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Polygamy – An Alternative Way Of Life

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By Aisha Stacey

 

What is it about the word polygamy? Just uttering it raises eyebrows, elicits
snide remarks, or prompts crude jokes. Since the 19th century, when
the concepts of orientalism and colonialism came to dominate Western thought,
combining the words polygamy and Islam has conjured up visions of swarthy Arab
men surrounded by sexual playthings. More recently, the word polygamy has come
to represent patriarchs in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints,
having sexual relations with underage girls.
 

While both images certainly make
sensational media exposés, they could not be further from the truth. The
reality of polygamy is that it is a marriage arrangement that can benefit some
people, in some situations. It is not a practice confined to Middle Eastern or
Muslim countries, in fact it is found world wide, and ranges across cultures and
religions. Polygamy existed in ancient times and continued to flourish
unremarkably for thousands of years.


 

In the 21st century
polygamy, and its myriad of implications and complications is undergoing a
resurgence of sorts, albeit aided by media attention. Popular United States
reality programs such as the wildly successful Oprah Show and the Discovery
Network’s TLC channel have focused attention of polygamy in North America where
polygamy hits the headlines repeatedly. In South Africa the fourth post
apartheid president, Jacob Zuma, is a polygamist with three wives.


 

Throughout the world, the
opponents of polygamy speak about the exploitation and abuse of women and
describe polygamy as a backward and medieval practice. This however is not what
we hear from modern women currently in polygamous relationships. These women
speak about freedom of choice, freedom of religion and the bonds of sisterhood
between wives. Polygamy is not about one man dominating and abusing several
women. It is about adult men and women choosing a form of marriage that suits
their needs, desires, and aspirations.


 

Islam did not introduce polygamy
to the world; it did however place restrictions and conditions on this unique
marriage arrangement, in order to assure that abuses did not occur. However,
before we go any further and discuss the connection between Islam and polygamy
it may be useful to define the term polygamy.


 

Polygamy means having more than
one spouse at a time. It comes from two Greek words, polys, meaning many, and
gamos, meaning marriage. In reality there are three forms of polygamy,
polygyny, where one man is married to several wives, polyandry where one woman
has several husbands, and a third form, where several husbands are married to
several wives. Throughout the world, all forms exist to varying degrees in
various cultures. However, in Islam only one form of polygamy is permitted –
polygyny.


 

It is incorrect to presume that
Christian and Jewish religions have always been opposed to polygamy. Polygyny
was practiced, to varying degrees throughout the history of the three
monotheistic religions- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Torah and the
Bible do not condemn the practice of polygyny rather some of the most esteemed
and respected Prophets and Kings practiced polygyny, including Abraham, David,
Jacob, and Solomon. However while there is no condemnation, there are also no
restrictions on the practice of polygyny.


 

All three monotheistic religions
have been accused of misogyny and certainly, some stories and traditions tend
confirm this, especially when women are referred to as property and polygyny is
practised without restriction or regulation. Islam however, places limitations
on the number of wives a man may take and enforces laws that reconcile marriage
with gender equality. The inequalities that exist between Muslim men and women
are based on cultural aberrations and are not sanctified by Islamic law.


 

Women are described in Quran as
being equal to men, and the tenants of Islam enshrine the rights and
responsibilities of each member of the human race. Differences between the
genders are celebrated. One life or one sex is not worth more than the other
is. Islam builds on the respect, tolerance, and morality inherent in the
original teachings of Judaism and Christianity and reveals itself as a code of
life` for all people in all places and at all times. Polygyny is permitted in
Islam and it in no way diminishes the rights or the equality of women.


 

Islam took an already
well-established practice, polygyny, and instituted regulations that prevented
chaos and abuse from entering the family structure. A well-balanced functioning
family, where the rights of all members are respected and upheld, is the
cornerstone of Islam. A moral and ethical community stems from this family
structure and it is based on realistic notions of gender equality.


 

Polygyny is just one way
consenting adult men and women can contribute to a well-rounded society free
from immorality and degradation, and it is permitted under certain
well-documented circumstances. Polygyny is not a fixed dogma inherent in Islam,
nor is it obligatory in any way. Quran has given permission for a man to take a
maximum of four wives and each successive wife enjoys the same rights and
privileges as the first. Women are not forced into plural marriages without
their consent.


 

Women practising Islam have
certain inalienable rights given to them by God Himself and some specifically
pertain to marriage. Marrying into a polygynous family does not negate or change
any of those rights. Nor are women’s rights changed or challenged if a previous
monogamous marriage becomes polygynous. Marriage in Islam is a partnership
between human beings seeking to please God by working towards a moral, stable
life. Men and women are free to choose or reject their partners as they see fit,
and Islam takes into account the vagaries of human nature.


 

Women in Islam have rights only
dreamt about by women in the West even 100 years ago. Muslim women pioneered
pre-nuptial agreements, and took part in politics and scholarship when women
from the Western world were unable to read and write. Polygyny upholds women’s
rights and is a valid marriage arrangement that inherently accepts gender
equality. Yet the word polygamy (including its variation polygyny) creates an
atmosphere of fear. What is it about polygamy that we fear the most?


 

Is it that polygyny takes into
account the true nature of men and women? Alternatively, is it perhaps that the
majority of those who practice polygyny lead moral upstanding lives? What is it
about this modern society that allows and even sanctions bad behaviour? Men and
women pass into and out of relationships with little thought of each other or
the resulting children. The sanctity of marriage is passed over in favour of
serial monogamy and de facto relationships. Men are encouraged to take
mistresses and girlfriends but a man who wants to take more than one legal wife,
in order to assume responsibility for her and their children, is condemned and
branded a sex fiend or wastrel.


 

Even in the Muslim world, men and
women who choose to practice polygyny are sometimes condemned. However, the
absurdity of such notions is becoming increasingly clear. Polygamy is slowly
winding its way back into popular culture. Even television series such as HBO’s
Big Love and the Egyptian drama, The Family of Hajj Metwalli, are beginning to
portray polygyny as a valid lifestyle. The word polygamy forces us to confront
issues concerned with basic human nature. People and communities around the
world, Muslim and non Muslim alike, are investigating polygamous alternatives.
They are looking at a marriage option with a long and valid history and
wondering what it has to offer citizens of the 21st century.

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