A general term used for a person having multiple spouses is polygamy. Specifically, when a man has more than one wife it is called polygyny and a woman having more than one husband is polyandry.
Allah (swt) talks about polygyny in Surah An-Nisa, 4:3: “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].”
To justify having more than one wife at a time, men tend to quote only a part of this Ayah: “…marry those that please you of women, two, or three or four…” Seldom do we realise that it is a disservice to the Quran when we refer to it without keeping the context in mind.
Context of the Ayah
This Ayah was revealed at a time when having more than one wife was a predominant practice in pre-Islamic Arabia. To fully comprehend the meaning of this phrase under discussion, we need to see what came before and after. Let us delve into the first part of the Ayah: “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.”
It is evident that the original context was to uphold the rights of the orphan girls, who can be at a risk of abuse by their male guardians. When Urwah bin Zubair (rtam) asked his aunt Aisha (rtaf) concerning this Ayah she replied: “O my nephew, this Ayah refers to those orphaned girls whose inheritance from their fathers are mixed with the wealth of their guardians.” She said: “It was the custom of the Arabs who had under their custody beautiful and rich orphan girls to marry them without offering them their fair dowry.”