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Reason and Revelation Volume 24 #3

Polygamy and the Quran

Those people who have modeled their thinking after New Testament Christianity are, to say the least, a bit surprised (if not shocked and appalled) to learn that the religion of Islam countenances polygamy. But the Christian mind must realize that Muhammad’s Islam arose out of Arabia in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. The Arab culture was well-known for the practice of polygamy, in which the men were allowed to have as many wives as they desired. The Quran addressed this social circumstance by placing a limitation on the number of wives a man could have. The wording of the pronouncement is in a surah titled “Women”: “And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess” (Surah 4:3).

Setting aside the issue of why Muhammad himself was exempt from this limitation (Surah 33:50—see Miller, “Muhammad’s Polygamy,” 2004), the divine origin of the Quran is discredited on the basis of its stance on polygamy. In the first place, for all practical purposes, the Quran authorizes a man to have as many wives as he chooses, since its teaching on divorce contradicts its teaching on marriage. Unlike the New Testament, which confines permission to divorce on the sole grounds of sexual unfaithfulness (Matthew 19:9), the Quran authorizes divorce for any reason (e.g., Surah 2:226-232,241; 33:4,49; 58:2-4; 65:1-7). If a man can divorce his wife for any reason, then the “command” that limits a man to four wives is effectively meaningless—merely restricting a man to four legal wives at a time. Theoretically, a man could have an unlimited number of wives—all with the approval of God!

In the second place, Jesus declared in no uncertain terms that “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9, emp. added). Jesus gave one, and only one, reason for divorce in God’s sight. In fact, even the Old Testament affirmed that God “hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16). The teaching of the Bible on divorce is a higher, stricter, nobler standard than the one advocated by the Quran. The two books, in fact, contradict each other on this point.

In the third place, why does the Quran stipulate the number “four”? Why not three or five wives? The number four would appear to be an arbitrary number with no significance—at least, none is given. Though the passage in question indicates the criterion of a man’s ability to do justice to those he marries, there is no reason to specify the number four, since men would vary a great deal in the number of women that they would have the ability to manage fairly.

The answer may be seen in the influence of the contemporaneous Jewish population of Arabia. Sixth century Arabia was a tribal oriented society that relied heavily on oral communication in social interactions. Muhammad would have been the recipient of considerable information conveyed orally by his Jewish, and even Christian, contemporaries. Many tales, fables, and rabbinical traditions undoubtedly circulated among the Jewish tribes of Arabia. The Jews themselves probably were lacking in book-learning, having been separated from the mainstream of Jewish thought and intellectual development in their migration to the Arabian peninsula. The evidence demonstrates that the author of the Quran borrowed extensively from Jewish and other sources. The ancient Talmudic record (Arbah Turim, Ev. Hazaer, 1) stated: “A man may marry many wives, for Rabba saith it is lawful to do so, if he can provide for them. Nevertheless, the wise men have given good advice, that a man should not marry more than four wives” (see Rodwell, 1950, p. 411; Tisdall, 1905, pp. 129-130). The similarity with the wording of the Quran is too striking to be coincidental. It can be argued quite convincingly that the magic number of four was drawn from currently circulating Jewish teaching.


Miller, Dave (2004), “Muhammad’s Polygamy,”

Rodwell, J.M., trans. (1950 reprint), The Koran (London: J.M. Dent and Sons).

Tisdall, W. St. Clair (1905), The Original Sources of the Quran (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge).

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