamy is allowed, as the passages says nothing forbidding laymen to have several wives. As said earlier Prophet Jesus also came from Prophets Abraham and David (Matthew 1:1). If Polygamy had been so offensive to God, why would he allow Jesus to come from two polygamists? More importanantly Prophet Jesus never spoke out against polygamy in the entire New Testament.  So one can see that the Bible has no rescritions or criticisms over polygamous marriages.

Many Biblical figures have been polygamous, including important figures in Judaism and Christianity such as Prophets Abraham and David. Further nowhere in the Bible is it forbidden to be polygamous. In Judaism, there was a continuation of polygamy throughout Israel as Josephus in the first century witnessed this and wrote about it, along with Justin Martyr an early Christian apologetic in the 2nd century. Additonally the Talmud allowed a man to have up to 4 wives and for a king up to 18 wives.

What about Matthew 19:3-9? Jesus is not speaking about polygamy. Rather, He is only answering a question about divorce. Indeed, the entire passage is about divorce, not polygamy.

In early Christian churches polygamy was practiced as well as bishops and such were able to have more than one wife is desired. An Early Church father, Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, supported polygamy in his writings and even today polygamy is practiced in two Christian dominations of Africa: the Legion of Mary Church and the African Orthodox Autonomous Church South of the Sahara.   Martin Luther admitted that there was no scriptural prohibition against polygamy in the New Testament.  Finally this author leaves the reader with a quote from Father Hillman.  As Father Hillman states:

“Nowhere in the New Testament is there any explicit commandment that marriage should be monogamous or any explicit commandment forbidding polygamy.” [1]

Don't Ignore the Old Testament

It is commonly said that Jesus Jesus was the “lamb” to clear away the Old Testament and it's rules. Well, that's not true. It fact The New Testament tells readers to obey the Old Testament! We can find this fact all over the New Testament:

“For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass the law until all is accomplished.  Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:18-19 RSV)  Clearly the Old Testament is to be abided by until the end of human existence itself.  None other then Jesus said so.

All of the vicious Old Testament laws will be binding forever.   "It is easier for Heaven and Earth to pass away than for the smallest part of the letter of the law to become invalid."  (Luke 16:17 NAB)

Jesus strongly approves of the law and the prophets Jesus says "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest part or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place."  (Matthew 5:17 NAB)

Furthermore The author of 2 Timothy has this to say: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness..."  (2 Timothy 3:16 NAB)

And finally Jesus says: “Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law" (John 7:19) and “For the law was given by Moses,..." (John 1:17).

So we already see that there were 40 polygamists in the Old Testament. Moreover as we've seen there is no limit as to how many wives a man can marry in the so-called Mosaic Law.

What about Paul?

Paul did not say, "It is better for a single person to marry than to burn." Moreover, Paul did not say "it is better to commit adultery than to burn" which is what would occur if a woman were to be taken by more than her one and only living husband according to the laws of the Torah which he knew so well. He wrote the letter in which this was found to the all the Christians at Corinth which included all of the men in Corinth, not just the single men. In most cases, there is nothing lacking in the first wives of men that have a need for additional wives.

Moreover according to one Christian website there seems to be a command in the New Testament that allows a man to have more than one wife:

"There absolutely is an example in the Bible, where God actually does command a situation of polygamy ---in the New Testament, even.

1 Corinthians 7:10-11 & 27-28. In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul differentiates when he is making his own "recommendation" (in verses 6, 12, and 25) and when he is expressing the "commandment of the Lord" (verses 10-11). Indeed, in verses 10-11, Paul clarifies that the instruction in those two verses is the "commandment of the Lord". (It should therefore also be noted that the other areas in which he clarifies as being only his "recommendation" can NOT be used to otherwise and incorrectly assert that God Himself is creating some sin or doctrine. After all, Paul's ultimate "recommendation" therein is celibacy!)

With that realized, it is clear for readers of the Bible that Paul makes it emphatically clear that verses 10-11 are different. Namely, verses 10-11, in the exact way in which thay are actually written, are the "commandment of God"."And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife." 1 Corinthians 7:10-11.

Paul further specifies that that above "commandment of the Lord" was only addressed to believers-married-to-believers. In the next verses (i.e, 12-16), he clarifies that he is subsequently addressing believers-married-to-unbelievers, and that that subsequent instuction is not the Lord's words, but his own again.

Verses 10-11 show that, if a believer WIFE leaves her believer HUSBAND, the believer WIFE is commanded of God to either:  remain unmarried, or be reconciled back to her husband  believer HUSBAND is commanded of God to: not put away any wife, and to let any departed wife return back to him

The key point is that the HUSBAND is NOT given the same commandments of instruction. Only the WIFE is commanded to remain unmarried, but the HUSBAND is not given that commandment. He is commanded of God to let her be married to him, either way!

Accordingly, the HUSBAND is of course, still free to marry another wife. That fact is further proved by the later verses of 27-28d.

"Art thou bound unto a wife?seek not to be loosed.Art thou loosed from a wife?seek not a wife.But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned;and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned." 1 Corinthians 7:27-28.

The Greek text of verse 27 is clearly only addressing married men --whether or not the wife has departed.

As such, the married man whose wife is still with him does not sin when he marries another wife (who is not another's wife). And likewise, the married man, whose wife has departed from him, he also does not sin when he marries another wife (who is not another's wife).

And herein comes the "commandment of the Lord", of polygamy, as in the following situation.A believer WIFE departs from her believer HUSBAND. She is commanded of God to remain unmarried, per verses 10-11. Her HUSBAND, however, then subsequently marries another wife (who is not another man's wife). The HUSBAND and the new wife have not sinned, per verses 27-28. The departed WIFE then seeks to be reconciled back to her HUSBAND.In that situation, verses 10-11 show the following instruction as the "commandment of the Lord". The HUSBAND is commanded of God to let the departed wife be reconciled back to him. AND.... he is commanded of God to not put away a wife, including the new wife.As such, verses 10-11 show that it is an outright "commandment of the Lord" of polygamy for the family in that situation.1 Corinthians 7:10-11 is indeed a Commandment of God --- in the New Testament --- that, when a previously-departed believer wife returns, her believer husband and his new (believer) wife (from verse 27c-28d) MUST let the previous wife be reconciled to her husband.

There truly IS a "commandment of the Lord" for a situation of polygamy to be found in the Bible ---and it's in the New Testament Scriptures, as well!" (Source)

So we can see there is NO injunction in the Bible for the husband to have one wife.

Polygamy in Islam

Before I begin we must examine Arabia. In Pre-Islamic Arabia, many men were polygamous. All Shaykhs (The leader of a tribe or clan) in Arabia had mutliple wives and/or multiple concubines. [2] Polygamy was widely practiced among Arabs of Pre-Islamic Arabia and Jews not only of Israel, but among the Jews of Arabia was well.

The Quran accepts polygamy and allows a man to have up to four wives. However, although the Quran, like the Bible, allows polygamy, it puts rescritions on it, something the Bible failed to do. As a matter of fact the Quran is the only Religious book in the world that says its best to marry only one woman, and not four. Having up to four wives is an option however if a man can’t maintain justice between these four then he has to marry only one, this way men will be “prevented from doing injustice”.Of quick note, polygamy is quite rare in the Muslim world… very few Muslim men have more than one wife.  The following two Quranic verse demonstrates that monogamy (marrying only one woman) is preferred and not polygamy.

If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice. (Quran 4:3)

Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding, and practise self-restraint, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (Quran 4:129)

The last verse “you are never able to be fair and just between women, even of it is your ardent desire” proves that polygamy is something that not every man can do. It would be very hard for a man to divide his time between wives if he is polygamous, and as I have stated before, polygamy in modern times, really doesn’t work. It might have worked during Prophets Abraham to Prophet Solomons time (2166-1991 to 930 BCE) during the early days of Christianity (as will be seen) from the 1st to the 7th centuries and during the rise of Islam during Prophet Muhammad’s ministry in Arabia (late 5th century to the 6th century) however it just doesn’t work in modern times.Mnay men in Pre-Islamic Arabia had many wives however when Islam came it put a limit to how many wives a man can marry.  This is why the Quran tells Muslims to marry only one woman and that a man just can’t be fair and just between more than just one woman. Clearly polygamy is discouraged in Islam and monogamy is preferred unless a man has strong reasons for marrying more than one woman (economic reasons, etc.)

Notes and Bibliography

[1] Hillman, Eugene: Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian Churches,. Orbis Books, 1975 pg. 140.

[2] Aslan, Reza: No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Random House, 2006 pg.62-64.

Further Reading

Evangelical Christian sites that support Polygamy and even prove it from the New Testament: