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Islamic Ideology ( 30 March 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Myths about Islamic Polygamy

By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam

31 March 2017

O People, it is true that you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under God’s trust and with His permission. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers.

-Prophet Muhammad’s Farewell Sermon

Polygamy is anathema to modern legal and moral standards. The most serious criticism against Islam is that this is not so in its culture. The general impression is that  the conjugal mores of seventh-century Arabia — and the problems that travel with them — have taken roots because  Islam is perceived as  a misogynist religion .This is not so . On the surface, it may appear a facile assumption .but if you slice it deeply will find that polygamy is an anathema in Islam, too. This practice continues because Islam’s drowsy cultural and religious watchdogs either look the other way or have an implicit vested interest in it.

Plural unions not only inspire distrust between spouses and heightened competition among offspring. Children also learn from an early age that females are unworthy of exclusive affection and therefore hold less value than males. Moreover, if common, polygamy creates legions of unhappily unmarried young men who are ripe for radicalization.

Contrary to various myths, polygamy is a social safety and security net that has unfortunately been maligned on account of its abuse. The issue of polygamy requires a much nuanced understanding.

The Qur’anic institution of polygamy is a piece of social legislation which  was designed not to gratify the male sexual appetite and lust , but was intended  to correct the injustices done to widows, orphans, and other female dependants, who are  especially vulnerable. It ensured that unprotected women were decently married, and   old loose, irresponsible liaisons of men were abolished and morality was restored and upheld.

The Qur’an permitted polygamy as a solution to the pressing social welfare problems during the time of revelation, roughly 1,400 years ago. The reasons behind polygamy had nothing to do with satiating men’s sexual appetites or curbing their wandering eyes.   We first read about polygamy in the Qur’an’s fourth chapter:

“Give orphans their property, do not replace their good things with the bad, and do not consume their property with your own. That is a serious crime. If you fear you will not deal justly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if you fear that you cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or the captives that your right hands possess. Thus it is more likely that you will not do injustice “(4:2-3).

 The primary concern of the Qur’an was orphans. To me Qur’an is the only book which has so many tons of verses overflowing with profuse compassion for orphans. There can be no better manifesto of rights of orphans Note that polygamy and orphans — which in Arabic refers to fatherless children — are mentioned in the same sentence.

Pinning down a reason for Muslims engaging in polygamous marriages in modern society is really difficult .it is confounding that Muslims well-heeled in Islamic values are resorting plural marriage when it is frowned in Islam and permitted only when it is undertaken as humanitarian measure. It is certain that most of them engaging in polygamous marriages are not marrying widows and even if they are widows, their action is not inspired   by impulses of the welfare    of orphans –a litmus test laid down by the Qur’an. Protection of these women’s children from injustice and exploitation may probably be just one of the many considerations

In the Qur’anic context, polygamy implies that there has to be a relationship between the woman or women whom the Muslim man marries and the orphans, because marrying a woman unrelated to orphans will not be of help in safeguarding their rights. While doing justice to orphans is mandatory, so also is doing justice to all the women whom a Muslim man marries.  A Muslim family unit is built on the Islamic notion that the husband must always be the primary breadwinner and a wife must always be the primary care giver.

The Qur’an permits polygamy — not readily but reluctantly as the last resort — and only in conditions of great social hardship and for humanitarian purposes. It is very important to note that there are two commandments to do justice, and that polygamy was allowed for the benefit of orphans and the women who were their guardians or caretakers.

There are two countries which have banned polygamy while several countries have imposed restrictions on them. Turkey was the first Muslim country to legally ban polygamy in 1926. This decision was not based on religious reasons, but rather was an entirely secular ban. Tunisia was the next country to ban polygamy through legislation passed in 1956 and restated in 1964.In other Muslim countries, it is restricted. In Pakistan,   man cannot contract another marriage during the subsistence of an existing marriage without the permission   of the Arbitration Council.

There is a clamour in the west and they have a right to ask - why is the taking of more than one wife even mentioned in the Qur'an if it was never meant to be exercised? Well, here we have historical context. The Prophet lived at a time when continual warfare produced large numbers of widows, who were left with little or no provision for themselves and their children. In these circumstances, polygamy was encouraged as an act of charity. Needless to say, the widows were not necessarily sexy young women, but usually mothers of up to six children, who came as part of the deal. 

On this point Muslim law is more elastic and more in harmony with the requirements of society than the other systems of law which do not permit polygamy in any case. Supposing there is a case in which a woman has young children, and falls chronically ill, becoming incapable of doing the household work. The husband has no means of employing a maid-servant for the purpose, not to speak of the natural requirements of conjugal life. Supposing also that the sick woman gives her consent to her husband to take a second wife, and that a woman is found who agrees to marry the individual in question. Western law would rather permit immorality than a legal marriage to bring happiness to this afflicted home. In fact, Muslim law is nearer to reason. For, it admits polygamy when a woman herself consents to such a kind of life. The law does not impose polygamy, but only permits it in certain cases. Polygamy is not the rule, but an exception

The worst tragedy for a woman is when her husband passes away and, as a widow, the responsibility of maintaining the children falls upon her. In the Eastern World, where a woman does not always go out to earn her living, the problems of widowhood are indescribable. Prophet Muhammad   upheld the cause of widows. Most of his wives were widows. In an age when widows were rarely permitted to remarry, the Prophet encouraged his followers to marry them. He was always ready to help widows and exhorted his followers to do the same.

If understood correctly in its Qur'anic context, polygamy was a grave responsibility for Muslim men. In practice, however, it has often been regarded as a male privilege intended for the pleasure of men. The stringent conditions which are tagged by Qur’an to polygamy have generally been disregarded by the traditional interpreters. 

The Three Key Verses Of The Qur’an On Which Hinges The Ontology Of The Islamic Polygamy Are:

        “If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice’ (or in order not to make your family support worse)” (Q4: 3).

        “You are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire...” (Q 4:129)

        “O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness... on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take a dislike to them it may be that you dislike a thing which God brings about through it a great deal of good” (Q 4:19)

Plurality of wives made sense at a time of war, when there were many widowed women and sometimes they fell on hard times. It was also a sociological mechanism to ensure that men with barren wives could marry again and reproduce. It was certainly not a licence for lust, as suggested by the orientalist fantasy of the harem. The Qur’an explicitly states that a man intending to take more than one wife is only allowed to do so if he treats each wife equally. He must lavish his love and affection equally, and financially support each wife absolutely equally to the penny.  It's very important for relationships to be neutral and fair .the concept of fairness demands that a husband treat all his wives with complete, and unfailing, magnanimity; showering on each his equal and undivided attention. The husband needs to provide for the physical, emotional, and monetary, in effect, the complete ‘worldly’ welfare, of each of his wives, without making any allowance for a compromise   or his favouring of one spouse over another.  Anything short of this would be considered as a violation of the Holy Quran’s recommendation for observing justice. This is simply not possible which leads us to believe that polygamy was never meant to be practiced and is only done so by men exploiting Qur’anic teachings.

Thes  “polygamy verses” were revealed shortly after the battle of Uhad, in which the Muslim forces lost many soldiers leaving  large number of widows .The gender imbalance, and the fact that in that time and place women largely depended on men for their economic survival, made polygamy a pragmatic solution for a woman for her protection and  protection of  her children 

Even in this historical context, the Quran asks men to first consider taking care of orphans, and only when they think they may not be able to do justice to the orphans’ interests while staying in isolation, should they consider marrying their widowed mothers, on the condition that the new family would be dealt justly and on par with the existing one.. 

If the rights of Muslim women are upheld and advanced as contained in the spirit of the Qur’an, then the justice that it embodies will never be ignored. Islam does not allow a husband to act cruelly to his wife, either physically or mentally   

In today’s industrial society, it is impossible to observe the conditions laid down by the scriptures. But social psychologists will say that polygamy is a solution to many complex and difficult situations and, in the absence of a socially sanctioned mechanism, extra social arrangements have to be worked out. Polygamy protects the status of women by according them full rights. Instead of being a secret "mistress”, demeaned to live more like a chattel, she becomes a dignified wife with all the rights and privileges that come with being a wife. Polygamy ensures sexual purity and chastity and whenever polygamy has been banned, it emerges from history that illicit sex has raised its head. An unlawful mistress is more harmful to a social fabric than a lawful second wife. 

In fact, this Qur’anic provision unconsciously inspired the 19th-century social purity movement that sought to abolish prostitution and other sexual activities that were considered immoral according to Christian morality. Composed primarily of women, the movement was active in English-speaking nations from the late 1860s to about 1910, exerting an important influence on the contemporaneous feminist and eugenics, discourses

 The baser instincts can always overwhelm human sanity and social mores and    in many cases turn out to be ineffective deterrents. But law and its implementing apparatus, the judiciary and the state, can always use their chastening influence .this exceptional right can be supervised and made subject to stringent conditions.

.A New York Times review of the book in 1994 described the views of Robert Wright the celebrated author of The Moral Animal in this way: “Monogamy, Wright says, does not favor the interests of most women, particularly lower-status women. Most human cultures throughout history have been mildly polygynous, with wealthier men attracting several wives. Though women in these cultures ‘are often less than eager to share a man,’ he writes, ‘typically, they would rather do that than live in poverty with the undivided attention of a ne’er-do-well.’ Monogamy instead favours lower-status men who in a polygynous society would be frozen out of the marriage market by wife-collecting elite. It is no coincidence that Christianity has advocated monogamy and pitched its message to poor and powerless men.”

Yet, many Muslim men use this so-called “right” to multiple wives as a means to excuse themselves from the monogamy that Islam actually implores of them in favour of polygamy.  This sort of self-serving attitude leaves many women in these unconventional unions in a state of neglect, emotional distress, and without the comfort that Islamic marriage is supposed to provide.

Muslim society must take not of findings of sever studies which demonstrate the deleterious effects on families of polygamous marriages. The biggest ever study conducted was the one undertaken by a leading Muslim women’s organization, Sisters in Islam, in Malaysia. Based on nearly 1,500 quantitative and qualitative questionnaires that were distributed in 12 Malaysian states, its findings were alarming. Results showed that not only did polygamy negatively affect the wives; it also had extremely harmful effects on children who were the product of such unions. Many reported being neglected by their father when he had obtained a new wife. The emotional and mental consequences for the families were very bad and had long term implications.

As the number of wives and consequently the number of children grew, there were fewer resources and lesser attention or affection for the older wives and their children. In cases where the father had more than 10 children from two or more wives, the children reported that he could often not recognize them, asking them to which mother they belonged when they went to ask for pocket money or school fees.

The condition also imperilled the children’s relationship with their mothers, whom they saw as weak and unable to get proper attention from their fathers.  Since the mother was the only parent that they knew and frequently interacted with, they often held her responsible for the fact that their father was not paying enough attention to them.

Children also suffered mentally because many fathers failed to pay Nafaqa, or support, to mothers, in turn forcing the mothers to take sundry jobs.

The compelling message of the Qur’an is: Polygamy is a provision for the welfare of widows and orphans and certainly not for the convenience of men.  If the overriding concern is the welfare of the destitute, polygamy has an enduring and   relevance. But to restrain the wrong impulses we need to have systems in place so that these provisions are not misused or abused.

The problem of polygamy, of women taken in as secondary wives, of women forced into impoverishment and emotional stress and all the many variants of abuse that  a plural marriage entails, can   be  very effectively tackled  if tools from both faith and law are used to check this  exploitation of an Islamic welfare m practice for an ulterior end.

 Scriptures are meant for the good of human societies. But there will always be animal spirits.  Humans have both the angelic and satanic traits. There are evil impulses within each soul. We have the   means of taming them –laws for punishing them, norms for shaming them, and cure for healing them. Let us not in our imperfect understanding or prejudice throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades.


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