The notion that “African men are polygamous in nature” is an excuse often used to justify the infidelity of menfolk in marriage in African societies. That Islam permits polygamy has further legitimised this belief in Muslim African societies by conferring on the men a sense entitlement to look outside their matrimonial homes for extramarital affairs under the guise of filling up the available spaces, according to the wishes of God as contained in the Quran and exemplified by the Sunnah [prophetic traditions of Muhammad PBUH].
The convergence of culture and faith in Muslim Africa has elevated the practice of polygamy to an article of faith. Polygamy has become a matrimonial identity for menfolk in Muslim Africa, which, unfortunately, has obscured the place of monogamy in Islam as practiced by the Holy Prophet Muhammad PBUH.
Completely orphaned at age six, Muhammad, the son of Abdullah, was taken under the care of first Abdul Mutalib his grandfather and later upon his death by his most loving uncle Abu Talib. A chieftain of the Hashemite clan of the Quraish tribe of Mecca, Abu Talib was also a merchant who plied his trade along the Mecca-Damascus trade route. A man of modest means but with a large family to cater for, Abu Talib carried along his young nephew, Muhammad, on his numerous trade trips in service of the richer caravan of the wealthier aristocrat, Khadija, the daughter Khuwaylid of the clan of Asad of the tribe of Quraish. By this time, the reputation of the young Muhammad, notably of honesty, selflessness and truthfulness went before him throughout the city of Mecca and among the Quraish of Arabia. In pre-Islamic Arabia, such virtues were rare among men. Khadija, his employer, soon noticed these qualities and desired his companionship for life. At the time of their marriage, Khadija the bride was 40 and Muhammad the groom was 25.
The union was one of unconditional love, which shattered artificial social barriers of differences in age, social status and material endowments. The story of Muhammad and Khadija is one of the world’s greatest love stories. The feeling of love, respect, care and submissiveness was mutual. Husband protected wife and wife supported husband. The messenger of God was reported to have said “God Almighty never granted me anyone better in this life than her. She accepted me when people rejected me; she believed in me when people doubted me; she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me; and Allah granted me children only through her.”
Upon attaining prophethood, when the message of the most High God was delivered to him by the Angel Gabriel in cave Hira, trembling and shivering from the fright of the unusual encounter, it was in the loving and warm arms of Khadija that he found comfort and relief. When Muhammad eventually found his voice and coherently delivered the divine message, his first convert and believer in his divine apostolic mission was none other than Khadija, his one and only wife at the time. This untold aspect of the Prophet’s first matrimonial story has gone a long way to obscure the significance of the monogamous nature of the marital union of Muhammad and Khadija.
The Sunnah of monogamy was clearly established by the Holy Prophet Muhammad in his first marriage to Khadija; his longest and most fruitful. They were married for 25 years and she bore him six children: Qasim, Zainab, Ruqayya, Ummu Kulthum, Fatima and Abdullah. Throughout his first marriage to Khadija, Muhammad lived up to his reputation of honesty and truthfulness by maintaining unparalleled fidelity to his wife. The prophet only contracted other marriages after the death of his first wife. The earlier sunnah of monogamy of the Prophet has been greatly obscured by his later sunnah of polygamy because the religious establishment in Muslim Africa has institutionalised polygamy, which is culturally convenient, as more Islamic, contrary to the practice of the Holy Prophet.
Neither monogamy nor polygamy is incumbent upon a Muslim man. None is more acceptable than the other in the sight of God. Both are permissible and are purely matters of choice determined by individual preference. However, the permissibility of polygamy, unlike monogamy, is attached with strident conditions as revealed in the following verses from the holy Quran: “If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then ONLY ONE, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.” Justice in this instance is not only limited to the material but, more importantly, emotional.
A critical look at the marital life and times of the Holy Prophet Muhammad reveals monogamy to be the rule, while polygamy was the exception, because of the difficulty of his and every other man’s ability to ensure emotional justice among multiple marital partners. The case of the Prophet clearly showed Khadija was irreplaceable in his heart and while she lived no other woman caught his fancy. Chances were that he most probably would have lived a complete monogamous life if he had predeceased his wife, Khadija. If love is the basis of cohabitation, then the Holy Prophet Muhammad is a shining example of a loving and faithful husband of his first wife, Khadija, throughout the duration of their monogamous marital union, an example that is most worthy of emulation.
Even in death, the Prophet continued to love Khadija and cherish every bit of their shared memories in such an open manner that it left his latter wives very jealous of the dead Khadija. Aisha was one of such wives. She narrated of Muhammad and Khadijah in Sahih Bukhari: “I did not feel jealous of any of the wives of the Prophet as much as I did of Khadija though I did not see her, but the Prophet used to mention her very often, and whenever he slaughtered a sheep, he would cut its parts and send them to the women friends of Khadija. When I sometimes said to him, “(You treat Khadija in such a way) as if there is no woman on Earth except Khadija,” he would say, ‘Khadija was such-and-such, and from her I had children’.” It is also narrated: The Messenger of Allah said: “The best of its women is Khadija bint Khuwailid, and the best of its women is Maryam Bint Imran’’. Clearly, even in death, the Prophet was not able to ensure emotional justice among his other wives because he loved Khadija exceedingly more than any other woman on earth. His love for Khadija was evidently responsible for their monogamous union because, whereas 25 years of his marital life with her was monogamous until she died, the remaining 13 years of his marital life saw the Prophet marrying as much as nine women mainly for political reasons of uniting the fledging Muslim ummah at the time.
Without prejudice to polygamy, the more entrenched Sunnah of monogamy in the life of the Prophet of Islam should be reflected by African Muslims. Muslim Africa should reflect functional homes built on the solid foundations of unconditional love upon which families are raised as exemplified by Muhammad and Khadija. Muslim menfolk should rededicate their lives to loving their chosen spouses in honesty, truth and in a selfless manner, in accordance with the Sunnah of the Prophet of Islam. Muslims are expected to live more in accordance to the rule of prophetic traditions of marriage [monogamy] and not the exception [polygamy]. This position is supported by some leading scholars of orthodox schools of jurisprudence. Imam Ash-Shaafi’i is of the view that it is desirable to confine oneself to marrying only one, although it is permissible for him to marry more than one. This is to avoid being unfair by being more inclined to some of them than others, or being unable to financially support them. [Al-Hawi al-Kabir 11/417]. In view of this, there is a general decline in polygamy in the larger Muslim world with several Muslim nations having either banned polygamy or restricted its practices. Turkey and Tunisia are two Muslim countries that prohibit polygamy, while Egypt, Sudan and Kuwait, among many other countries, restrict its practice.
The family is the basic unit of any society and to fix the numerous challenges of illiteracy, poverty, domestic violence and terrorism facing Muslim African societies, it is important to revive the Prophetic tradition of monogamous marriages built on the strong foundations of unconditional love, care and fidelity of spouses.