Women pray at the Jama Masjid in New Delhi | Representational image | Keith Bedford/Bloomberg News
Women pray at the Jama Masjid in New Delhi | Representational image | Photo: Keith Bedford | Bloomberg News
Text Size:

Polygamy is the practice of having more than one spouse at the same time. This practice is outlawed in India, except for Muslims and some tribal communities, as their customary laws permit it. At the very top of the misinformation campaign is the propaganda that Muslims have multiple wives to have more children. Muslims in the country are subject to the terms of the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937 which is interpreted by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. But in a judgement of February 2015, the Supreme Court of India stated that ‘Polygamy was not an integral or fundamental part of the Muslim religion and monogamy was a reform within the power of the state under article 25.’ This meant that although their personal law permits Muslim men to have as many as four wives, the Supreme Court has ruled that a Muslim’s fundamental right to profess Islam does not include the practice of polygamy.

At the very centre of the debate around polygamy lies the belief that Islam encourages polygamy, which eventually leads to population growth. The reality, however, is different. There is only one verse in the Quran (Surah An-Nisa [4:3]).

The only study on the subject of polygamy ever done was by the Committee on the Status of Women in India, 1974, which showed that polygamy as a practice was not just exclusive to Muslims but was prevalent among all communities of India. In fact, it was found that Muslims were the least polygamous among all the groups (Figure 4.3).

Source: Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, 1974, Ministry of Social Welfare

Trends through three decadal Censuses, from 1931 to 1960, confirm that polygamy cuts across all communities, is declining among all of them, and, most importantly, is least among the Muslims (Table 4.15). The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 imposed a ban on polygamy for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains so it is quite possible that the numbers have changed in the years and generations hence. However, the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, 1974, Ministry of Social Welfare was the last to look at polygamous marriages in India.


Also read: Former CEC S.Y. Quraishi busts myths about Islam and family planning in his new book


Incidence of Polygamous Marriages in India

There is an interesting dimension missed by everyone. Polygamy is not even possible in India, as the number of women has been significantly lower than the number of men throughout the seven decades under study, as shown in Table 4.16.

Source: Census data from above mentioned years

Statistically, therefore, no Indian man has even one full wife! Each has 0.9 of a wife. Experts, in any case, are of the opinion that polygamy cannot lead to a high birth rate as the number of polygamous men, however few, would result in an equal number of unmarried men (who will not find wives). Another Indian study shows that the average number of children from the second wife of Muslim men was only 1.78 as compared with 4.67 from the first wife. Thus, it is clear that the presumption of a high polygamy rate among Muslims is unfounded and that polygamy is not a factor leading to high birth rate among Muslims.

Infant mortality rate

There is one area in which Muslims fare better than all other religious communities. In India, Muslim children are more likely than their Hindu counterparts to survive to their fifth birthday, despite Muslim parents being poorer and less educated on average than Hindu parents. By age five, mortality among Muslims is about 18 per cent less than among Hindus.29 In their 2010 article titled ‘The Puzzle of Muslim Advantage in Child Survival in India’, Bhalotra et al. described this consistent pattern as the ‘puzzle of Muslim advantage in child survival in India’. It was demonstrated that no factor – education, wealth, family demographics, state trends, cohort effects, development expenditure, village-level health services and health infrastructure – could explain the Muslim mortality advantage that has existed since the 1960s. Health behaviours like breastfeeding, antenatal care or even place of delivery had very little role to play in explaining this disparity.

The only plausible explanation for the highest child sex ratio among Muslims could be the emphasis of Islam on gender equality. The sacred text of the glorious Quran bears witness to the fact that in Islam women are considered as vital to life as men. Men and women are equal and therefore have similar rights and duties, as given in the Quran and the Hadith:

‘Never will I waste the work of a worker among you, whether male or female, the one of you being from the other.’

(Al-Quran 3:195)

‘Observe your duty to Allah in respect to the women, and treat them well.’

(Prophet Muhammed’s last sermon) ‘Verily, women are the twin halves of men.’

(Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi) ‘And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women.’

(Quran, 2: 228)


Also read: If India can look after pregnant women so well, why are more under-5 kids wasting & stunting


It is true that a Hindu-Muslim fertility differential persists in the demographic reality of India. However, this is due to the relative backwardness of the Muslims in almost all the factors that determine fertility behaviour, namely, literacy, income, access to services, etc. Nor will this gap in fertility persist for a very long duration, as the fertility level of Indian Muslims is steadily declining with improvement in literacy and living standards among them. Religion is not as important in determining fertility levels as it is made out to be, but factors like literacy level, age of marriage, exposure to mass media and economic factors come together to determine the fertility levels of Indian Muslims.

If religion were the only factor, then it would become rather difficult to explain the high unmet need for family planning among the Muslim community. The truth is, a combination of these factors and their inter-relatedness is the cause behind the relatively high fertility levels among Muslims. Lack of such an understanding could result in religion bashing and even communal violence, given the existing conflicts between competing religious groups like the Hindus and Muslims. It is, therefore, imperative to understand that the presumption that Muslims’ relatively higher fertility levels have their roots in Islamic theology, as well as the ‘anti-nationalist’ propaganda against them, is completely baseless. They are merely a means to vilify the community and a part of communal propaganda by some vested interests.

This excerpt from The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India has been published with special permission from Harper Collins, and will be launched on ThePrint’s SoftCover.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism

VIEW COMMENTS

11 COMMENTS

  1. So why don’t Muslims reform their marriage laws and ban polygamy if there is only one reference to it in the Quran as the author says. According to him the Quran calls for gender equality and therefore there is a far lower under 5 mortality rate for Muslims. So shouldn’t polygamy be banned if it is not mentioned in the Quran? The article has no sense and logic and picks out statistics from more then 40 years ago. One doesn’t need multiple wives to have multiple children. Not sure which world the author lives in but most Muslims breed like nobody’s business. Even vaccines are refused due to fear of them causing impotency. No wonder Muslims are in such a bad state with even the so called educated amongst them holding such outdated and unscientific views.

  2. Could do without the religious language such as calling Quran glories etc…..It’s biased and distracts from the arguments and data

  3. Data shown is from 1950’s and 1970’s and conclusions are made for current times. Great effort at fooling with wrong statistics. TFR from first wife is 4.68 and with second wife is 1.78
    This is a total of 6.46 children from a polygamous family of 1 husband and two wives. How is this non-sense getting published in the first place, I wonder.

  4. I don’t read the print for excerpt of so called “glorious Quran” which is cited as a reason for mortality figures. Has Mr Qureshi went through scriptures of Hindus to make this hypothesis? However i have read his Quran and can quote many contrary verses.
    He has comfortably blamed backwardness for high fertility- what about Hindus and Christians of Pakistan- why do they have much lower fertility than Muslims even after being backward?
    Mr Qureshi is a Communal wolf masquerading as liberal.
    Shameful

  5. It is not clear.
    Is he saying that a muslim child has better chance of surviving than a hindu child, individually? Is this true of male children as well?
    Or is this a fancy way of covering up that % is same but since muslims produce more children, in raw numbers more muslims survive?

  6. “SECULAR VOTERS ” are not interested in modern scienctific education, they are illiterate by choice .

    Please walk on the road see HINDUS family with one or two children, then watch “SECULAR VOTERS ” family all have 4 to 5 kids and listen to woman protestors at anti government protest where women threaten “let us become majority and than see the consequences. ”

    It is dangerous that family planning should be sought through religious books. What about population control for the betterment of INDIA. Doesn’t INDIA matter.

    Family planning must be compulsory and pandering to religious beliefs will lead to a dangerous precedent of RIOTERS setting INDIA’s agenda.

    If a person who has enjoyed top constitutional position is seeking religious references for family planning then let it be known that this community will be only interested in RIOTING , opposing modern scienctific education and proselytizing .

  7. Fake fake , highest fertility rate in India is among Muslims from Kerala, are Muslims from Kerala poor and in educated !! No , they are the richest and most educated community in Kerala, it is Muslims mindset to increase population and control the country once their population becomes majority, look at population explosion in Kashmir, educated Muslims are most dangerous in India.

  8. Why fertility level of Muslims going up in Kerela? Are they getting less educated as time goes by? By 2100 Muslims will be majority in Kerela, Assam and West Bengal. No one should fall for fake news. Hindus in these states will have to migrate elsewhere.

  9. Thanks to Mr Kuraishi for this research. We need more such efforts to counter the Right-wing misinformation.

Comments are closed.