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Published in the 1-15 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Survey reveals rise in polygamy

By M H Lakdawala

Mumbai: Like other communities even the middle class amongst Muslim is prospering because of going in for good education. The one outcome of growing prosperity is polygamy among the well-to-do.

A random survey by the Milli Gazette amongst advocates, doctors, professors, educationists, businessmen and other professionals in Mumbai revealed an alarming rise in polygamy. No doubt the rate of illegal polygamy in other communities is even higher according to official and semi-official figures.

The Qur'an emphasizes the limitations against polygamy in very strong words: "If you fear that you may not be perfectly equitable in treating more than one wife, then you shall be content with one." (4:3); "You cannot be equitable in a polygamous relationship, no matter how hard you try." (4:129).

Advocate Nilofer Akhter, member, Muslim Personal Law Board, said she receives on an average seven cases related to polygamy every month. "Surprisingly the majority of my clients are from upwardly mobile middle class families whose husbands opted for a second marriage."

Recently an educationist from Pune and an ophthalmologist from Mumbai opted for a second marriage leading to protests by their first wives. Social circles here are rife with the stories of these two eminent professionals’ polygamous marriages.

Psychiatrist Yusuf Macheswala said that a second marriage is a traumatic experience for the first wife and in many cases women are never able to overcome the trauma and to lead a normal life again. "I have many cases where the second marriage has led to the loss of the mental balance of the first wife."

The prospering middle class male justifies the second marriage on the ground that "since they can support a second wife and Islam permits it we opt for it." Prof Shahid Naik, 46 (name changed) recently married for a second time. His first spouse is 41, a housewife and of average looks. The second wife, 35, is a school teacher with a modern outlook.

Same is the case of Advocate Wasim Khan, 41 (name changed). His first spouse Nahid, 39, is a housewife. His second wife, 32, is working in an ad agency. "I got emotionally attached to her while working on a social project. I asked permission from my first wife and she refused. But I have the right to marry a second time and I used it," he said.

Advocate Nilofer Akhter said many of the cases she receives are of polygamy without the consent of the first wife. "Some are cases where the husband totally neglects the first wife and devotes maximum attention and resources to the second wife as she is normally younger and good looking," she said.
Even some Islamic organisations in some way or the other promote polygamy. Quite a few members of one of the largest Islamic organisations have more than one wife and they boast about it and propagate polygamy. "Islam permits polygamy and every Muslim who can support more than one wife should opt for polygamy, as it’s an important vehicle of social reforms," said an Islamic leader.

This is one of the myths propagated by the polygamy proponents. Polygamy was a way of life until the Qur'an was revealed 1400 years ago. When the earth was young and under-populated, polygamy was one way of populating it and bringing in the human beings needed to carry out God's plan. By the time the Qur'an was revealed, the world had been sufficiently populated, and the Qur'an put down the first limitations and reservations about polygamy. 

Polygamy is permitted in the Qur'an in the context of marrying widows and orphans, and under strictly observed circumstances which includes the express divine order to do justice to all the wives. Any abuse of this divine permission incurs severe retribution. Thus, although polygamy is permitted by God, it behoves us to examine our circumstances carefully before saying that a particular polygamous relationship is permissible. 

Our perfect example here is the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, himself. Most of his adult life he was married to one wife, Khadijah (herself a widow when she married him), until she died. He had all his children, except one, from Khadijah. Thus, she and her children enjoyed the Prophet's full attention for as long as she was married to him for a long twenty-five years. For all practical purposes, Prophet Muhammad had one wife from the age of 25 to 50. During the remaining 13 years of his life, he married aged widows of his friends who died leaving many children behind. The children needed a home, with a father-figure, and the Prophet provided that. Providing a father-figure to orphans is one of the specific circumstances in support of polygamy mentioned in the Qur'an (4:3). 

Other than marrying widowed mothers of orphans, there were three political marriages in the Prophet's life. His close friends Abu Bakr and Omar insisted that he marry their daughters, Aisha and Hafsah, to establish traditional family ties among them. The third marriage was to Maria the Egyptian who was gifted to him as a political gesture of friendship of those times by the ruler of Egypt. 
This perfect example tells us that a man must give his full attention and loyalty in marriage to his wife and children in order to raise a happy and wholesome family. 

The Qur'an emphasizes the limitations against polygamy in very strong words: "If you fear that you may not be perfectly equitable in treating more than one wife, then you shall be content with one." (4:3); "You cannot be equitable in a polygamous relationship, no matter how hard you try." (4:129).

Advocate Nilofer Akhter reveals that she gets a number of cases where men have totally abandoned their first wives. “The Muslim society does not have any arbitration structure as prescribed by the Qur'an to tackle such issues. Hence Muslim women have no alternative but to approach courts for justice.”

One of the solutions suggested by Advocate Akhter is making Nikahnama more popular and convince qazis and bridegroom to include certain provisions such as restrictions on polygamy and divorce as per the directions given in the Qur'an. "Instead of waiting for any organisation or All India Muslim Personal Law board to approve a nikahnama, it can be taken up at individual levels. I myself have drafted seven individual Nikahnamas for marriages and both the parties willingly gave consent."
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