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For polygamy in plants, see Plant reproductive morphology. For polygamy in animals, see Animal sexual behaviour#Polygamy and polygyny.

  Polygyny permitted and practiced.
  Legal status unknown or ambiguous.
  Polygyny generally illegal, but its practice not fully criminalised.
  Polygamy fully outlawed and abolished and its practice fully criminalised.
  • In India, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Eritrea, polygamy is only legal for Muslims.
  • In Mauritius, polygamous unions have no legal recognition. Muslim men may, however, “marry” up to four women, but they do not have the legal status of wives.

Polygamy (from Late Greek πολυγαμία, polygamia, “state of marriage to many spouses” or “frequent marriage”)[1][2][3][4] is a marriage that includes more than two partners and falls under the broader category of polyamory.[5][6] When a man is married to more than one wife at a time, the relationship is called polygyny; and when a woman is married to more than one husband at a time, it is called polyandry. If a marriage includes multiple husbands and wives, it can be called polyamory,[7] group or conjoint marriage.[6] The term is used in related ways in social anthropology, sociology, as well as in popular speech. In contrast, monogamy is a marriage consisting of only two parties. Like monogamy, the term polygamy is often used in a de factosense, applied regardless of whether the relationship is recognized by the state.[n 1] Insociobiology and zoology, polygamy is used in a broad sense to mean any form of multiplemating.

In countries that do not permit polygamy, a person who marries a second person while still being lawfully married is committing the crime of bigamy.

Globally, acceptance of polygamy is common. According to the Ethnographic Atlas, of 1,231 societies noted, 186 were monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry.[8] At the same time, even within societies that allow polygyny, the actual practice of polygyny occurs unevenly. There are exceptions: in Senegal, for example, nearly 47 percent of marriages are multiple.[9] Within polygynous societies, multiple wives often become a status symbol denoting wealth, power, and fame.

Zeitzen states that Western perceptions of African society and marriage patterns are biased by “contradictory concerns of nostalgia for traditional African culture versus critique of polygamy as oppressive to women or detrimental to development.”[10] Many international human rights organisations as well as women’s rights groups in many countries have called for its abolition. The practice has been ruled to violate the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and the United Nations has recommended that the practice be abolished.[11][12][13][14][15]

Forms of polygamy[edit]

Polygamy exists in three specific forms: polygyny – wherein a man has multiple simultaneous wives; polyandry – wherein a woman has multiple simultaneous husbands; or group marriage – wherein the family unit consists of multiple husbands and multiple wives. Anthropologists treat serial monogamy, in which divorce and remarriage occur, as a form of polygamy as it also establishes a series of households that continue to be tied by shared paternity and shared income.[16] Ambiguity may arise when the broad term “polygamy” is used with reference to a specific form of polygamy. Additionally, different countries may or may not include all forms in their laws on polygamy.


Main article: Polygyny


Prince Manga Bell and favorite wives

Anthropologist Jack Goody‘s comparative study of marriage around the world utilizing the Ethnographic Atlas demonstrated an historical correlation between the practice of extensive shifting horticulture and polygamy in the majority of Sub-Saharan African societies.[17] Drawing on the work of Ester Boserup, Goody notes that the sexual division of labour varies between the male dominated intensive plough agriculture common in Eurasia and the extensive shifting horticulture found in sub-Saharan Africa. In some of the sparsely populated regions where shifting cultivation takes place in Africa, most of the work is done by women. This favoured polygamous marriages in which men sought to monopolize the production of women “who are valued both as workers and as child bearers. Goody however, observes that the correlation is imperfect and varied. He also discusses more male dominated but relatively extensive farming systems such as those that exist in much of West Africa, in particular the West African savannah, where polygyny is desired more for the creation of sons whose labor is valued. “[18][19]

Goody’s observation regarding African male farming systems is discussed and supported by anthropologists Douglas R. White and Michael L. Burton in in “Causes of Polygyny: Ecology, Economy, Kinship, and Warfare” [20] where authors note: “Goody (1973) argues against the female contributions hypothesis. He notes Dorjahn’s (1959) comparison of East and West Africa, showing higher female agricultural contributions in East Africa and higher polygyny rates in West Africa, especially in the West African savannah, where one finds especially high male agricultural contributions. Goody says, “The reasons behind polygyny are sexual and reproductive rather than economic and productive” (1973:189), arguing that men marry polygynously to maximize their fertility and to obtain large households containing many young dependent males.”[21]


Polygynous marriages can be distinguished between sororal polygyny, in which the co-wives are sisters, and non-sororal, where the co-wives are not related. For men, the benefits of polygyny are that it allows them to have more children, may provide them with more productive workers (where workers are family), and allows them to establish politically useful ties with a greater number of kin groups. Polygyny is also associated with a greater age gap between husbands and wives, as men must marry younger girls for their second wives. This leaves younger men without wives for longer periods.[22]

Polygyny may also result from the practice of levirate marriage. In such cases, the deceased man’s heir may inherit his assets and wife; or, more usually, his brothers may marry the widow. This provides support for the widow and her children (usually also members of the brothers’ kin group) and maintains the tie between the husband and wives’ kin groups. The sororate is like the levirate, in that a widower must marry the sister of his dead wife. The wife’s family, in other words, must provide a replacement for her thus maintaining the ties between them. Both levirate and sororate may result in a man having multiple wives.[23]

Some polygynous marriages are same-sex. In some societies such as the Lovedu in South Africa, aristocratic women who can afford to pay bridewealth in cattle can take wives and assume male political roles. Such a marriage could also be considered polyandrous since the main spouse is a woman.[22]

Even in monogamous societies, wealthy and powerful men established enduring relationships, and established separate household for, multiple female partners. This is a form of de facto polygyny that is also referred to as concubinage, or resource polygyny.[24]

Household organization[edit]

Marriage is the moment at which a new household is formed, but different arrangements may occur depending upon the type of marriage. Not all polygamous marriages result in the formation of a single household.

Polygynous matrifocal households[edit]

In many polygynous marriages the husband’s wives may live in separate households, often at a great distance. They can thus be described as a “series of linked nuclear families with a ‘father’ in common.”[25] As such, they are similar to the household formations created through divorce and serial monogamy.

Polygynous extended family households[edit]



Polyandry is a practice wherein a woman has more than one husband at the same time. Polyandry is believed to be more likely in societies with scarce environmental resources, as it is believed to limit human population growth and enhance child survival.[26] It is a rare form of marriage that exists not only among poor families, but also the elite.[27] For example, in the Himalayan Mountains polyandry is related to the scarcity of land; the marriage of all brothers in a family to the same wife allows family land to remain intact and undivided. If every brother married separately and had children, family land would be split into unsustainable small plots. In Europe, this was prevented through the social practice of impartible inheritance (the disinheriting of most siblings, many who went on to become celibate monks and priests).[28]


Fraternal polyandry was traditionally practiced among nomadic Tibetans in Nepal, parts of China and part of northern India, in which two or more brothers are married to the same wife, with the wife having equal ‘sexual access’ to them. It is most common in egalitarian societies marked by high male mortality or male absenteeism. It is associated with partible paternity, the cultural belief that a child can have more than one father.[29]

Non-fraternal polyandry occurs when the wives’ husbands are unrelated, as among the Nayar of India. In this case, a woman undergoes a ritual marriage before puberty, and he is acknowledged as the father of all her children. She, however, may never cohabit with him, taking multiple lovers instead; these men must acknowledge the paternity of their children (and hence demonstrate that no caste prohibitions have been breeched) by paying the midwife. The women remain in their maternal home, living with their brothers, and property is passed matrilineally.[30] A similar form of matrilineal, de facto polyandry can be found in the institution of walking marriage among the Mosuo of China.

Serial monogamy[edit]

Serial monogamy refers to remarriage after death or divorce, i.e. multiple marriages but only one legal spouse at a time.


Many societies that we consider monogamous in fact allow easy divorce. In many western countries divorce rates approach 50%. Those who remarry do so on average 3 times. Divorce and remarriage can thus result in serial monogamy. This can be interpreted as a form of plural mating, as are those societies dominated by female-headed families in the Caribbean, Mauritius and Brazil where there is frequent rotation of unmarried spouses. In all these account for 16 to 24% of the “monogamous” category.[31]

Matrifocal households[edit]

Serial monogamy creates a new kind of relative, the “ex-“. The “ex-wife”, for example, remains an active part of her “ex-husband’s” life, as they may be tied together by transfers of resources (alimony, child support), or shared child custody. Bob Simpson notes that in the British case, serial monogamy creates an “extended family” – a number of households tied together in this way, including mobile children (Simpson notes, you may have an ex-wife, an ex-brother-in-law, etc., but not an “ex-child”). These “unclear families” do not fit the mould of the monogamous nuclear family. As a series of connected households, they come to resemble the polygynous model of separate households maintained by mothers with children, tied by a male to whom they are married.[32]

Group marriage[edit]

Main article: Group marriage

Group marriage is a marriage wherein the family unit consists of more than two partners, any of whom share parental responsibility for any children arising from the marriage.[33] Group marriage is a form of non-monogamy and polyamory.

Contemporary religious attitudes to polygamy[edit]


In Buddhism, marriage is not a sacrament. It is purely a secular affair and the monks do not participate in it, though in some sects priests and monks do marry. Hence it receives no religious sanction.[34] Forms of marriage consequently vary from country to country. It is said in the Parabhava Sutta that “a man who is not satisfied with one woman and seeks out other women is on the path to decline”. Other fragments in the Buddhist scripture can be found that seem to treat polygamy unfavorably, leading some authors to conclude that Buddhism generally does not approve of it[35] or alternatively that it is a tolerated, but subordinate marital model.[36]

Until 2010 polygyny was legally recognized in Thailand. In Burma, polygyny was also frequent. In Sri Lanka, polyandry was practiced (though not widespread) until recent times.[34] When the Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese, the concubines of others were added to the list of inappropriate partners. Polyandry in Tibetas well was common traditionally, as was polygyny, and having several wives or husbands was never regarded as having sex with inappropriate partners.[37] Tibet is home to the largest and most flourishing polyandrous community in the world today. Most typically, fraternal polyandry is practiced, but sometimes father and son have a common wife, which is a unique family structure in the world. Other forms of marriage are also present, like group marriage and monogamous marriage.[38]Polyandry (especially fraternal polyandry) is also common among Buddhists in Bhutan, Ladakh, and other parts of the Indian subcontinent.

Celtic traditions[edit]

Some pre-Christian Celtic pagans were known to practice polygamy, although the Celtic peoples wavered between it, monogamy and polyandry depending on the time period and area.[39] In some areas this continued even after Christianisation began, for instance the Brehon Laws of Gaelic Ireland explicitly allowed for polygamy,[40][41] especially amongst the noble class.[42] Some modern Celtic pagan religions accept the practice of polygamy to varying degrees,[43] though how widespread the practice is within these religions is unknown.


The Bible states in the New Testament that polygamy should not be practiced [by certain church leaders]. 1 Timothy states that certain Church leaders should have but one wife: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach” (chapter 3, verse 2; see also verse 12 regarding deacons having only one wife). Similar counsel is repeated in the first chapter of the Epistle to Titus.[44]

Periodically, Christian reform movements that have aimed at rebuilding Christian doctrine based on the Bible alone (sola scriptura) have at least temporarily accepted polygyny as a Biblical practice. For example, during the Protestant Reformation, in a document referred to simply as “Der Beichtrat” (or “The Confessional Advice” ),[45] Martin Luther granted the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who, for many years, had been living “constantly in a state of adultery and fornication,”[46] a dispensation to take a second wife. The double marriage was to be done in secret, however, to avoid public scandal.[47] Some fifteen years earlier, in a letter to the Saxon Chancellor Gregor Brück, Luther stated that he could not “forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict Scripture.” (“Ego sane fateor, me non posse prohibere, si quis plures velit uxores ducere, nec repugnat sacris literis.“)[48]

“On February 14, 1650, the parliament at Nürnberg decreed that, because so many men were killed during the Thirty Years’ War, the churches for the following ten years could not admit any man under the age of 60 into a monastery. Priests and ministers not bound by any monastery were allowed to marry. Lastly, the decree stated that every man was allowed to marry up to ten women. The men were admonished to behave honorably, provide for their wives properly, and prevent animosity among them.”[49][50][51][52][53][54]

The trend towards frequent divorce and remarriage is sometimes referred to as ‘serial polygamy’.[55] In contrast, others may refer to this as ‘serial monogamy‘, since it is a series of monogamous relationships.[56] The first term highlights the multiplicity of marriages throughout the life-cycle, the second the non-simultaneous nature of these marriages.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there has often been a tension between the Christian churches’ insistence on monogamy and traditional polygamy. In some instances in recent times there have been moves for accommodation; in other instances, churches have resisted such moves strongly. African Independent Churches have sometimes referred to those parts of the Old Testament that describe polygamy in defending the practice.

Roman Catholic Church[edit]

The Roman Catholic Church condemns polygamy; the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists it in paragraph 2387 under the head “Other offenses against the dignity of marriage” and states that it “is not in accord with the moral law.” Also in paragraph 1645 under the head “The Goods and Requirements of Conjugal Love” states “The unity of marriage, distinctly recognized by our Lord, is made clear in the equal personal dignity which must be accorded to husband and wife in mutual and unreserved affection. Polygamy is contrary to conjugal love which is undivided and exclusive.”

Saint Augustine saw a conflict with Old Testament polygamy. He refrained from judging the patriarchs, but did not deduce from their practice the ongoing acceptability of polygyny. On the contrary, he argued that the polygamy of the Fathers, which was tolerated by the Creator because of fertility, was a diversion from His original plan for human marriage. Augustine wrote: That the good purpose of marriage, however, is better promoted by one husband with one wife, than by a husband with several wives, is shown plainly enough by the very first union of a married pair, which was made by the Divine Being Himself.[57]

Augustine taught that the reason patriarchs had many wives was not because of fornication, but because they wanted more children. He supported his premise by showing that their marriages, in which husband was the head, were arranged according to the rules of good management: those who are in command (quae principantur) in their society were always singular, while subordinates (subiecta) were multiple. He gave two examples of such relationships: dominus-servus – master-servant (in older translation: slave) and God-soul. The Bible often equates worshiping multiple gods, i.e. idolatry to fornication.[58] Augustine relates to that:On this account there is no True God of souls, save One: but one soul by means of many false gods may commit fornication, but not be made fruitful.[59]

As tribal populations grew, fertility was no longer a valid justification of polygamy: it was lawful among the ancient fathers: whether it be lawful now also, I would not hastily pronounce (utrum et nunc fas sit, non temere dixerim). For there is not now necessity of begetting children, as there then was, when, even when wives bear children, it was allowed, in order to a more numerous posterity, to marry other wives in addition, which now is certainly not lawful.”[60]

Augustine saw marriage as a non-sacrament-friendly covenant between one man and one woman, which may not be broken. It was the Creator who established monogamy: Therefore the first natural bond of human society is man and wife.[61] Such marriage was confirmed by the Saviour in the Gospel of Matthew (Mat 19,9) and by His presence at the wedding in Cana (John 2:2).[62] In the Church—the City of God—marriage is a sacrament and may not and cannot be dissolved as long as the spouses live: But a marriage once for all entered upon in the City of our God, where, even from the first union of the two, the man and the woman, marriage bears a certain sacramental character, can in no way be dissolved but by the death of one of them..[63] In chapter 7, Augustine pointed out that the Roman Empire forbad polygamy, even if the reason of fertility would support it: For it is in a man’s power to put away a wife that is barren, and marry one of whom to have children. And yet it is not allowed; and now indeed in our times, and after the usage of Rome (nostris quidem iam temporibus ac more Romano), neither to marry in addition, so as to have more than one wife living. Further on he notices that the Church’s attitude goes much further than the secular law regarding monogamy: It forbids re-marrying, considering such to be a form of fornication: And yet, save in the City of our God, in His Holy Mount, the case is not such with the wife. But, that the laws of the Gentiles are otherwise, who is there that knows not .[64]

In modern times a minority of Roman Catholic theologians have argued that polygamy, though not ideal, can be a legitimate form of Christian marriage in certain regions, in particular Africa.[65][66] The Roman Catholic Church teaches in its Catechism that

“polygamy is not in accord with the moral law. [Conjugal] communion is radically contradicted by polygamy; this, in fact, directly negates the plan of God that was revealed from the beginning, because it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive.”[67]

The illegality of polygamy in certain areas creates, according to certain Bible passages, additional arguments against it. Paul of Tarsus writes “submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience” (Romans 13:5), for “the authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1) St Peter concurs when he says to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” (1 Peter 2:13,14) Pro-polygamists argue that, as long as polygamists currently do not obtain legal marriage licenses nor seek “common law marriage status” for additional spouses, no enforced laws are being broken any more than when monogamous couples similarly co-habitate without a marriage license.[68]

Latter Day Saint Movement[edit]

The history of Mormonism and polygamy (specifically polygyny) began with Joseph Smith, who stated he received a revelation on July 17, 1831 that “plural marriage” should be practiced by some Mormon men who were specifically commanded to do so. This was later published in the Doctrine and Covenants by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church).[69] Despite Smith’s revelation, the 1835 edition of the 101st Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, written after the doctrine of plural marriage began to be practiced, publicly condemned polygamy. This scripture was used by John Taylor in 1850 to quash Mormon polygamy rumors in Liverpool, England.[70] Polygamy was made illegal in the state of Illinois[71] during the 1839–44 Nauvoo era when several top Mormon leaders, including Smith,[72][73] Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball took multiple wives. Mormon elders who publicly taught that all men were commanded to enter plural marriage were subject to harsh discipline.[74] On June 7, 1844 the Nauvoo Expositorcriticized Smith for plural marriage.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church)[edit]

After Joseph Smith was killed by a mob on June 27, 1844, the main body of Latter Day Saints left Nauvoo and followed Brigham Young to Utah where the practice of plural marriage continued.[75] In 1852 Brigham Young, the secondpresident of the LDS Church, publicly acknowledged the practice of plural marriage through a sermon he gave. Additional sermons by top Mormon leaders on the virtues of polygamy followed.[76]:128 Controversy followed when polygamy became a social cause, writers began to publish works condemning polygamy. The key plank of theRepublican Party‘s 1856 platform was “to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery”.[77] In 1862, Congress issued the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act which clarified that the practice of polygamy was illegal in all US territories. The LDS Church believed that their religiously based practice of plural marriage was protected by the United States Constitution,[78] however, the unanimous 1878 Supreme Court decision Reynolds v. United States declared that polygamy was not protected by the Constitution, based on the longstanding legal principle that “laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.”[79]

Increasingly harsh anti-polygamy legislation in the US led some Mormons to emigrate to Canada and Mexico. In 1890, LDS Church president Wilford Woodruffissued a public declaration (the Manifesto) announcing that the LDS Church had discontinued new plural marriages. Anti-Mormon sentiment waned, as did opposition to statehood for Utah. The Smoot Hearings in 1904, which documented that the LDS Church was still practicing polygamy spurred the LDS Church to issue a Second Manifesto again claiming that it had ceased performing new plural marriages. By 1910 the LDS Church excommunicated those who entered into, or performed, new plural marriages. Even so, many plural husbands and wives continued to cohabit until their deaths in the 1940s and 1950s.[80]

Enforcement of the 1890 Manifesto caused various splinter groups to leave the LDS Church in order to continue the practice of plural marriage.[81] Polygamy among these groups persists today in Utah and neighboring states as well as in the spin-off colonies. Polygamist churches of Mormon origin are often referred to as “Mormon fundamentalist” even though they are not a part of the LDS Church. Such fundamentalists often use a purported 1886 revelation to John Taylor as the basis for their authority to continue the practice of plural marriage.[82] The Salt Lake Tribune stated in 2005 there were as many as 37,000 fundamentalists with less than half of them living in polygamous households.[83]

On December 13, 2013, US Federal Judge Clark Waddoups ruled in Brown v. Buhman that the portions of Utah’s anti-polygamy laws which prohibit multiplecohabitation were unconstitutional, but also allowed Utah to maintain its ban on multiple marriage licenses.[84][85][86][87] Unlawful cohabitation, where prosecutors did not need to prove that a marriage ceremony had taken place (only that a couple had lived together), had been the primary tool used to prosecute polygamy in Utah since the 1882 Edmunds Act.[80]

Mormon fundamentalism[edit]

The Council of Friends (also known as the Woolley Group and the Priesthood Council)[88][89] was one of the original expressions of Mormon fundamentalism, having its origins in the teachings of Lorin C. Woolley, a dairy farmer excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1924. Several Mormon fundamentalist groups claim lineage through the Council of Friends, including but not limited to, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church), the Apostolic United Brethren, the Centennial Park group, the Latter Day Church of Christ, and the Righteous Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Community of Christ[edit]

The Community of Christ, known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS Church) prior to 2001, has never sanctioned polygamy since its foundation in 1872. Joseph Smith III, the first Prophet-President of the RLDS Church following the Reorganized of the church, was an ardent opponent of the practice of plural marriage throughout his life. For most of his career, Smith denied that his father had been involved in the practice and insisted that it had originated with Brigham Young. Smith served many missions to the western United States where he met with and interviewed associates and women claiming to be widows of his father, who attempted to present him with evidence to the contrary. In the end, Smith concluded that he was “not positive nor sure that [his father] was innocent”[90] and that if, indeed, the elder Smith had been involved, it was still a false practice. However, many members of the Community of Christ, and some of the groups that were formerly associated with it are still not convinced that Joseph Smith III’s father did indeed engage in plural marriage, and feel that the evidence that he did so is largely flawed.[91][92]


The Rig Veda mentions that during the Vedic period, a man could have more than one wife.[93] The practice is attested in epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Dharmashastras permit a man to marry women of lower castes provided that the first wife was of equal caste. Despite its existence, it was most usually practiced by men of higher castes and higher status. Common people were only allowed a second marriage if the first wife could not bear a son.[94]

According to Vishnu Smriti, the number of wives is linked to the caste system:

Now a Brāhmaṇa may take four wives in the direct order of the (four) castes;
A Kshatriya, three;.
A Vaishya, two
A Shudra, one only[95]

This linkage of permissibe number of wives to the caste system is also supported by Baudhayana Dharmasutra and Paraskara Grihyasutra.[96][97]

The Apastamba Dharmasutra and Manusmriti allow a second wife if the first one is unable to discharge her religious duties or is unable to bear a son.[96]

For a Brahmana, only one wife could rank as the chief consort who performed the religious rites (dharma-patni) along with the husband. The chief consort had to be of an equal caste. If a man married several women from the same caste, then eldest wife is the chief consort.[98] Hindu kings commonly had more than one wife and are regularly attributed four wives by the scriptures. They were: Mahisi who was the chief consort, Parivrkti who had no son, Vaivata who is considered to be the favorite wife and the Palagali who was the daughter of the last of the court officials.[93]

The other practice though not well documented is polyandry, where a woman marries more than one man. Draupadi in the epic Mahabharat had 5 husbands – the Pandavas.

In the post-Vedic periods, polygamy declined in Hinduism, and is now considered immoral.[99] Traditional Hindu law allowed polygamy if the first wife could not bear a son.[100]

The Hindu Marriage Act was enacted in 1955 by the Indian Parliament and made polygamy in any form illegal in India. Prior to 1955, polygamy was permitted for Indian Hindus. Marriage laws in India are dependent upon the religion of the parties in question. The terms under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1954 has deemed polygamy to be illegal for Hindus.[101]



Main article: Polygyny in Islam

In Islam, a man may marry up to four women, but only if he is sure that he will treat all his wives equally. However, if a man fears he won’t be able to deal equitably with his wives, then Islam recommends monogamy.[102] This is based on verse 4:3 of Quran which says:

…marry such women as seem good to you, two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then (marry) only one…

—Qur’an, Sura 4 (An-Nisa), Ayah 3[103]

The verse 4:129 also cautions men against polygyny and has been cited as an implicit prohibition of polygyny in Quran by some.:[104]

Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire.

—Qur’an, Sura 4 (An-Nisa), Ayah 129[105]

Muhammad was monogamously married to Khadija, his first wife, for 25 years, until she died. After her death, he married multiple women, mostly widows,[106] for social and political reasons.[107] He had a total of nine wives, but not all at the same time, depending on the sources in his lifetime. The Qur’an clearly states that men who practice polygamy must treat their wives equally. If the husband fears that he cannot deal with his wives justly, then he should only marry one. The Qur’an does not give preference in marrying more than one wife. One reason cited for polygamy is that it allows a man to give financial protection to multiple women, who might otherwise not have any support (e.g. widows). Generally, a husband does not have to have permission from his first wife.[108] However, the wife can set a condition, in the marriage contract, that the husband cannot marry another woman during their marriage. In such a case, the husband cannot marry another woman as long as he is married to his wife.[109] According to traditional Islamic law, each of those wives keeps their property and assets separate; and are paid mahar and maintenance separately by husband. Usually the wives have little to no contact with each other and lead separate, individual lives in their own houses, and sometimes in different cities, though they all share the same husband.

In most Muslim-majority polygyny is legal. Polygyny is banned in Turkey and Tunisia.[110] In countries where polygyny is allowed, it is only practiced by a small minority. In Iran, polygyny has declined.[citation needed] In Sudan, the government encouraged polygyny in 2001 to increase the population.[111] Countries that allow polygamy, typically also require a man to obtain permission from his previous wives before marrying another, and require the man to prove that he can financially support multiple wives. In Malaysia and Morocco, a man must justify taking an additional wife at a court hearing before he is allowed to do so.[104]


Women, on the other hand aren’t allowed to marry more than one husband at a time. However, in case of divorce or death of husband they can remarry after the complletion of Iddah. A non-muslim woman who flees from her non-muslim husband and accept Islam can remarry without divorce from previos husband as her marriage with non-muslim husband is islamically is dissolved on her fleeing. A non-muslim woman captured during war by muslims can also remarry as her marriage with non muslim husband is islamically dissolved at capture by muslim soldiers.


See also: Pilegesh

The Torah contains a few specific regulations that apply to polygamy,[112] such as Exodus 21:10: “If he take another wife for himself; her food, her clothing, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish”.[113] Deuteronomy 21:15–17, states that a man must award the inheritance due to a first-born son to the son who was actually born first, even if he hates that son’s mother and likes another wife more;[114] and Deuteronomy 17:17 states that the king shall not have too many wives.[115] The king’s behavior is condemned by Prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8.

Israeli lexicographer Vadim Cherny has explained that the Torah distinguishes concubines and “sub-standard” wives with prefix “to” (eg., lit. “took to wives”).[116]Despite these nuances to the biblical perspective on polygamy, many important figures had more than one wife, such as in the instances of Esau (Gen 26:34; 28:6-9),[113] Moses (Ex 2:21; Num 12:1),[113] Jacob (Gen 29:15-28),[113] Elkanah (1 Samuel 1:1-8),[113] David (1 Samuel 25:39-44; 2 Samuel 3:2-5; 5:13-16),[113] and Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-3).[113]

Multiple marriage was considered a realistic alternative in the case of famine, widowhood, or female infertility[117] like in the practice of levirate marriage, wherein a man was required to marry and support his deceased brother’s widow, as mandated by Deuteronomy 25:5–10. Despite its prevalence in the Hebrew bible, scholars do not believe that polygyny was commonly practiced in the biblical era because it required a significant amount of wealth.[118] Michael Coogan, in contrast, states that “Polygyny continued to be practised well into the biblical period, and it is attested among Jews as late as the second century CE.”[119]

The monogamy of the Roman Empire was the cause of two explanatory notes in the writings of Josephus describing how the polygamous marriages of Herod were permitted under Jewish custom.[120]

The Rabbinical era that began with the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE saw a continuation of some degree of legal acceptance for polygamy. In the Babylonian Talmud (BT), Kiddushin 7a, its states, “Raba said: [If a man declares,] ‘Be thou betrothed to half of me,’ she is betrothed: ‘half of thee be betrothed to me,’ she is not betrothed.”[121] The BT during a discussion of Levirate marriage in Yevamot 65a appears to repeat the precedent found in Exodus 21:10: “Raba said: a man may marry wives in addition to the first wife; provided only that he possesses the means to maintain them.”[122] The Jewish Codices began a process of restricting polygamy in Judaism. The Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, while maintaining the right to multiple spouses, and the requirement to provide fully for each as indicated in previously cited sources, went further: “He may not, however, compel his wives to live in the same courtyard. Instead, each one is entitled to her own household.”[123] Finally, the most authoritative codex, the Shulchan Aruch, builds on all of the previous works by adding further nuances: “…but in any event, our sages have advised well not to marry more than four wives, in order that he can meet their conjugal needs at least once a month. And in a place where it is customary to marry only one wife, he is not permitted to take another wife on top of his present wife.”[124] As can be seen, while the tradition of the Rabbinic period began with providing legal definition for the practice of polygamy (although this does not indicate the frequency with which polygamy in fact occurred) that corresponded to precedents in the tanakh, by the time of the Codices the Rabbis had greatly reduced or eliminated sanction of the practice.

Most notable in the Rabbinic period on the issue of polygamy, though more specifically for Ashkenazi Jews, was the synod of Rabbeinu Gershom. About 1000 CE he called a synod which decided the following particulars: (1) prohibition of polygamy; (2) necessity of obtaining the consent of both parties to a divorce; (3) modification of the rules concerning those who became apostates under compulsion; (4) prohibition against opening correspondence addressed to another.[citation needed] These prohibitions remained in force for one thousand years.

In the modern day, polygamy is almost nonexistent in Rabbinic Judaism.[125] Ashkenazi Jews have continued to follow Rabbenu Gershom‘s ban since the 11th century.[126] Some Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (particularly those from North Africa, Yemen, Kurdistan, and Iran) discontinued polygamy much more recently, as they emigrated to countries where it was forbidden.[citation needed]However polygamy may still occur in non-European Jewish communities that exist in countries where it is not forbidden, such as Jewish communities in Yemen and the Arab world.[citation needed] Because of the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries, in the first decade of the 21st century there were only some 4,500 Jews left in the Arab world and in 2012 only 8,756 in Iran, with few young people among them.[citation needed]

Among Karaite Jews, who do not adhere to Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, polygamy is almost non-existent today. Like other Jews, Karaites interpretLeviticus 18:18 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if his first wife gives her consent (Keter Torah on Leviticus, pp. 96–97) and Karaites interpret Exodus 21:10 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if he is capable of maintaining the same level of marital duties due to his first wife; the marital duties are 1) food, 2) clothing, and 3) sexual gratification. Because of these two biblical limitations and because most countries outlaw it, polygamy is considered highly impractical, and there are only a few known cases of it among Karaite Jews today.

Israel has made polygamy illegal.[127][128] Provisions were instituted to allow for existing polygamous families immigrating from countries where the practice was legal. Furthermore, former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef[129] has come out in favor of legalizing polygamy and the practice of pilegesh (concubine) by the Israeli government.

Tzvi Zohar, a professor from the Bar-Ilan University, recently suggested that based on the opinions of leading halachic authorities, the concept of concubines may serve as a practical Halachic justification for premarital or non-marital cohabitation.[130][131]


Azim Azimzade. “The old wife and the new one”. 1935

Refuting allegations that polygamy helps reduce the rate of poverty among struggling widows and orphans,[132] a medical study conducted by the Croatian Medical Journal in African nations that legalized the practice found the odds are more likely that families of men having the right to marry multiple wives will conceive more children for whom it would cost more to provide.[132] The study also noted that the temptation for sexual intercourse that has often come with polygamy, regardless of whether a man has multiple wives or vice versa, has been a major contributor to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa as well.[132]

Also, a 2012 study from the University of British Columbia shows that, in polygamist cultures, “the intra-sexual competition that occurs causes greater levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality than in societies that institutionalize and practice monogamous marriage”.[133]

A 2013 study of Nigerian students, published in the International Journal of Psychology and Counselling, showed that “there is a significant difference in the overall academic achievement of students from monogamous families and those from polygamous families” and “that life in polygamous family can be traumatic and children brought up in such family structure often suffer some emotional problems such as lack of warmth, love despite availability of money and material resources, and disciplinary problems which may hinder their academic performance.”[134]

A study of Bedouin-Arab women found that “Women in polygamous marriages showed significantly higher psychological distress, and higher levels of somatisation,phobia and other psychological problems. They also had significantly more problems in family functioning, marital relationships and life satisfaction”.[135]

In “An Evolutionary and Rawlsian Evaluation of Polygamy,” Michael Shindler, the Editor-in-Chief of The Apollonian Revolt argues that polygamy is an unjust social arrangement for the reason that “behind the Rawlsian ‘veil,’ none of the designers know who they will be once it is lifted and therefore, they will endeavor to make the choice that puts those who are worst off in a position that all [the designers behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance] agree is, at the very least, acceptable. Knowing that humans by their very nature are, by and large, driven towards carnal and romantic fulfillment and that lacking such fulfillment, commonly encounter great sorrow, the designers behind the veil must choose against the institutionalization of polygamy because its investiture would necessarily thrust a sizeable portion of the population into an unacceptable arrangement.” [136]


United States[edit]

Polygamy is currently illegal in the United States. On December 13, 2013, a federal judge, spurred by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups,[137]struck down the parts of Utah’s bigamy law that criminalized cohabitation,[138] while also acknowledging that the state may still enforce bans on having multiple marriage licenses.[138]

In the U.S., Individualist feminism and advocates such as Wendy McElroy and journalist Jillian Keenan also support the freedom for adults to voluntarily enter polygamous marriages.[139][140]

In an October 2004 op-ed for USA Today, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley “argued that, as a simple matter of equal treatment under law, polygamy ought to be legal. Acknowledging that underage girls are sometimes coerced into polygamous marriages, Turley replied that banning polygamy is no more a solution to child abuse than banning marriage would be a solution to spousal abuse.[141]

In January 2015, Pastor Neil Patrick Carrick of Detroit Michigan brought a case Carrick v. Snyder against Michigan that the states ban of polygamy violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.[142][143]

There is another, more “conservative” case for polygamy, too: “By legitimizing polygamy and allowing its practitioners to join mainstream society, we can monitor and regulate the practice, thereby reducing any problems. On Big Love, for example, one polygamous wife won’t visit a hospital for fear of alerting the authorities. Legalize polygamy, the argument goes, and marriage and divorce law will protect polygamous wives, instead of scaring them into hiding.[141]

Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, however, lamented the modern arguments made by intellectuals calling for de-criminalizing polygamy. Kurtz concluded, “Marriage, as its ultramodern critics would like to say, is indeed about choosing one’s partner, and about freedom in a society that values freedom. But that’s not the only thing it is about. As the Supreme Court justices who unanimously decided Reynolds in 1878 understood, marriage is also about sustaining the conditions in which freedom can thrive. Polygamy in all its forms is a recipe for social structures that inhibit and ultimately undermine social freedom and democracy. A hard-won lesson of Western history is that genuine democratic self-rule begins at the hearth of the monogamous family.[141]

See also[edit]

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