One for cooking, one for cleaning, one for sex and one to change a light bulb, as The Islamophobe’s Joke Book might read.
Critics of Islam consider the practice of polygamy to be proof of the religion’s fundamental hatred of women. Like burkas, genital mutilation and domestic abuse the practice of marrying more that one woman is just another way for men to assert their dominance.
But having multiple wives makes a lot more sense when you consider it’s origins.
Whenever I complain about the state of the modern world, my mother likes to remind me that her great-aunt died from blood poisoning after scratching her leg on a rusty nail. That was in 1920s Britain, so imagine what things must have been like when Islam started in the 600s; a heavy cold could have finished you off.
Life expectancy was short and even shorter for men because they do more risky things, like starting wars. That meant that there would have been a lot of families without a father and those families could very quickly have fallen into poverty without his financial support. There was no welfare state, and if she had small children she could hardly leave them to go out to work, so she might not have had much time before she had to make a choice:
- Go to live with family or friends;
- Become a servant and hope her employers would take in her children too;
- Sell anything she could, even her body if that was all she had;
- Give her children up for adoption;
- Find another husband.
The first choice would clearly be the best, and most would have done that. But what if she had no family or friends? Options two, three and four would mean a loss freedom, dignity, and most precious, her children. The final option would provide her with the security that she needed, even if her new husband was inferior to her first.
There is one problem with this option, however, and it is one that persists today: single men struggle to make commitments to women who have children from previous relationships.
I have friends who use Tinder and will immediately dismiss any profile with photos of children or the description “single-mummy”. Even when a relationship does develop it is often only a matter of time before the man realised the size of the commitment his partner needs from him. One of my friends dated a single-mum and things were going great. When I asked him if the child was an issue for him he always assured me that he that he loved kids and I didn’t doubt him: I have seen the way he dotes on his nephews. But when she suggested that they move in together, niggling doubts came up to the surface and the relationship ended.
Men have had the same doubts for millennia, so the pool of suitable men for a newly widowed seventh-century woman might have been quite limited without the option of marrying a a married man.
A married man might have some advantages: he would come with a proven record of providing for a family, and the existing wife, or wives, would be a source of practical and emotional support. The advantage to the man would be the growth in the size of his family with all the economic and social benefits that would bring, the boost to his status and sex with a new woman.
It is this last point especially that makes it hard to argue that taking more than one wife was an entirely altruistic act, but I am sure the men would have thought they were doing a good deed. Perhaps the first Muslim leaders felt that sharing the burden of sex four ways made it easier on all of his wives, or maybe they thought that it was better for him to have sex with a small number of women whom he felt responsible for rather than a large number that he would not see again.
It is the sexual aspect of polygamy that I suspect people feel the most uncomfortable about. Perhaps it would help to say that sex in Islam must always be consensual.
In fact, the marriage itself would have needed the consent of all parties, if not then it could not happen. I wonder what it must have been like to be married to a wealthy man and to see another woman in desperate need. The biggest part of her would want to help but there would have been at least a hint of jealousy. Maybe the thought of the good she was doing by sharing her husband would have outweighed her misgivings.
Practically, my understanding is that the new wife would be given her own accommodation and more often her own separate home. She was treated in the same way as any of the other wives and it was never permitted for him to have sex with more than one wife at the same time. If, after some time, he realised that he could not support her or treat her equally then he was required to divorce her and let her keep the marriage dowry that he paid when they wed.
In twenty-first century Britain we have ESA, PIP and universal credit, housing benefit, child tax credits and free nursery places. Our National Health Service is free for anyone at the point of use. There is no need for polygamy. If a husband dies it is still life-changing for his wife, but at least she does not have to worry about whether or not she will be able house, clothe and feed her children. If she does want to marry again, the support of the state gives her time to shop around for someone who can commit.
My wife told me about a friend’s father who lives in Britain but went off to Egypt to secretly marry another woman without telling his current wife. Needless to say his first wife was not pleased and certainly when the family talk about it now they do so in disapproving terms (it is an ongoing drama that I can perhaps update you on at a later date). It just illustrates that the majority of Muslims in Britain do support polygamy.
Taking more than one wife is not, and has never been, about men collecting a harem of nubile young women for their own pleasure, at least not according to any common interpretation of the Islamic texts. Of course there are those like my wife’s family friend who wilfully choose to misinterpret the teachings of their faith, or else were never taught them in the first place. You should remember that just because someone is a Muslim does not mean that they understand Islam.
I sometimes joke with my wife that I have decided to marry a second wife to which she always replies with a snort of laughter, and I think that says everything about my chances. Whilst it would be nice to have the extra help around the house, I fear that the stress would be far too much for me.
Once again, I would love to hear what you think. Is this interpretation too idealistic or just plain wrong? Do you think that polygamy can be justified in Britain today?