N. Nurmila, Polygamous Marriages in Indonesia and Their Impacts on Women’s Access to Income and Property, Al-Jāmi‘ah: J. Islamic Studies, 2016 (URL), writes:

The belief that Islam supports polygamy is based on the popular literal understanding of the Quran 4:3, 6 whilst contextualistand progressive Muslims, such as Egyptian reformist Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), understand the verse to discourage and even prohibit polygamous marriage.

This is surprising, given what the verse says:

And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice]. -- Qur'an 4:3

Question: How did Muhammad Abduh come to understand Qur'an 4:3 as meaning to discourage and even prohibit polygamous marriage?

(After writing this question, I found an answer, which I'll post as an answer.)

  • 2
    I would be interested in seeing where in Tafsir Al-Manar did Muhammad Rashid Reda quoting Muhammad 'Abduh, and the exact words referenced by the article in the link provided. I could not find it myself (albeit that it is widely publicized that Muhammad 'Abduh said so). Can you please point out the section where it was said that discouraged or prohibited polygamous marriage in the tafsir?
    – III-AK-III
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 1:42

1 Answer 1


An explanation is given in A. N. Amir, A. O. Shuriye, A. F. Ismail, Muhammad Abduh's contributions to modernity, Asian J. Manage. Sci. Ed., 2012 (pdf). Essentially:

  1. There are strict regulations stipulated in the Qur'an for justice between wives.

  2. They are difficult or impossible to achieve in modern society.

... he skillfully articulated in Tafsir al-Manar: "God has made the condition that one keep far from injustice to be the basis for His giving of a law (concerning marriage). This confirms the fact that justice is enjoined as a condition and that duty consists in thriving for it. Polygamy is like one of those necessities which are permitted to the one to whom it is allowed (only) with the stipulation that he act fairly with trustworthiness and that he is immune from injustice. In view of this restriction, when one now considers what corruption results from polygamy in modern times, then one will know for certain that a people cannot be trained so that their remedy lies in polygamy, since, in a family which a single man has two wives; no beneficial situation and no order prevail."

Note: I'm only answering the question as to how Muhammad Abduh came to his conclusion (which was what was asked in the question). I'm not expressing an opinion as to how valid his deductions are, nor am I expressing an opinion as to whether Nurmila's description of it as a prohibition is accurate.

Regardless, it's clear that this is an unorthodox opinion, and probably would be considered invalid by the majority of scholars.

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    The source doesn't say he considered it prohibited, it says "He concluded that considering the impossibility of achieving this, the Qur’anic ideal must be monogamy."; the Quranic ideal is also to not make use of an-eye-for-an-eye, but considers it a perfectly legitimate option, so there's no implication of the form "here's the ideal, so everything else is prohibited".
    – G. Bach
    Commented May 6, 2017 at 11:26

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