The Promised Messiahas wrote over 80 books in Arabic, Urdu, and Persian. Excerpts of his collected works have been translated into English and organised by topic. The Review of Religions is pleased to present these excerpts as part of a monthly feature. Here, The Promised Messiahas elaborates on the subject of how women should be treated in Islam. This is the second part of a two-part series.
Extracts from The Essence of Islam, Vol.III, pp. 311-317.
Critics often object that polygamy involves intemperance and monogamy is the ideal system. I am surprised at their needless interference in other people’s affairs. It is well known that Islam permits a man to marry up to four wives at a time; and this is a permission, not a compulsion. Every man and woman is well aware of this doctrine. Women have the right to lay down the condition that the husband will, in no circumstance whatsoever, marry another woman. If this condition is laid down before marriage, the husband will be guilty of breach of contract if he goes on to marry another. But if a woman does not prescribe any such condition, and is content with the law as it is, an outsider has no right to interfere. In such a case, the proverb seems relevant: ‘If the husband and wife are happy, the Qadi [judge] has nothing to do.’
Every sensible person can understand that God has not made polygamy obligatory, He has only declared it lawful. If a husband desires, for some genuine reason, and under Divine law, to avail this permission, and his wife is not happy about it, she has the options to demand divorce, and be rid of this anxiety. And if the other woman, whom he wishes to marry, is not happy, she too has the easy option to decline the offer of such a suitor. No one is under compulsion. But if both women agree to this second marriage, what right then does an Arya [a particular Hindu sect] have to interfere? Does this man propose marriage to the two ladies or to this Arya critic? If a woman agrees to her husband having a second wife, and the latter too is happy with the arrangement, no one has the right to interfere in the matter. This is a matter of human rights. If anyone chooses to have two wives, he doesn’t do God any harm. The only loser is the first or the second wife. If the first wife feels that her rights as a wife will be placed in jeopardy by the second marriage of her husband, she can seek a way out of the situation by demanding a divorce; and should the husband be unwilling to comply with her demand, she can enforce separation through the court. If the prospective second wife considers the situation to be unacceptable, she is the better judge of her own rights and interests.
It is unwarranted and idle to object that justice is compromised in this situation. God Almighty has directed that a husband who has more than one wife should deal equitably with each of them, otherwise he should confine himself to only one wife.
It is mere prejudice and sheer ignorance to suggest that polygamy is resorted to out of a desire for sexual indulgence. I have known people who were inclined towards such indulgence, but were able to save themselves by recourse to the blessed system of polygamy – a system which helps such people to lead virtuous and pious lives. Failing this, many who are carried away by the fierce storm of carnal passions, end up at the doors of women of ill fame, and contract venereal and other dangerous diseases. They indulge openly and covertly in such evil practices to which those who are happily married to two or three wives never succumb. Such people restrain themselves for a short while and then yield suddenly to the fierce onslaught of their passions like the bursting of a dam, whereby vast areas are flooded and ruined.
The truth is that actions are judged by their intentions. Those who feel that by taking a second wife they will be able to live pious lives, or will be saved from sexual promiscuity, or that they will leave behind righteous offspring, such people should certainly have recourse to this sacred institution. In Divine estimation, fornication and lustful ogling are such great sins as destroy all virtue and lead to physical suffering in this very world. One who chooses to have more than one wife in order to hold himself back from sin, wants to become like angels. I know well that this blind world is a victim of false logic and baseless arrogance. Those who are not constantly engaged in search of virtue, and make no plans for achieving it, and do not even pray for it, are like a boil which shines on the surface but contains only pus. Those who lean towards God, and care the least about the reproaches of the world, seek the way of righteousness as a beggar seeks bread. Those who plunge into the blazing fire of calamities for the sake of God, who are ever anguished, whose souls are melted and whose backs are broken by the effort of achieving great goals in the cause of God, He Himself desires that such people should spend some times of the day and night with their beloved wives and draw comfort for their tired and broken selves, so that they may return to their religious duties with renewed vigour. No one understands these things but those who have the knowledge and experience of this path.
—Chashma-e-Ma‘rifat, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 23, pp. 246-248
Equal Treatment of Wives
Apart from the degree of love one has for them, a man must treat all his wives equally, for example, in the matter of clothing, food, pocket money and companionship and even in bed. If one were to realize fully all the obligations in this regard, he would prefer to remain celibate rather than to marry. Only a person who spends his life under the constant admonition of God Almighty can hope to fulfil all these obligations. It is a thousand times better to live a life of hardship than to indulge in such pleasures as are likely to invoke Divine chastisement. We permit polygamy only to save a person from falling into sin, and the Islamic law allows it only as a remedy. If a person finds that he is moved and overwhelmed by thoughts about sex and his glances are persistently laden with sexual desire, he had better have a second wife to save himself from adultery. But he must not usurp the rights of the first wife. The Torah also lays down that in such a case the husband should be all the more solicitous and caring about his first wife with whom he has spent the greater part of his youth and established a deep relationship.
A husband should have such regard and respect for the feelings of his first wife, that if he feels the need of a second wife, but is afraid that it would hurt his first wife and break her heart, in such a case, if he can exercise restraint without falling into sin and without sacrificing his lawful needs, it would be preferable for him to forego the advantages of a second marriage for the sake of comforting his first wife…
I set forth whatever God Almighty has given me to understand in this context. The reason why the Holy Qur’an permits more than one wife is that you earn the pleasure of God by holding fast to taqwa [righteousness] and by other means such as begetting pious offspring, looking after the near of kin and fulfilling the obligations owed to them. For the achievement of this purpose, marriage is permitted with as many as four women at one time, but if you feel that you may not be able to maintain equality between them you should confine yourselves to one wife, as in such cases marrying more then one would be disobedience and a cause of punishment rather than a source of merit…It is a great sin to hurt somebody’s feelings, and female sentiments are very delicate. Just imagine for a moment all the hopes and expectations of the girl when she leaves her parents and is consigned to the care of another man. We can understand their feelings through the Divine injunction:
Consort with them in kindness [The Holy Qur’an, 4:20].
…The law of God Almighty should not be used contrary to its purpose, nor should it be invoked to serve as a shield for self-indulgence. To do so would be a great sin. God Almighty has repeatedly admonished against yielding to carnal passions. Righteousness alone should be your motive for everything.
—Malfuzat, vol. 7, pp. 63-65
Islam and the Rights of Women
No other religion has safeguarded the rights of women as Islam has done. It lays down the injunction so succinctly:
‘Just as men have rights upon women, so do women have rights upon men.’
It is said of some people that they treat their wives like shoes and require them to perform the lowliest of services. They abuse them and despise them and enforce the injunction regarding the veil with such harshness, as to virtually bury them alive. The relationship between a husband and wife should be like two true and sincere friends. After all, it is the wife who is the primary witness of a man’s high moral qualities and his relationship with God Almighty. If his relationship with his wife is not good, how can he be at peace with God? The Holy Prophetsa has said:
‘The best among you is he who is best towards his wife’.
Importance of Inculcating Piety in Ahmadi Women
It is incumbent upon the members of my Jama‘at that they should inculcate piety in their women in order to ensure their own piety, otherwise they will be guilty of a sin. If a wife is in a position to point out the shortcomings of her husband to his face, how can she have fear of God? If the parents are not righteous, their children would not be pure. Piety of children requires a long line of virtues; without it, the children would be bad.
Therefore, the men should repent and should set a good example for the women. A woman keeps a watchful eye on her husband, and a man cannot hide his faults from her. Moreover, women are wise without showing it. Do not ever think that they are fools. In a subtle way, they are influenced by everything you do. If the husband is righteous, she will not only be respectful to him but also to God…. The wives of the Prophets and the righteous were pious, because they were the recipients of their husbands’ benign influence. The wives of the wicked and vicious are also like their husbands. How can the wife of a thief ever think of getting up to pray Tahajjud in the latter part of the night, when she knows that her husband has gone to steal. This is why it is said:
Men are guardians over women [The Holy Qur’an, 4:35].
Women are influenced by their husbands. To the extent that a husband excels in piety and righteousness, his wife will also partake of it. Similarly, if the husband is wicked, the wife too will share his evil.
—Malfuzat, vol. 5, pp 217-218
If you desire to reform your own selves, it is essential that you also seek to reform your women. Women are the root of idol worship, for they are naturally devoted to decoration and ornaments. This is why idolatry started with women. They are also less courageous. Under the slightest stress of hardship, they begin to cringe before their fellow creatures. Hence those who are completely under the influence of their women gradually acquire their characteristics. It is, therefore, necessary to constantly try to reform them. God Almighty says:
Men are guardians over women [The Holy Qur’an, 4:35].
This is why men have been bestowed greater faculties than women. One marvels at the modern man who insists on the equality of the sexes and asserts that men and women have equal rights. Let these people raise armies of women and send them into battle and see the result for themselves. How would a pregnant woman discharge her duties in the battlefield? In short, women have fewer and weaker faculties than men. Men should, therefore, keep them under their care.
—Malfuzat, vol. 7, pp. 133-34
Noble Example of the Wives of the Holy Prophetsa
No one can claim a higher status than that of the wives of the Holy Prophetsa Yet they performed all domestic chores and swept their chambers. With all that, they were also diligent in worship, so much so that one of them had invented a method to keep herself from dozing off during worship. One part of a woman’s worship is to discharge her duty to her husband and the other is to offer her gratitude to God.
—Malfuzat, vol. 6, p. 53