23 August 2010

Yes I'm Going to Write about It: Polygamy

So. *awkward cough* Let's talk about polygamy. Specifically in Islam. Although, I should say, I've actually met and spoken with 0 Muslim polygamists, but met and spoken with more than one non-Muslim person in a polyamorous relationship. I must say, if I'm wrong in my facts or my opinions offend you, let me know! I do not shrink from criticisms.

Where to begin? I've heard that a lot of people assume that Muslim men can just marry as many women as they want. Not true. Many of you may know that there's a stipulation that men can only marry four women. I have, however, been told that Mohammed himself married more than that, including some shady business with a 9-year-old girl named Aicha who later grew up to be one of the most revered women in Islam - this has never been fully explained to me, and I've never found a writing on it that satisfied me. But I digress.

Until very recently, this fact that men could marry more than one woman really bugged me about Islam. Well, who am I kidding, it still does. But, since it has been explained to me, I can at least understand why and where it came from. The explanation of why the four-wife rule exists comes from the fact that, IN THE DAYS BEFORE ISLAM (I kind of imagine a 40s-movie God voice here), Arab culture said that a man could marry as many women as he wanted, not counting slave-girls, of course, and that he could treat them however he deemed worthy. It would also be important to note that a widow stood little chance of inheriting anything from her husband. Then, along comes Mohammed and is like, "No way José, that's not cool." (Or something, I don't speak pre-Islam Arabic) and God sends him a revelation that becomes part of the Quran:
"And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice between them, then marry only one or what your right hands possess: this is more proper that you may not deviate from the right course" (4:3).
The problem here brings us really close to the sticky mess - both academic and theological - of textual analysis and criticism, but as it was explained to me, God was saying that monogamy in Islam is the rule, and polygamy is the exception. The loophole exists in the "if you fear that you will not do justice between them" part. Here, apologists will tell you that it is written somewhere that Mohammed explained this to be God advocating for monogamy, because how could anyone (well, he probably said any man) love and treat two people equally? No two people are THAT alike. So, a man should not marry two or three or four women, because he never support or love them equally.

But, as we all know, men did marry more than one woman. What gives? Well, in that time, (and honestly, in a lot of times before, well, now) it was really difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to (a) be single her whole life, (b) be an orphan, or (c) be a widow. In pre-Islamic Arabia, these women wouldn't survive, because they needed to be supported, financially and socially. And a lot of husbands died in wars - they say more than women died. So Mohammed's explanation of the polygamy rule is that the men are saving the women by marrying them, protecting them from death or a life as an outcast, in a time and a culture when they needed saving.

In all honesty, I've seen a lot more detailed and thoroughly researched articles that poke a lot of holes in this loophole theory and question the whole polygamy revelation in general, but this is how I think a lot of my Moroccan friends understand it. They can also extrapolate this idea to modern Morocco and say that, in dire circumstances, if a woman is widowed or divorced, and there is little chance of her being married to anyone else, it is preferable for her to become someone's second wife. In the same vein, I have been told that a man should take a second wife if his first wife is unable to have children, because it is better to be a first wife than to be a divorced woman in Moroccan society.

Let me just say, for those of you whose jaws are dropping right about now, that the people who told me these things have never considered taking a second wife. They told me they want to find one woman that they love and be her partner for life. One of them even told me he tried (I don't know if he succeeded) to talk a girl out of marrying a man who already had a wife - this guy knew that that kind of a marriage would just lead to pain. So I'm not saying that Moroccans are for polygamy, per se. But they seems to be able to justify its use. The law in Morocco has a similar outlook, and polygamy is legal only in certain cases, and a husband must seek the approval of a judge to get a second marriage, and the first wife has to be notified, and, if I am not mistaken, legally sign something that says she agrees to the second marriage.

So where does this leave us? Well, I got started on this blog post because of an article in the Guardian about an Saudi woman who published an article - mostly as a satire - about her right to marry four husbands. It got everyone all up in arms in the Arab world, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I applaud her bravery for publishing this.

Personally, I usually have a live and let live attitude about relationships and marriage. If you can't tell by now, I'm not the biggest fan of polygamy because of the way it considers women less than fully human or fully able to take care of themselves - that could be a whole other blog post - and I know that non-monogamy, even the most progressive forms of polyamory (the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved) is not for me. But I will leave you all to make up your own minds.

1 comment:

Jenna said...

Just catching up on your blog now. I read in a Reza Aslan book that Muhammad's 'extra' wives were widows of close friends and he married them in order to prevent them from becoming destitute. Doing so gave them a legitimate household to live in, but that they probably did not have a true husband-wife relationship.