THE QURAN AND POLYGAMY
Copyright Muhammed Asadi 2001
People living in the West, commonly view polygamy with hostility and hate. Such is the case behind outlawing all forms of polygamy in the U.S. The cause of this aversion is rooted in present-day corporate culture and its hypocrisy and sexism which accepts [at present] all outside of marriage sexual relationships between a man and a woman in plurality [except rape] but the same relationship made responsible by protecting the rights of women through legal contract, marriage, is condemned.
It may sound surprising that the root for abhorring polygamy does not lie in the Christian religion. The early Lutheran Church in Germany, particularly the city of Munster proclaimed polygamy (polygyny) as the "ideal form of marriage" ( Cairncross 1974:1 ).
The Bible [Old Testament as well as the NewTestament] does not have a single word in its text which condemns polygamy. Contrary to that the patriarchs mostly had more than one wife and were not condemned by God. To David, according to the Bible, God says that He gave him many wives [2 Samuel 12:8]. Abraham had more than one wife, so did Moses. God Himself gives the method and rights when another wife is taken in,, according to the Bible [Exodus 21:10]:
"If he take him another wife her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage shall he not diminish."
In the New Testament, Paul forbade bishops and deacons to have more than one wife [I Timothy 3:2]. This implicitly suggests that others were allowed polygamy [polygyny- one man taking on more than one woman]. It is for this reason that polygamists among the early Christians were baptized unconditionally (Cairncross 1974:69). There is not one word attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, which condemns polygamy. The insistence of monogamy was introduced as an invention by the Church [Roman Catholic] as late as A.D 600 just as the invention of celibacy of the clergy (Cairncross 1974:70).
ISLAMIC (Koranic) POLYGAMY
If the Koran is taken as the criterion in judging what Islam is then, polygamy (polygyny) is allowed but severely restricted so as to retain its social benefits within a patriarchal society, undoing patriarchy is the long term incremental goal of the Quran that pluralizes marriage in terms of contract. Two things that come to mind whenever Islam or the Koran is mentioned in the West (in relation to women) are Islamic polygamy and the restrictive Islamic dress for women (the infamous veil). A third thing also commonly crops up when talking about Islam in general and that is terrorism [Jihad or so-called holy war]. These three effectively describe the stereotype of Islam held by the West. Like most stereotypes they are based either on ignorance or describe the practice of those that base their actions on tradition more than the Koran. Instead of attacking tradition and custom, those with vested interests attack Islam and the Koran even though it is evident that these stereotypes aren't rooted in the Koran.
There is nothing in Christianity or Judaism against polygamy (polygyny- one man taking more than one wife). Indeed the Old Testament assumes that marriages will be polygamous and laws are constructed based on that assumption. For example, Exodus 21:10 in the Bible states:
"If he take to him another wife, her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage shall he not diminish." (The Bible, Exodus 21:10)
There is not a word attributed to Jesus in the New Testament which disallows polygamy. Paul forbade bishops and deacons from marrying more than one wife (1 Timothy 3:2), this implicitly suggests that other were allowed polygamy (polygyny). The insistence on monogamy was an invention introduced by the Roman Catholic Church as late as AD 600 just as the invention of the celibacy of the clergy [the Church being against marriage in general and not only polygamy] (Cairncross 1974:70). The early Lutheran Church in Munster, Germany proclaimed polygamy (polygyny) the "ideal form of marriage" (Cairncross 1974:1)
Any mention of polygamy in the West today, among feminists and non-feminists alike, evokes feeling of hate. This hate is rooted in Western culture and not religion as we have seen above. The culture that hates polygamy however allows all sexual intercourse between a man and a woman in plurality [as long as it is pre or non marital]. However the same intercourse made "responsible" by marriage in the plural is outlawed and hated.
The Koran severely restricted the open practice of polygamy. The statement in the Koran that deals with polygamy is just one yet it is misused and abused by both Muslims and Non-Muslims. It states:
"And if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly with the oppressed women [Yatama- literally, the Orphans among women-see the context], then marry from among them two or three or four, but if you fear you wont be just [even then], then marry only one." (Koran 4:3).
The Koran states explicitly above that polygyny is allowed only if the women you marry: 1. Belong among oppressed (orphan) women. Men cannot pick and choose from "any" women who they want as a second wife. 2. Polygamy is to be practiced only if marriage would bring social justice to such women, justice that they are otherwise denied. If marrying more than one cannot bring such justice then polygamy is not allowed. Thus the Koran severely restricts the open practice of polygamy in society. The Koran does not, like the early Lutheran Church, term polygamy the "ideal" form. According to the Koran, polygamy is a good option only when it brings social justice to the oppressed classes of women.
According to poverty expert William Julius Wilson (1996), 31% of the continually poor in America comprise of "non-elderly" African American women. Now these are among the oppressed classes of women. If polygamy by well established men could bring social justice to them by removing their children and hence future generations from this "cycle of poverty," it is good. It is also recognized by many sociologists and by Dr. Wilson himself that "non-marriage" and the "lack of marriage" is a viable reason in their poverty and status. "Lack or marriage" or a "broken household" is recognized universally by sociologists as contributing to such poverty. It is recognized that divorce and out of wedlock childbearing has resulted in the "feminization of poverty." In Iraq, after the Gulf War when hundreds of thousands of women became widows, restricted polygamy by just individuals would similarly have been very functional.
A country like the United States where the population of women is a few million more than the population of men, some women can statistically never find husbands if everyone practiced monogamy. Such oppressed women [I say oppressed because a lack of marital intimacy is to me deprivation and oppression of a sort] could be given family life and hence social justice by "restricted" Koranic polygamy.
The Koran is well aware that men misuse polygamy as they are "swayed by the greed of their hearts" and thus puts severe restrictions on the practice of polygamy to protect the rights of women and wives. As a result the only "religious" book that states explicitly, "then marry only ONE (Koran 4:3)" is the Koran. Monogamy is prescribed for society in general with "restricted" polygamy being allowed when special circumstances warrant it.
"And their Lord has heard them (and says): `I suffer not the work of any worker MALE or FEMALE to be lost. You (men and women) proceed one from the other.." Koran 3:195
The Koran. Translation.
Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version, 1971.
Cairncross, John. After Polygamy was made a sin. London, Routledge & K Paul, 1974