By Nabilah Mohammad
Polygamy is a topic of discussion that is often open to contentions among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The domestic lives of polygamists are usually kept private and closely guarded, making it quite a challenge to understand what actually goes on in polygamous relationships.
The practice of polygamy, or more accurately, polygyny, within the Malay/Muslim community in Singapore though seemingly rare, is allowed under the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). It is not, however, permitted in civil marriages here. Under AMLA, the right to polygyny is based on Syariah law, which conditionally allows a man to marry up to four wives.
According to Singapore Fifth CEDAW Periodic Report, polygamous marriages constitute 0.3% of Muslim marriages registered from 2009 to 2014. However, the numbers may not be reflective of the actual phenomenon as there may be a number of unregistered polygamous marriages which take place outside of Singapore.
If the intent for a polygamous union among consenting spouses is to preserve personal happiness, protect and raise children, and maintain social welfare of the family as an alternative to marriage dissolution or illicit affairs, then polygamy may be an option. In other cases, polygyny could offer a solution to complex marital problems – for instance, when women consent to their husbands marrying another due to their illnesses or inability to bear children.
Despite religious injunctions to enact perfect justice among multiple wives, research has found that many husbands lapse in this regard. Not all men have the financial and psychological capacity, among other conditions, to deal justly with more than one wife. Given that we often hear the inability of a number of polygamists to practice polygamy the way that it is intended, as well as the social stigma attached to it, perhaps a better understanding of polygamy in Islam is needed. This article intends to gain insights into the practice of polygamy in contemporary settings.
The Karyawan team interviewed two Malay/Muslim men who practise polygyny to have an insight into the practice and experiences of polygyny in Singapore. We also spoke to a legal expert as well as a religious expert who shared their thoughts on polygamy in Singapore and Islam to proffer diverse viewpoints. Pseudonyms are used for all of our interviewees to maintain their privacy as well as their families’.
Living Under One Roof
The Karyawan team met Mr Azri, together with his family, who was keen to share his experience of being in a polygamous marriage.
Mr Azri introduced us to his two wives – Mdm Wani, his first wife, and Mdm Liza, his second wife – who sat with us throughout the interview. Mdm Liza is a year younger than Mdm Wani and was a divorcee with one child when she married Mr Azri.
Mr Azri stays with his two wives, seven children (aged 9 to 25) and his aged parents, in a four-room HDB flat in the eastern part of Singapore. They have been in the polygamous marriage for 17 years now. Mr Azri currently runs his own company, while Mdm Wani works in the healthcare sector and Mdm Liza is in accounting.
Mr Azri has always believed in keeping his family together under the same roof, where he can be there for everyone at all times.
“I believe the one that works best is when the wives stay together because they can see whether they’re being treated fairly. If they stay apart, they will start assuming,” Mr Azri said.
Both Mr Azri’s wives agreed that staying in the same house is advantageous. Mdm Wani explained that living together teaches them to be cautious of their actions and to always set exemplary attitudes to their children. Mdm Liza agreed and added that their living situation also allows for an extra helping hand with the household chores and child rearing.
When the Karyawan team asked Mr Azri on the circumstances that led him to marry his second wife, he said that it was because Islam made it permissible for men to do so and added that he is a man of sufficient financial means and is capable of supporting two households.
Living With The Co-Wife
Mdm Wani admitted that coming to terms with her husband having a second wife was not easy initially:
“Obviously, I was resistant at first and kept questioning myself: Have I not given him what he needs as a man? Have I not fulfilled my role as a wife? Eventually, I agreed. I’d rather he take a second wife than keeping a mistress behind my back.”
The Karyawan team also asked the two ladies on their views on polygamy:
“I believe that polygamy can work well if the husband treats the wives well. It is also important that the wives are informed and consent to the polygamous marriage,” Mdm Wani said.
“We have a sisterly bond with each other now while being co-mothers. This female-female support can free up a lot of mental space and time for us as well,” Mdm Liza added.
Mr Azri and his two wives mentioned that they live harmoniously as a family. Their children perform well in school and do not differentiate between their biological mother and their stepmother. They address one as ‘ibu’ and the other as ‘mak’. They were also taught to love both mothers equally.
We also spoke with Hadi, one of Mr Azri’s son, and asked his thoughts on being in a polygamous family:
“I think it’s good. If I can’t get something from one mother, I can go to my other mother. My Malay friends think it’s weird to have two mothers. My non-Malay friends think it’s cool.”
When the team asked Mr Azri how he maintains harmony in the marriage, he said, “Your intention of taking on another wife is very important to keep the marriage successful. My second wife is an ‘add-on’, not a ‘replacement’ of my first wife. Also, do not keep your second marriage a secret because it will sever family relationships.”
Marrying Outside Singapore
Unlike Mr Azri whose wives are both staying with him, some husbands choose to house their second (and subsequent) wives separately or tie the knot abroad.
The Karyawan team met Mr Hasan, a successful general manager of a big company in Singapore, who has a second wife overseas.
At the age of 40, Mr Hasan married his second wife who was 18 years old at the time. He has four sons, now aged 22 to 32, from his first marriage, and another two daughters, now aged 1 and 3, from the second marriage. He shared that one of his sons is of the same age as his second wife.
When asked what led him to polygamy, he said, “I want to avoid sins. I do not want to commit adultery.”
The team also asked him about the challenges he faces in a polygamous marriage:
“My first wife always asks to be prioritised but I don’t blame her. It took me about two years to stabilise the situation at home. My first wife had initially asked for a divorce and said that I had betrayed her. However, after reassuring her, she finally gave in.”
According to Mr Hasan, his two wives have now forged a good relationship with each other.
Mr Hasan believes in being fair to both of his wives by being fair and equal, for example, in providing them with material possessions such as homes and cars of equivalent value.
When asked if he has any advice for those who are considering a polygamous marriage, he shared:
“Don’t make irrational decisions without considering important factors. Are you wise enough? Can you afford it? Do you have the time? Always try to be fair and continue to improve your family management skills. Polygamy can be successful if the man has the ability to lead.”
Modern Polygamy: Not In The Spirit Of Islam?
While the individuals we talked to believe that polygyny shouldn’t be frowned upon by society, there are some who feel that it has no place in the modern world. One of them is Ms Halijah Mohamad, a social activist and a lawyer whose work primarily involves family cases in both civil and Syariah courts, including a number of polygamous marriages. Ms Halijah strongly believes that the present state of polygyny is not in line with what is intended in Islam, and that it should be subjected to strict conditions to ensure that women are treated fairly.
She suggested that the law take measures to stamp out the abuse of polygyny by making it mandatory to have the existing wife’s consent. Ms Halijah also suggested that women should be allowed to stipulate in a marriage contract that her husband cannot take another wife, and a breach of the contract would grant them the right for divorce.
Ms Halijah mentioned that a careful reading of the Quran makes it clear that Islam does not condone polygyny unconditionally:
“How many of these polygamous men marry out of altruistic reason? Far from actually marrying orphans or protecting women, they are marrying younger, prettier second wives instead.”
Polygyny: Between Scriptures And Misconceptions
According to the Quran,
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].
– Surah An-Nisa, 4:3
The Karyawan team spoke to Ustaz Izwan, who graduated in Arabic language and literature with a minor in Syariah from Kuwait University, to get a religious viewpoint on polygyny.
He explained that Islam permits polygyny but has placed various conditions for the practice that could make it difficult to observe:
“Polygyny is permissible in Islam. A Muslim man is allowed to marry a maximum of four wives at a time. However, he must be able to provide and maintain the family, and also be just and fair with his wives. If these criteria are not met, the wives may file for a divorce in the form of khulu’ (a divorce which favours the wife) with the Syariah Court.”
Ustaz Izwan shared that while polygyny is often perceived as benefiting the husband or to the detriment of the wives, the reality is that it’s far more arduous for the husband, if practised the way it is intended in Islam. He has to not only fulfil the rights of all his wives and support the family financially and emotionally, he also has to juggle his time between them, and settle any disputes and difficulties that may arise – all the while ensuring that he’s being just. His treatment of his wives will be raised on the Day of Judgement.
Ustaz Izwan added that the Quran makes it quite clear to men that they are truly better off with only one wife if they doubt their ability to be just with more.
Polygamy: Good Or Bad?
Having more than one wife demands a lot of patience, tolerance and compromise. It is not just about marrying another woman. It is about being ready in more ways than the obvious to undertake a major responsibility. Undoubtedly, polygamy is an inherently difficult choice. Men should consider their own capabilities, as well as the interests of their first wives and children before taking the plunge.
The law on polygamy entails complexities that cannot simply be addressed with a sweeping ban or a complete socio-legal acceptance. Polygamy will remain a controversial topic, and its practice does not suit everyone. Done right, polygamy can lead to stable, happy and blessed marriages. Done wrong, it can cause a lot of pain and marriages to fail.
 Polygamy refers to the practice of having more than one spouse while polygyny is a form of polygamy where a man has more than one wife. Since only polygyny is the only form of polygamy allowed under AMLA, the terms polygamy and polygyny are used interchangeably in this article.
Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.
This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, January 2019, Volume 14, Issue 1.
Photo Source: Fallon Michael on Unsplash