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Allah clearly permits marriage to multiple wives — insofar as they can be treated justly — in Qur'an 4:3, where He says "…then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four.…" The conventional opinion of this verse, however, seems to be that it sets a hard limit of four wives; a man may not under any conditions take a fifth wife without first divorcing one of the four.

Given the general principle of Islamic jurisprudence wherein anything that is not explicitly forbidden is permissible (even if not recommendable) by default, why then is marriage limited to four wives? The above verse clearly permits up to four, but does not expressly forbid more. It is also well-established through the hadith literature that the prophet himself had significantly more than four wives during his life, most of them simultaneously.

Admittedly, just because the prophet was granted certain privileges does not mean they are applicable to Muslims on the whole, but this fact combined with the distinct lack of an explicit prohibition otherwise, suggests to me that that marrying beyond the four-wife cap would be permissible behavior.

Has this opinion been argued by any reputable scholars in the past, and if so (or even if not) why did the apparent majority opinion of no-more-than-four win out?

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in Shia Islam only permanent marriage is restricted to 4 and not Mut'ah marriage. so its better to mention "permanent marriage" in your question. –  Battle of Karbala Sep 14 '12 at 4:46
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@Ahmadi My question is about marriage in general; if Mut'ah is given a different ruling than permanent marriage in this regard, I would be interested in that (and why) as well. –  goldPseudo Sep 14 '12 at 5:13
    
@Abdullah: The Hadith doesn't say what's the logic behind it, which brings me to this: Why four? What's so special about the number four? –  Noah Sep 14 '12 at 9:36
    
I read long time ago something about that a man can have sexual intercourse daily, but a woman can do it once every 4 days. I'll try and find a link that explains the topic better. –  Songo Sep 16 '12 at 10:03
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3 Answers

That Allah has stated:

... فَانكِحُوا مَا طَابَ لَكُم مِّنَ النِّسَاءِ مَثْنَىٰ وَثُلَاثَ وَرُبَاعَ ۖ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ ...

... 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 ... [4:3]

limits the common marriage (different from the temporary marriage) to four simultaneous wives. That you said Allah has not explicitly banned more than four wives doesn't seem to be correct, Allah has stated what is allowed and what he has not stated is, therefore, not permitted. To better understand this e.g. see the following verse:

أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّهَ يَعْلَمُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مَا يَكُونُ مِن نَّجْوَىٰ ثَلَاثَةٍ إِلَّا هُوَ رَابِعُهُمْ وَلَا خَمْسَةٍ إِلَّا هُوَ سَادِسُهُمْ وَلَا أَدْنَىٰ مِن ذَٰلِكَ وَلَا أَكْثَرَ إِلَّا هُوَ مَعَهُمْ أَيْنَ مَا كَانُوا ثُمَّ يُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا عَمِلُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

Seest thou not that Allah doth know (all) that is in the heavens and on earth? There is not a secret consultation between three, but He makes the fourth among them, - Nor between five but He makes the sixth,- nor between fewer nor more, but He is in their midst, wheresoever they be: In the end will He tell them the truth of their conduct, on the Day of Judgment. For Allah has full knowledge of all things. [58:7]

and note how Allah has Himself extended His own stated example to include all the other possibilities as well.

That the holy prophet had more than 4 simultaneous wives is then according to another three verses revealed specifically about himself, not for the others, [33:50-52] (even according to Hadeeth from Imam Sadiq --peace be upon him-- what is stated in [33:52] doesn't mean something that was allowed for other believers became forbidden for the holy prophet --peace be upon him-- and he could have married women as much as he wish, ref [1]).

‌But then why common marriage being limited to four simultaneous wives? See the following Ahadeeth from [2]:

محمد بن يعقوب: عن علي بن إبراهيم، عن أبيه، عن ابن أبي عمير، عن جميل بن دراج، عن زرارة، و محمد بن مسلم، عن أبي عبد الله (عليه السلام)، قال: «إذا جمع الرجل أربعا فطلق إحداهن فلا يتزوج الخامسة حتى تنقضي عدة المرأة التي طلق». و قال: «لا يجمع الرجل ماءه في خمس».

From Imam Sadiq --peace be upon him-- is quoted that if a man marries with four, then divorce from one, he can not marry with a fifth until the Eddeh time counted from his divorce is passed, since a man must not have his sperms in five.

عن منصور بن حازم، عن أبي عبد الله (عليه السلام)، قال: «لا يحل لماء الرجل أن يجري في أكثر من أربعة أرحام من الحرائر».

From Imam Sadiq --peace be upon him-- is quoted that it is not permitted for a man's sperm to be collected in more than four free wombs.

ابن بابويه، قال: حدثنا علي بن أحمد، قال: حدثنا محمد بن أبي عبد الله، عن محمد بن إسماعيل، عن علي بن العباس، قال: حدثنا القاسم بن الربيع الصحاف، عن محمد بن سنان، أن الرضا (عليه السلام) كتب إليه فيما كتب من جواب مسائله: «علة تزويج الرجل أربع نسوة و يحرم أن تتزوج المرأة أكثر من واحد، لأن الرجل إذا تزوج أربع نسوة كان الولد منسوبا إليه، و المرأة لو كان لها زوجان أو أكثر من ذلك، لم يعرف الولد لمن هو، إذ هم مشتركون في نكاحها، و في ذلك فساد الأنساب و المواريث و المعارف». قال محمد بن سنان: و من علل النساء الحرائر و تحليل أربع نسوة لرجل واحد، لأنهن أكثر من الرجال، فلما نظر- و الله أعلم- لقول الله عز و جل: فَانْكِحُوا ما طابَ لَكُمْ مِنَ النِّساءِ مَثْنى وَ ثُلاثَ وَ رُباعَ فذلك تقدير قدره الله تعالى ليتسع فيه الغني و الفقير فيتزوج الرجل على قدر طاقته، وسع ذلك في ملك اليمين، و لم يجعل فيه حدا، لأنهن مال و جلب، فهو يسع أن يجمعوا من الأموال، و علة تزويج العبد اثنتين لا أكثر، أنه نصف رجل حر في الطلاق و النكاح، لا يملك نفسه، و لا مال له، إنما ينفق عليه مولاه، و ليكون ذلك فرقا بينه و بين الحر، و ليكون أقل لاشتغاله عن خدمة مواليه.

From Imam Reza --peace be upon him-- is quoted that if a man marries with four woman the child born is his, but if a woman marries with more than one man the born child's father will not be known whose is, since the men have share in a single marriage and in this is the corruption of the off-spring, the heritage, and the Ma'aarif(?) [note that maybe today one can identify the real father based on genetics but 1. this identification is not free from mistakes, 2. no one can guarantee this identification to be performed for every born if the statistics rise up much, 3. the wisdom behind the rules of Allah are not necessarily one or two, they can be very but not all of them known to us or even understandable to us till the Judgment day and maybe beyond!] And the reason why a man can have four wives is that men are larger in number than woman [not only in those times due to wars and etc men being killed or die at the work more than were killed and died the women, but even from genetics if my mind could help, moreover that men's death statistics has been always greater even now] and Allah knows best and what Allah has stated that "Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four" this is His decree that He has decreed for simplicity of marriage for every reach and poor, so that every one marries to the extent that his wealth would let him. ... [the rest of Hadeeth is about non free women which is not the case for today life]

[1] البرهان فی تفسیر القرآن، جلد ۴، صفحات: ۴۷۸-۴۸۲

[2] البرهان فی تفسیر القرآن، جلد ۲، صفحات: ۱۸و۱۹

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It is prohibited to have more then four wives simultaneously. And if it was allowed to marry more then four wives simultaneously, the Ayah would have specified it. Furthermore Allah's Messenger (Peace and blessings be upon him) said to a man who had eight wives (when he entered into Islam):

اخْتَرْ مِنْهُنَّ أَرْبَعًا

Select four of them

Sunan Abi Dawood

Sources: (Islamic Online University, Garments of Love and Mercy: Fiqh of Marriage

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According to Fiqh of Shia Islam the limit of four wives is only for permanent marriage and in Mut'ah marriage this restriction does not exist. the reason for this restrict is derived from is verse you mentioned. Shia scholars say the verse clearly permits only one or two or tree or four, and the verse does not include something like "or more", to indicate that more than four are permitted.

Such exact rulings need investigating the Arabic verse considering Arabic grammar and can not be extracted from translations of Quran.


Reference:

http://islamquest.net/fa/archive/question/fa7582

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I guess OP's concern stems from the number four. Why is there a hard limit of four? –  Noah Sep 14 '12 at 7:27
    
@Noah, a part of the question is "Given the general principle of Islamic jurisprudence wherein anything that is not explicitly forbidden is permissible (even if not recommendable) by default, why then is marriage limited to four wives?" and this answer partly addresses this question. If I'm not wrong though –  owari Sep 21 '12 at 16:31
    
@Noah this limit is derived from this hadith. –  Battle of Karbala Sep 21 '12 at 16:33
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