HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Polygamy in the Modern Islamic World

Polygamy in the Middle East and the modern Islamic world might not be what we think it is from an outsider’s perspective. In light of the recent classroom discussion about marriage and women’s rights in the Modern Middle East, polygamy seemed to be the next big question that needed to be addressed.

The first important distinction that needs to be made is that there is a difference between Polygamy and Polygyny. The former is the practice where an individual can have more than one wife or husband at the same time. Polygyny is what is practiced in Islam and is the practice where a man can have multiple wives but a woman cannot have multiple husbands.

Prior to the advent of Islam, polygyny was openly practiced in the Middle East where men could marry as many women as they wanted. Most often, this would lead to the mistreatment of all the women who were married to the man. Men would also marry women who were left under their care, i.e. orphans or widows. It was also common practice during the Ottoman rule for the sultan to maintain a harem of women some of whom were wives of the sultan. This would also lead to the mistreatment of women in the harem.

In order to curb these practices, the Quran provides some guidelines for polygyny. The Quran states that a man is only allowed to marry up to four women. More importantly, he can only take on a second, third, or fourth wife if he has the means to provide for all of them. He also needs the consent of the previous wife or wives in order to marry the next one. The original intention of allowing polygyny was to provide social security to widows, orphans, and women from the lowest income levels who didn’t have the means to support themselves. The recommendation however is to have a monogamous relationship. The allowance of additional wives is only for the betterment and protection of women in need and not merely an indulgence provided to men over women.

Currently polygamy is recognized under civil law in almost fifty countries, and recognized under customary law in an additional thirteen countries. It is much more widespread, as a legal practice, than most Americans realize.

Although recently, due to the dominance of the western world and its culture, the perception of polygamy has changed from being a common practice to being looked down upon as a violation of women’s rights. This has also led to a rise in feminism in the modern Islamic world. This feminist movement took two veins. One view called for the reinterpretation of the Quran which led to the conclusion that the guidelines for polygyny were put in place with the right intention. They believed that the guidelines sought to help women and ensure their support and protection. This view also deems the Islamic approach to women as progressive for its day and no different than other religious texts of its time. The other approach seems more westernized and deems Islamic law as male dominated. They believe that they only way out of polygyny would be to reevaluate the political and civil laws without relying on a reinterpretation of the Quran.

Anecdotal accounts from friends who practice Islam suggest that polygyny is becoming increasingly looked down upon even though it is allowed under Islamic law. They say that it is still practiced in the rural areas of the Islamic parts of South Asia but not so much in upper middle class urban societies. They believe that polygyny is acceptable only under certain circumstances and is not solely intended to oppress women as the Western perception of polygyny suggests.

It seems that those who understand the intention behind polygyny in the Quran have found a balance between what has been preached and what needs to be practiced in today’s world. An article in the Saudi Arabian Al Arabiya news website suggests that women in Saudi Arabia today don’t mind being a second or third wife from fear of remaining spinsters. Since polygyny is more of a common practice than spinsterhood, it has become the alternative to being an unmarried woman in Saudi Arabian society. The article does not neglect that women don’t particularly look forward to being a second or third wife, and provides and interesting perspective on modern day practices and societal norms.

All in all, the practice of polygyny or monogamy is viewed differently based on background, belief, religion, and faith. What may seem inhumane to us, may seem ordinary to them. What may seem ordinary to us, may seem immoral to them. Personally, I believe that an acceptance that our way isn’t always the right way would definitely help create the much needed cultural bridge between the East and West. Is there a right answer? Will the rise of Islamic feminism ultimately lead to the end of polygyny in modern Islam? Do we intervene for the sake of women’s rights? Or do we agree to disagree and let each culture have their own traditions?

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19 Comments

  1. Monogamy seems so natural to us yet it has not always been that way in human history. In some societies, people would have one partner for a period of a few years and then move on to another one–sort of like dating in long-term relationships but without the intention of finding “the one” to settle down with. In some societies where the conditions were the roughest–as in extreme weather, or extremely low amounts of food, etc.–women would have multiple husbands because multiple men would be needed to support the growth and development of one child. In some societies that are more prosperous, where men can find the means to support many wives, they sometimes take multiple wives. And we can see even in our monogamous culture, people struggling to “settle down” or having affairs. Animals that tend to have one partner also usually “cheat.” I guess I feel that it is a little hypocritical for our culture to be moving towards an open attitude towards homosexuality but we view polygamy as unnatural. I think the reason is that obviously, there is a stigma of polygamy as being cultish or oppressive to women. While I’m not necessarily arguing that polygamy should be sanctioned under law in the U.S., we should definitely realize that monogamy is not the only way to live one’s life. I think people should have the right to live their life the way they want as long as it is not harming other people.

  2. Monogamy seems so natural to us yet it has not always been that way in human history. In some societies, people would have one partner for a period of a few years and then move on to another one–sort of like dating in long-term relationships but without the intention of finding “the one” to settle down with. In some societies where the conditions were the roughest–as in extreme weather, or extremely low amounts of food, etc.–women would have multiple husbands because multiple men would be needed to support the growth and development of one child. In some societies that are more prosperous, where men can find the means to support many wives, they sometimes take multiple wives. And we can see even in our monogamous culture, people struggling to “settle down” or having affairs. Animals that tend to have one partner also usually “cheat.” I guess I feel that it is a little hypocritical for our culture to be moving towards an open attitude towards homosexuality but we view polygamy as unnatural. I think the reason is that obviously, there is a stigma of polygamy as being cultish or oppressive to women. While I’m not necessarily arguing that polygamy should be sanctioned under law in the U.S., we should definitely realize that monogamy is not the only way to live one’s life. I think people should have the right to live their life the way they want as long as it is not harming other people.

  3. Kaitlyn Johnson says:

    Growing up in America, which is actually rather conservative if you think about it, I am a bit affronted at the idea of polygamy. I understand that sometimes it is good for the women to be protected by a man but with this day and age women are recognized internationally and fully capable of fending for themselves. A survey I read said: “The results revealed Tuesday show that 26.2 per cent of people who completed the survey believe that polygamy is legal with Islam and that all Muslims have the right to practice polygamy if they choose to (73 per cent of respondents to this question were male, with just 27 per cent of female respondents selecting this view). ” Times are changing not only in Western countries but also traditionally conservative Islamic societies. As women gain more freedom in society I think polygamy will lessen greatly and slowly dissipate.
    Besides, who doesn’t want to find their one true love? 😉

  4. mjuren3 says:

    I love the quote at the beginning of this article because it’s so true! I admit that it is extremely hard for me to be open-minded on this particular topic simply because I could not imagine that being married to a man who had other wives would be a positive thing for anyone involved. However, I don’t live in a society where I have to find a man to marry in order to secure my well being so I can understand where those women are coming from. I am extremely blessed to have grown up in a society where women are fully liberated to succeed as individuals and are not forced into a situation where they have to get married simply to survive.

  5. kolson23 says:

    It is interesting to take a look at this subject, because it is something I hardly think about. I am also not used to the idea of having multiple spouses, and it does seem odd to me. From what you say however, it seems that in the Islamic culture, the practice has positive roots. The practice sounds like was/is for the benefit and protection of women and not simply for the man’s benefit or desire. I too see it changing as we move forward and more and more groups are gaining freedoms and rights. the practice will die out. Though I feel having a single spouse (monogamy) is right, I also agree that if the practice of polygamy is not harming anyone, or no one is forced into it the practice is ok.

  6. shaimsn says:

    Great post. My take on this is: If people there live in a society where having multiple wives is beneficial and presents opportunities, why should they stop doing so?

    I wouldn’t have multiple wives, but if they are happy doing it and they are not bothering us, why should we stop them? It’s the same opinion I have about gay marriages. If they are happy with it, and they are not disrespecting me, why would I have the right to stop them? (I know this is a BIG argument, but I just wanted to mention it to show my train of thought)

    Now, what if polygyny actually presents more problems than solutions in these countries? Should we be the ones to intervene? This is THE question. Same question has been asked every time the US has entered a country to stabilize it (I’m giving the US the benefit of the doubt here). I don’t know the answer.

    I wanna talk about these questions with you guys in class; I wanna know what you think.

  7. ojanus3 says:

    The practice of polygamy is interesting because in America it isn’t practiced and is even outlawed in the majority of places. I can’t help to think about the show Sister Wives on this topic. Even though I don’t understand the ins and outs of the practice it is interesting to learn that in Islamic culture the purpose of polgyny was to take in widows who are do not have the means to take care of themselves.

  8. I don’t understand why people want to have multiple spouses. I personally think that one spouse is troublesome enough! I totally agree with the blog about respecting different tradition. I know many people who do not care to be the second wife or the third wife of a wealthy man, but they cannot do it because the it is illegal. However, this give men opportunities to have multiple mistresses and have no responsibility to them. This actually harm women’s right! I personally think that women should not be men’s second or third or Nth wife, but it is eventually up to them to choose. Therefore, the law should protect those women who do not mind being mistresses, like what is addressed in Islamic law.

    Shitian Liu

  9. flambert3 says:

    I think that each culture should work out its own problems or beliefs of what is accepted or not. All things change with time and based on the means clause from the Qur’an in having additional wives i can see a gradual change while not the same but similar in the number of children dropping from high numbers in America to often times one.

  10. John Girata says:

    I think this is a great example of practices of the times influencing the development of religions. In the context in which Islam was formed, polygyny was accepted and was maintained under Islam. On the other hand, in the context in which Christianity was formed (i.e., Judaism), polygamy was not allowed and that did not change under Christianity.

  11. mcharles6 says:

    As a Christian, I believe that polygamy is wrong. The Bible says that when a man and woman are married, the two become one flesh. A man cannot be “one” with multiple women. However, in the Middle East, Islam is the cultural norm, and therefore polygyny is a cultural norm as well. I do not agree with it, and I think that it is wrong, but that is because of my faith. Muslims and other people of non-Christian faiths (Buddhists, Mormons, etc.) will disagree with me and say that polygamy (or certain forms of it) are okay. We have different faiths, so we have different beliefs. I understand that.

    Further, I do not view it as a women’s rights issue because it is, at its core, a faith-based issue. If I as a woman choose to associate myself with a religion that denies me privileges that I consider to be basic rights, then I am denying myself those rights because I am the one choosing to be a part of that religion.

  12. akranc3 says:

    I feel that no matter the culture, boys will be boys. If you can get away with having multiple wives/girlfriends/whatever, you’re gonna do it. Especially if you’re in the position of power where if those females get mad or bicker or nag, you don’t have to deal with it. With that being said, I feel the reasons for polygyny were good-hearted. You can’t have too many women turning into crazy cat ladies. 😛 However, since we are boys, we abused the system and gave it a bad name. Sorry ladies.

  13. mitch7991 says:

    The Western view of polygamy wasn’t originally centered on women’s rights, but on God’s Word. And I’m talking about Jesus’ Father. Therefore, it’s interesting that the difference in these two cultures initially came from religion, not ethics and civil rights. Is there a right answer? Yes, most definitely. According to Genesis 2:24, God’s design of marriage was for one man and one woman to come together as one flesh.

  14. nathenj65 says:

    This is another big topic that will be a very good discussion because there are two very different ways of looking at it. One way in which has a very rich catholic background where this is considered to be very wrong and is heavily preached against. While the other group is much more steeped in islam and has been practicing this for a very long time and is something that just what they have grown up around and have always considered it to be the norm. I think that is is very interesting that there is a feminist movement going on currently and had not realized that this was going on. I would love to see how this movement goes and what changes will be made to the daily life in countries of modern islam and how it affects there daily lives. This was a very good post that really brought a good point up and one that will be great to discuss later.

  15. I believe if all the women consent and are treated fairly, then there is no reason for this to stop. It is part of their religion. However, it will be interesting to see if it does disappear due to a rise of women’s rights and pressure of outside judgement.

  16. sstephenson3 says:

    This is a good article that poses some unique questions about the roles of marriage in Islamic society. It can be argued that polygamy/gyny is a widespread practice and that it is only implemented in ways that support women who otherwise have nowhere else to go. This, to me, is a sugar-coating of the facts. It masks the fact that the women in these societies have nowhere to go outside of marriage and claims that saving them from that is an act of mercy. In my opinion, women’s lib is more about being as self-sufficient as a man despite being a woman. The women in these Islamic societies do not really have much of a choice, in terms of independence and their role in society, and to claim that sheltering them from that lack of equality is benevolent insults my intelligence.

  17. jbholleman says:

    The idea of polygamy does not mix well with the pervasive western view of individualism. In Islamic law, polygamy is set up to help the women who cannot help themselves. These women, historically, were disadvantaged and did not have the same opportunities as men to provide for themselves. It makes sense in this light to have a system to help them. However, today we have many more opportunities for women to provide for themselves with growing individualism and equal rights. There are also many other social and economical structures to help take care of those in need such as welfare, health services, and care homes. These things make it so that a polygamous relationship is not needed any more, and as many people have pointed out, these sorts of relationships are much harder than monogamous ones. To me, this makes the polygamous relationship outdated and unnecessary.

  18. Jeffrey Lester says:

    I think this is one of those situations where letting those who believe a certain way dictate their own lives is the best way. If it isn’t hurting people then those involved shouldn’t be forced to stop by those who disagree with it. However if people are being hurt, in this case women, then I certainly hope that the feminist movements prevail and any part that western culture plays to that end is good.

  19. mnicholas6 says:

    I like the map you presented. I think it’s cool that Australia and the United Kingdom recognize the practices and customs of other countries to this extent. I’m sure there are immigrants in these areas who are greatly appreciative that their family units are being validated away from home.

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