Is There A Place For Polygamy In The Modern World?
It is said that polygamy (having more than one wife) is a luxury of primitive people and monogamy is an existential responsibility of a civilized society. However, we also know that men continue to fantasize having several beautiful and recyclable women, possibly from different parts of the world, for different roles in their lives including banter, sex, housework, cooking, raising children, partying, etc.
It is easy to say that one is either promiscuous or in a relationship, and it cannot be both at the same time. However, hardly a day goes by without news of someone’s extramarital affair or a secret marriage breaking out. Even a Professor of Theology was quoted a few years ago in the newspapers that governments should legalize polygamy for whites to beat their higher divorce rates. Other academics have argued that fewer men are available for marriage due to wars and other reasons so the unmarried could select a married man and negotiate with his wife to become a part of the family.
The concept of marriage itself has changed over time from being “divinely ordained” (Catholic) to John Locke’s “voluntary contract” and Marxist “part of class struggle” to early feminists labelling it as “exploitation of the women”. Polygamy may have also undergone similar changes in its concept and definition. For example, “serial polygamy” is a repetitive cycle of marriages and divorces with the same or different women and “practical polygamy” involves a married man supporting one or more mistresses or a single man having more than one relationship at the same time.
The law of civil partnerships where heterosexual couples have similar rights to married couples has come into effect in the U.K. in 2020. Similar laws elsewhere in the West have made people suggest that the institution of marriage may be disappearing rather than merely changing in the advanced societies. On the other hand, there have been surveys published in which the majority of several thousand mistresses interviewed preferred being a second wife to their current status.
Polygamy is as old as human society. The first recorded evidence of polygamy goes back to the ancient Israelites. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. King David had six wives and numerous concubines (1 Chronicles 3:1-3, 14:3) and King David’s son, Rehoboam, had 18 wives and 60 concubines (2 Chronicles 11:21). Polygamy was practised throughout the Talmudic period the 10th century when it was made illegal among Ashkenazi Jews in 1240 AD by Rabbi Gresham Judah “unless permitted to do so by 100 rabbis from 3 countries”. However, this decree did not extend to the countries where takkanah was not accepted, i.e., among Sephardic and Oriental Jewish communities.
The Bible allows polygamy in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. The Old Testament has several references including Exodus 21:10 which allow a man to marry an infinite number of women without any conditions. Similarly, there is not a single verse in the New Testament prohibiting polygamy. In Matthew 22:24-29, the Jews referred to Deuteronomy 25:5 (allowing polygamy) and brought it to the attention of Jesus; he did not condemn or prohibit it.
“He who created them from the big womb made the male and the female and said ‘for this course, a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (Matthew 19: 4,5)” is quoted to promote monogamy. Some Churches and Bible scholars have argued that wives in a plural marriage are also “one flesh” with the husband individually. Furthermore, Christ lived 30 years of his life in a society that practised polygamy and never condemned it. Monogamy was introduced into the Church at the time of Paul to conform to Greco-Roman culture. In that culture, men were monogamous but free to own slaves (girls) and use them for pleasure.
Most ancient cultures and religions in the world have allowed polygamy in one form or the other. Among Hindus, Vedic Indians generally practise monogamy but their scripture, the Rig Veda, mentions the King’s four wives. Lord Krishna had 16,108 wives at his Kingdom in Dwarka. In the Arthasastra, the Smertis and the Epic, the rule is that a man may have wives from his own caste and from each of those below him. The modern rule in Hinduism also permits the husband to take as many wives without justification or consent on the part of his existing wives. Hinduism has eight types of marriages; not all have religious sanction though.
In Buddhism, polygamy is accepted but in a subordinate marital model. The laws and customs in Japan forbid multiple marriages but not having concubines in any number. These concubines occupy the position of secondary relatives. The tradition of polygamy is also alive among African populations. The King of Swaziland usually has multiple wives. In a worldwide ethnographic survey of 849 human societies, it was noted that 708 had polygamous customs (more than one wife), 4 polyandrous (more than one husband) and 137 were monogamous.
The Mormon community in the USA often defies the US Government’s anti-polygamy legislation of 1882. Their prophet, Joseph Smith, preached polygamy. He had difficulty in persuading his wife that God approved polygamy but the practice expanded after his death in 1844. The General Church in 1852 adopted it as “honours means of providing marriage and motherhood for thousands of women who would otherwise have been condemned to spinsterhood.” The US Government enacted the Morill Act (1862) making bigamy/polygamy a crime punishable by a fine and five years in prison. There were extreme difficulties but the Church was threatened with members’ civil and property rights, and was eventually won over. Since 1892, polygamists are excluded from the people eligible to immigrate to the USA.
Muslims are the largest community in the world who continue to practise polygamy as a religious injunction. Its origins lie in the history of Islam. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) married Khadijah, a 40-year-old widow, when he was 25. She died when he was 50, leaving four children behind. Consequently, he married another middle-aged widow Saudah. Over the next decade, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) contracted nine marriages because of social (Quran 33:37), political and educational (Quran 33:34) purposes, which helped him fulfil his mission as a messenger of God. This was an exceptional case with strict conditions (Quran 33:52) for him and his wives.
For Muslims in general, there is only one verse in the Quran (Surah Al-Nisa) that mentions polygamy “And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among women such as are lawful to you – two, or three or four (Quran 4:3)”. It is important to remember that the earlier verses in this Surah (chapter) contain laws about women, orphans, property and inheritance, followed by laws pertaining to wars.
In Arabic, the word “orphans” is used for children whose parents are not alive, and also for those females who are left alone for being unable to marry due to their circumstances. Thus, the verse (Quran 4:3) refers to children as well as women without husbands including widows and unmarried. Now imagine the early Muslim community who migrated to Madinah. It included Muslim women who left their non-Muslim husbands. In the subsequent eight years, Muslims fought at least three battles to defend themselves. This resulted in the loss of nearly 300 Muslim men, many of whom left wives and children behind. A mere 400 Muslim men were left in this Muslim community. This meant no possibility of marriage for a number of Muslim women, including widows, for they could not marry non-Muslims, Christians or Jews because of the Quranic law.
A social predicament had prevailed which had the potential to destabilize this early Muslim community. Divine intervention in the form of this revelation (Quran 4:3) to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) resolved it. This extraordinary solution saved many Muslim women from poverty, destitution and potential abuse in society. However, this divine solution was not unconditional. The full verse (4:3) reads, “[…] But if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then (marry only) one […]”
(to be continued)
The writer is a Political Psychiatrist based in London
M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.