A Poly Paradise – Earthly Wives, Celestial Brides, Oh My!
THE ḤÛR AL-ʿÎN are most certainly one of the most contentious issues for Muslim women, and a source of downright glee for many men.
While many women ask, “What do we get in Jannah?” – which is a valid question that certainly deserves to be addressed – it is, to be blunt, merely an aside to the true crux of the matter.
That core issue is, of course, polygamy.
Polygamy in and of itself is a fraught issue amongst Muslims. On the one hand, it is clear in the Quran and Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ that it is recognized as a legitimate, permissible form of marriage in Islam. Classical scholarship discusses and confirms the rights of Muslim women not merely in general, but specifically within the context of marriage – including polygamous marriage.
On the other hand, however, there is undeniable reality: a reality where the theories of Islamic law do not necessarily translate into real life. Polygamy has been, and continues to be, misused by Muslim men and has thus resulted in the gross abuse of Muslim women. Islamic rulings about fiqh are twisted and technicalities exploited as an excuse, in many cases, for men to avoid taking full responsibility for their actions – which in turn are driven largely by their desires and not necessarily by noble intentions or even basic honesty.
However, that is not to say that the widely-known problems surrounding polygamy as practiced by many Muslims are problems exclusive to polygamy or even to Muslims. Rather, while the behaviors may be dressed up or justified using Islamic terms, the truth is that the motivations behind those actions are purely human. Just as there are those who abuse the institution of monogamy, the problem is not with monogamy itself, but rather, with the individuals.
What is it about polygamy that makes so many women upset? Is it the idea of sharing their husband physically with another woman (or multiple women)? Is it about feeling that one doesn’t have an exclusive relationship – including emotionally – with her husband? Is it more about the common stories of abuse, or even simple irresponsibility and ineptness by many men who engage in polygamy? Or is there, perhaps, a bias through which we are viewing this entire issue that we ourselves do not even recognize?
On the Other Side of the Rainbow
Polygamy is not exclusive to Islam or Muslims. Globally and historically, polygamy has existed as an institution of marriage, wherein a man has married more than one woman and has been committed to them physically, emotionally, and financially. Polygamy differs from promiscuity in that, rather than engaging in short-term multiple relationships that are based on a largely sexual foundation, polygamy demands that the husband be committed and responsible.
From a worldview which views and encourages fidelitous relationships as necessary to a healthy society, polygamy is by far preferable to short-term relationships which do not foster strong family units. In short – marriage of any type, whether monogamous or polygamous – is considered infinitely more desirable than zina of any type.
What is peculiarly interesting about how polygamy is viewed today, and in particular in Western countries – both those with a strong Judeo-Christian history and those which are primarily secular and liberal – is that there is a huge disconnect with history and with a consistent moral framework.
Despite LGBTQ+ rights being championed around the world, and pride being taken in understanding and supporting ‘liberal’ values, polygamy continues to be viewed as something negative and shameful. For all that certain groups claim that they support ‘love’ and that it shouldn’t be restricted by race or gender, they conveniently ignore that polygamy involves consenting adults (for the most part). Those who say that polygamy is the cause of abuse, forced marriage, child marriage, and other such problems are deliberately conflating issues. Abuse, forced marriage, and child marriage all exist outside of polygamy, and are not unique to it.
It is strange to me that so many people, including Muslims, do in fact try to ‘prove’ how liberal and ‘enlightened’ they are by actively supporting something such as homosexuality, yet have such a strong kneejerk reaction to polygamy – which, unlike homosexuality, is permissible in Islam.
The blunt truth is that when individuals question things such as polygamy (or the Hûr Al-ʿÎn ) in Islam, they view themselves as being objective – when in truth they are themselves biased and influenced by the prevailing attitudes and mentalities of their time and culture.
It’s very easy to claim objectivity, but no one is truly objective. Values and morals change over time, and dramatically over a period of time as short as a decade. One need look no further than Western cultures to recognize how the moral norms of society have changed drastically: as early as 60 years ago, men and women as young as their mid-teens got married and it was not considered an intolerable problem; homosexuality was, as in every monotheistic religion, reviled and considered unacceptable, and public support was nearly non-existent. Today, it’s widely considered ‘normal’ for twelve-year-olds to engage in sexual experimentation but inappropriate for seventeen-year-olds to get married, while gay marriage has been legalized in Canada, the United States, and numerous other countries.
The great wisdom behind Divine Law, the Sharîʿah of Allah, is that as our Creator has set down a set of general (and often specific) morals and values that do not change based on people’s whims and desires. In the Sharîʿah, we have standards and codes of conduct that reinforce morals that are non-negotiable. Modesty, marital fidelity, and a zero-tolerance policy on zina of any type are examples of these values.
Once again related to the curious dichotomy between the modern-day secular, liberal agenda and the perception of polygamy, is that the liberal movement claims to be enlightened regarding the meaning of ‘love’ – yet does not extend that to polygamy.
Instead, we have people across the world affected by the primarily Judeo-Christian ideal of monogamous love: the idea that there is only one woman for one man; that romantic love is restricted to that single relationship alone; that love is limited and confined.
Why is that we are so resistant towards changing our perception of love? Why do we feel that love is something limited and quantified; that to love one individual means being incapable of loving another? Why do we feel that to have our husbands love another woman, takes away his love from us? What about loving for your loved one to be loved – to experience happiness simply in the knowledge that your loved one is happy?
Of course, the answers to much of that lies within understanding how the prominence of certain ideologies have resulted in the change of lifestyles, worldviews and perception of concepts such as love, marriage, and family.
In fact, I truly believe that the normalization of the nuclear family unit, as opposed to an extended family network that includes and incorporates polygamy, is largely responsible for the attitude that views polygamy as something innately harmful.
One counter-argument regarding polygamy often is – if it’s okay and ‘normal’ for men to be polygamous, why is it not so for women? Aren’t the same justifications for polygamous men applicable to women who incline towards the same?
The truth is, once again, harsh to some. Allah tells us clearly that “wa laysa al-dhakara ka al-untha.” The male is not like the female. Islam itself recognizes innate differences – biological, psychological, and social – and has a vast array of different rulings for the genders. However, with emotional capability to love put aside (and there are certainly some valid points regarding women’s emotional bandwidth compared to men), one very simple reason for the fact that polyandry is prohibited in Islam is because of paternity.
Access to technology such as DNA analysis is both extremely recent and privileged; the vast majority of people in the world cannot get a paternity test easily or immediately. Lineage through the father is taken very seriously in Islam, and the prohibition of polyandry is related to that.
Sharing is Caring
Though so many people are hung up on the idea of sharing their husbands with the Hûr Al-ʿÎn, one point which is particularly fascinating is actually about the fact that out of the spouses whom a man will have in Jannah, two of them will be human wives.
In Sûrat Al-Wâqʿiah, Allah describes the women of Jannah in the following terms:
Indeed, We have produced the women of Paradise in a [new] creation; and made them virgins, beloved (by nature), equal in age… [Sûrat Al-Wâqiʿah, 56:35-37]
As evidenced by the ḥadîth of the Prophet ﷺ (introduced in Part 1), Abû Hurairah narrated that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:
Every man in heaven will go to seventy-two of the creatures of Allah (houris) and two of the women of mankind. These two (human, believing) women are superior to the creatures of Allah (houris) with their worshipping (good deeds) which they had performed in this world. (Bayhaqi, Al-Baʿth wa Al-Nushûr; Ṭabari, Tafsir; Abû Yaʿla, Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ Al-Bâri; Ṭabarâni; and others)
These verses refer not to the Hûr Al-ʿÎn (houris), but to the human believing women.
In particular, verse 37 of Sûrat Al-Wâqiʿah stands out: ʿUruban atrâban. While the word atrâban is translated as ‘equal in age,’ there are other linguistic nuances to the word. In Nouman Ali Khan’s linguistic analysis of the verse, he points out that the word atrâban is related to the word turâb – dust, dirt, that original source material from which every human being has been created. More specifically, the implication of the word is not merely that these women are made from dust (ergo, they are human beings), but that they are made from the same dust as their spouses, a symbolic reference. In essence, they will be perfect and compatible for their spouses in every way: true soul mates.
In addition, the following ḥadîth further describes these women:
It is reported that some people stated with a sense of pride and some discussed whether there would be more men in Paradise or more women. It was upon this that Abû Hurairah reported that the Prophet ﷺ said:
The (members) of the first group to get into Paradise would have their faces as bright as the full moon during the night, and the next to this group would have their faces as bright as the shining stars in the sky, and every person would have two wives and the marrow of their shanks would glimmer beneath the flesh and there would be none without a wife in Paradise. There would be no dissension amongst them and no enmity in their hearts. Their hearts would be like one heart, glorifying Allah morning and evening. (Muslim)
Considering the way this ḥadîth is phrased – with the description of the believers in general coming first, and then specifying the women – it could be said that the final phrase regarding the hearts is also describing the women in particular.
How incredible would it be if our co-wives in Jannah are not merely soul mates to our husbands, but our kindred spirits as well?
So Many Questions, Never Enough Answers
This look at polygamy and our attitudes towards it – whether on this Earth or in Jannah – is by no means exhaustive or perfect. It is a small attempt to look into why we feel so strongly about it, and there are further points that will continue to be addressed in future parts, inshâ’Allah.
Nor are the sentiments put forth in this article meant to invalidate the questions and emotions many people have regarding this sensitive topic. It is recognized that for every individual, there will be issues that are troubling and which they find problematic. Ultimately, it is impossible for a fellow human being to provide answers that are tailored to and satisfy each and every person. What is difficult for one person to process may be very simple for another; the perspective which provides contentment to one individual may cause further discomfort for another.
In the end, we are all on a journey towards Jannah itself. That path has difficulties for us all, and those challenges must be expected – for Allah Himself tells us:
Or do you think that you will enter Paradise while Allah has not yet tested those of you who fight in His cause and made evident those who are steadfast? [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:142]
Perhaps one of the greatest tests of us all is that we do not allow our own weaknesses and question to commit one of the greatest sins: to question Allah by demanding explanations of His choices or questioning His wisdom.
He is not questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned. [Sûrat Al-Anbiyâ’, 21:23]