Polygamy: The “fruit vendor’s” logic and the Islamic view (Part 1) [Archives:2008/1198/Culture]

October 13 2008

Hanan Al-Wadee
For the Yemen Times

Reflecting on an incident from her childhood, Hanan Al-Wadee, researcher with an M.A. in Human Rights, confronts polygamy from a religious point of view.

In an early stage of my life, I met an old man who ate and married a lot. “Why do you keep marrying and divorcing?” I asked him once. At the time, the idea of being with various different bodies was disgusting to me. And being young, the frankness of my question provoked him. While one of his wives was putting a large bowl of fruit in front of us, he responded haughtily, sure of his influence on the conviction of a young girl, “I will ask you a question; Look at these various fruits in front of you; why would I restrict myself to eating the same kind of fruit every day, when I am capable of eating a banana today, an apple tomorrow, and an orange the day after?” He looked at me, satisfied that his brilliant question had weakened my conviction. As for me, I kept looking at him, shocked by this despicable analogy and even more shocked by the fact that he didn't consider his wife's feelings, who had heard this horrible comment about her.

As a little girl, I didn't possess the words or response that would have been appropriate for such degraded logic. But today, while that man continues to live with his “fruit vendor” logic, I am using my knowledge as a researcher to confront and get to the true view on polygamy in Islam.

The Prophet's marital life

Prophet Muhammad- peace be upon him- gave us two models of marital life. The first is one in which the Prophet lived with one wife for more than 23 years. The second is when he lived a polygamous marital life due to certain reasons and circumstances.

Prophet Muhammad married Khadiga when he was 25 years old and she was 40 years old. It was 25 years before he became prophet. It was said that she married twice before him and was a rich lady, who was a trader and had her own servants and retinue; in today's terms, she was a businesswoman. She was known for her sedateness, solemnity and distinguished position. When she heard of a young man who was known for his decency and honesty, she chose him to work for her and run her business. And when she saw in him noble qualities and rare manners, she sent her friend to find out whether he would accept her to be his wife.

They were married and in doing so, immortalized one of the most beautiful stories of love, devotion and sincerity in the history of mankind. A marriage with such differences in the standard of living, income and age would never have happened in these days unless a man wanted to take advantage of the money of a divorced or widowed woman.

Prophet Muhammad remained married to Khadija until she died at the age of sixty-five, when he was around fifty years old. For almost twenty three years, he didn't marry another woman and instead loved her more than any one. He devoted himself to her, his home and his children, and didn't divide his love, care and attention for them with another house, wife and children. Not only had he dedicated all that love and generosity to one wife and one house, but after her death he remained sad for a long time. When the polygamy phase of his life finally started, it wasn't driven or motivated by sex or lusting after women, as is often perceived in the Western world and confirmed by Muslim men through their ugly practice of polygamy.

Exception not norm

God allowed Prophet Mohammed to marry nine women, which is not permitted for other Muslim men. Also, unlike Muslim women, the Prophet's wives were forbidden as stated in the Quran from marrying another man after him.

Prophet Muhammad practiced polygamy in a framework that was completely different from how many Muslim men currently practice polygamy. The exclusiveness of Prophet Muhammad's situation in some issues is something we shouldn't ignore while reviewing these issues and building legislations and provisions on them.

Contrary to popular belief, Islam actually laid down the first limitation against polygamy. The prevailing understanding, especially in the West, is that Islam is the founding religion for the practice of polygamy. This is an unfounded perception, because Islam appeared in a society where a man would marry eight women or more, since polygamy was a commonly accepted practice at the time. Due to the injustice and material and psychological harm that women were subject to because of such polygamy, Islam limited polygamy to four women and set restrictions and conditions that must be met before a man was allowed to practice plural marriages. In his book, Fi Thilal Al-Quran or In the Shadows of Quran, the martyr Sayed Kotob said:

“Islam came when men could marry ten women or more or less without any limits or conditions. Islam came to say to men that there is a limit that a Muslim man can not exceed – four wives- and a condition they must adhere to which is to be just, otherwise:” marry only one or what your right hand possesses”- The Quran, (4:3).Islam came not to increase the number but to limit it and not to leave up to men's inclination, but to restrict polygamy to justice, otherwise, this permission is no longer applicable.”

Islam revolted against the old customs and dealt with them by reformulating them, by the constant encouragement of leaving such customs, or by forbidding them once and for all. Islam restructured society in accordance with the instinct God created within people. Islam was the first religion or method that condemned slavery and enslaving people, by encouraging society to free slaves in a time when all religions and societies were still practicing slavery and didn't consider it wrong. This condemnation, along with gradually encouraging society to get rid of slavery, came with many reforms which Islam aimed to uplift ignorant society to a human one. Polygamy came within that reforming context as well. Like with slavery, Islam limited the phenomenon of polygamy and restricted it with conditions so that it would disappear gradually from society, and in the meantime, to confine its practice within a very narrow framework.

Hanan Yahya Alwadee has an MA in Human Rights from University of London. She is the winner of Al Sada prize for her novel “Ahzan elktroniah – Electronic Sadness””