Women In Islam versus Judaeo-Christian Tradition The Myth & The Reality

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  • Women In Islam versus Judaeo-Christian Tradition The Myth & The Reality

  • 15. Polygamy

    Let us now tackle the important question of polygamy. Polygamy is a
    very ancient practice found in many human societies. The Bible did not
    condemn polygamy. To the contrary, the Old Testament and Rabbinic
    writings frequently attest to the legality of polygamy. King Solomon is
    said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3) Also, king
    David is said to have had many wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13).
    The Old Testament does have some injunctions on how to distribute the
    property of a man among his sons from different wives (Deut. 22:7). The
    only restriction on polygamy is a ban on taking a wife's sister as a
    rival wife (Lev. 18:18). The Talmud advises a maximum of four wives. 51
    European Jews continued to practice polygamy until the sixteenth
    century. Oriental Jews regularly practised polygamy until they arrived
    in Israel where it is forbidden under civil law. However, under
    religious law which overrides civil law in such cases, it is

    What about the New Testament? According to Father Eugene Hillman in his
    insightful book, Polygamy reconsidered, "Nowhere in the New Testament
    is there any explicit commandment that marriage should be monogamous or
    any explicit commandment forbidding polygamy." 53 Moreover, Jesus has
    not spoken against polygamy though it was practiced by the Jews of his
    society. Father Hillman stresses the fact that the Church in Rome
    banned polygamy in order to conform to the Greco-Roman culture (which
    prescribed only one legal wife while tolerating concubinage and
    prostitution). He cited St. Augustine, "Now indeed in our time, and in
    keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another
    wife." 54 African churches and African Christians often remind their
    European brothers that the Church's ban on polygamy is a cultural
    tradition and not an authentic Christian injunction. The Quran, too,
    allowed polygamy, but not without restrictions:
    "If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the
    orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you
    fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only
    one" (4:3). The Quran, contrary to the Bible, limited the maximum
    number of wives to four under the strict condition of treating the
    wives equally and justly. It should not be understood that the Quran is
    exhorting the believers to practice polygamy, or that polygamy is
    considered as an ideal. In other words, the Quran has "tolerated" or
    "allowed" polygamy, and no more, but why? Why is polygamy permissible ?
    The answer is simple: there are places and times in which there are
    compelling social and moral reasons for polygamy. As the above Quranic
    verse indicates, the issue of polygamy in Islam cannot be understood
    apart from community obligations towards orphans and widows. Islam as a
    universal religion suitable for all places and all times could not
    ignore these compelling obligations.

    In most human societies, females outnumber males. In the U.S. there
    are, at least, eight million more women than men. In a country like
    Guinea there are 122 females for every 100 males. In Tanzania, there
    are 95.1 males per 100 females. 55 What should a society do towards
    such unbalanced sex ratios? There are various solutions, some might
    suggest celibacy, others would prefer female infanticide (which does
    happen in some societies in the world today !). Others may think the
    only outlet is that the society should tolerate all manners of sexual
    permissiveness: prostitution, sex out of wedlock, homosexuality, etc.
    For other societies , like most African societies today, the most
    honourable outlet is to allow polygamous marriage as a culturally
    accepted and socially respected institution. The point that is often
    misunderstood in the West is that women in other cultures do not
    necessarily look at polygamy as a sign of women's degradation. For
    example, many young African brides , whether Christians or Muslims or
    otherwise, would prefer to marry a married man who has already proved
    himself to be a responsible husband. Many African wives urge their
    husbands to get a second wife so that they do not feel lonely. 56 A
    survey of over six thousand women, ranging in age from 15 to 59,
    conducted in the second largest city in Nigeria showed that 60 percent
    of these women would be pleased if their husbands took another wife.
    Only 23 percent expressed anger at the idea of sharing with another
    wife. Seventy-six percent of the women in a survey conducted in Kenya
    viewed polygamy positively. In a survey undertaken in rural Kenya, 25
    out of 27 women considered polygamy to be better than monogamy. These
    women felt polygamy can be a happy and beneficial experience if the
    co-wives cooperate with each other. 57 Polygamy in most African
    societies is such a respectable institution that some Protestant
    churches are becoming more tolerant of it. A bishop of the Anglican
    Church in Kenya declared that, "Although monogamy may be ideal for the
    expression of love between husband and wife, the church should consider
    that in certain cultures polygyny is socially acceptable and that the
    belief that polygyny is contrary to Christianity is no longer tenable."
    58 After a careful study of African polygamy, Reverend David Gitari of
    the Anglican Church has concluded that polygamy, as ideally practiced,
    is more Christian than divorce and remarriage as far as the abandoned
    wives and children are concerned. 59 I personally know of some highly
    educated African wives who, despite having lived in the West for many
    years, do not have any objections against polygamy. One of them, who
    lives in the U.S., solemnly exhorts her husband to get a second wife to
    help her in raising the kids.
    The problem of the unbalanced sex ratios becomes truly problematic at
    times of war. Native American Indian tribes used to suffer highly
    unbalanced sex ratios after wartime losses. Women in these tribes, who
    in fact enjoyed a fairly high status, accepted polygamy as the best
    protection against indulgence in indecent activities. European
    settlers, without offering any other alternative, condemned this Indian
    polygamy as 'uncivilised'. 60 After the second world war, there were
    7,300,000 more women than men in Germany (3.3 million of them were
    widows). There were 100 men aged 20 to 30 for every 167 women in that
    age group. 61 Many of these women needed a man not only as a companion
    but also as a provider for the household in a time of unprecedented
    misery and hardship. The soldiers of the victorious Allied Armies
    exploited these women's vulnerability. Many young girls and widows had
    liaisons with members of the occupying forces. Many American and
    British soldiers paid for their pleasures in cigarettes, chocolate, and
    bread. Children were overjoyed at the gifts these strangers brought. A
    10 year old boy on hearing of such gifts from other children wished
    from all his heart for an 'Englishman' for his mother so that she need
    not go hungry any longer. 62 We have to ask our own conscience at this
    point: What is more dignifying to a woman? An accepted and respected
    second wife as in the native Indians' approach, or a virtual prostitute
    as in the 'civilised' Allies approach? In other words, what is more
    dignifying to a woman, the Quranic prescription or the theology based
    on the culture of the Roman Empire?

    It is interesting to note that in an international youth conference
    held in Munich in 1948 the problem of the highly unbalanced sex ratio
    in Germany was discussed. When it became clear that no solution could
    be agreed upon, some participants suggested polygamy. The initial
    reaction of the gathering was a mixture of shock and disgust. However,
    after a careful study of the proposal, the participants agreed that it
    was the only possible solution. Consequently, polygamy was included
    among the conference final recommendations.  

    The world today possesses more weapons of mass destruction than ever
    before and the European churches might, sooner or later, be obliged to
    accept polygamy as the only way out. Father Hillman has thoughtfully
    recognised this fact, "It is quite conceivable that these genocidal
    techniques (nuclear, biological, chemical..) could produce so drastic
    an imbalance among the sexes that plural marriage would become a
    necessary means of survival....Then contrary to previous custom and
    law, an overriding natural and moral inclination might arise in favour
    of polygamy. In such a situation, theologians and church leaders would
    quickly produce weighty reasons and biblical texts to justify a new
    conception of marriage."  

    To the present day, polygamy continues to be a viable solution to some
    of the social ills of modern societies. The communal obligations that
    the Quran mentions in association with the permission of polygamy are
    more visible at present in some Western societies than in Africa. For
    example, In the United States today, there is a severe gender crisis in
    the black community. One out of every twenty young black males may die
    before reaching the age of 21. For those between 20 and 35 years of
    age, homicide is the leading cause of death. 65 Besides, many young
    black males are unemployed, in jail, or on dope. 66 As a result, one in
    four black women, at age 40, has never married, as compared with one in
    ten white women. 67 Moreover, many young black females become single
    mothers before the age of 20 and find themselves in need of providers.
    The end result of these tragic circumstances is that an increasing
    number of black women are engaged in what is called 'man-sharing'. 68
    That is, many of these hapless single black women are involved in
    affairs with married men. The wives are often unaware of the fact that
    other women are 'sharing' their husbands with them. Some observers of
    the crisis of man-sharing in the African American community strongly
    recommend consensual polygamy as a temporary answer to the shortage of
    black males until more comprehensive reforms in the American society at
    large are undertaken. 69 By consensual polygamy they mean a polygamy
    that is sanctioned by the community and to which all the parties
    involved have agreed, as opposed to the usually secret man-sharing
    which is detrimental both to the wife and to the community in general.
    The problem of man-sharing in the African American community was the
    topic of a panel discussion held at Temple University in Philadelphia
    on January 27, 1993. 70 Some of the speakers recommended polygamy as
    one potential remedy for the crisis. They also suggested that polygamy
    should not be banned by law, particularly in a society that tolerates
    prostitution and mistresses. The comment of one woman from the audience
    that African Americans needed to learn from Africa where polygamy was
    responsibly practiced elicited enthusiastic applause.

    Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist of Roman Catholic heritage,
    in his provocative book, Plural marriage for our time, proposes
    polygamy as a solution to some of the ills of the American society at
    large. He argues that plural marriage may serve as a potential
    alternative for divorce in many cases in order to obviate the damaging
    impact of divorce on many children. He maintains that many divorces are
    caused by the rampant extramarital affairs in the American society.
    According to Kilbride, ending an extramarital affair in a polygamous
    marriage, rather than in a divorce, is better for the children,
    "Children would be better served if family augmentation rather than
    only separation and dissolution were seen as options." Moreover, he
    suggests that other groups will also benefit from plural marriage such
    as: elderly women who face a chronic shortage of men and the African
    Americans who are involved in man-sharing.  

    In 1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the university of
    California at Berkeley asked the students whether they agreed that men
    should be allowed by law to have more than one wife in response to a
    perceived shortage of male marriage candidates in California. Almost
    all of the students polled approved of the idea. One female student
    even stated that a polyganous marriage would fulfil her emotional and
    physical needs while giving her greater freedom than a monogamous
    union. 72 In fact, this same argument is also used by the few remaining
    fundamentalist Mormon women who still practice polygamy in the U.S.
    They believe that polygamy is an ideal way for a woman to have both a
    career and children since the wives help each other care for the

    It has to be added that polygamy in Islam is a matter of mutual
    consent. No one can force a woman to marry a married man. Besides, the
    wife has the right to stipulate that her husband must not marry any
    other woman as a second wife. 74 The Bible, on the other hand,
    sometimes resorts to forcible polygamy. A childless widow must marry
    her husband's brother, even if he is already married (see the "Plight
    of Widows" section),regardless of her consent (Genesis 38:8-10). It
    should be noted that in many Muslim societies today the practice of
    polygamy is rare since the gap between the numbers of both sexes is not
    huge. One can, safely, say that the rate of polygamous marriages in the
    Muslim world is much less than the rate of extramarital affairs in the
    West. In other words, men in the Muslim world today are far more
    strictly monogamous than men in the Western world.

    Billy Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist has recognised this
    fact: "Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If
    present-day Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own detriment.
    Islam has permitted polygamy as a solution to social ills and has
    allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature but only within
    the strictly defined framework of the law. Christian countries make a
    great show of monogamy, but actually they practice polygamy. No one is
    unaware of the part mistresses play in Western society. In this respect
    Islam is a fundamentally honest religion, and permits a Muslim to marry
    a second wife if he must, but strictly forbids all clandestine amatory
    associations in order to safeguard the moral probity of the community."

    It is of interest to note that many, non-Muslim as well as Muslim,
    countries in the world today have outlawed polygamy. Taking a second
    wife, even with the free consent of the first wife, is a violation of
    the law. On the other hand, cheating on the wife, without her knowledge
    or consent, is perfectly legitimate as far as the law is concerned!
    What is the legal wisdom behind such a contradiction? Is the law
    designed to reward deception and punish honesty? It is one of the
    unfathomable paradoxes of our modern 'civilised' world.

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