Polygyny – Part 1: It's Not What It's Cracked Up to Be
Yes, I did spell it correctly. Polygamy means multiple spouses of either sex (one husband and multiple wives or one wife and multiple husbands). For our purposes today, I'm discussing the case where one man might have multiple wives, referred to as polygyny. Polyandry refers to wives having more than one husband. When people hear "polygamy," they almost always think of the one man with multiple wives' arrangement, and a little smile crosses their lips. However, when the sexual fantasy passes, the natural world intervenes. Partners must make relationships work in polygamous marriages, just like in monogamous marriages.
If you were to ask any Christian in the U.S., they would probably recognize the practice as being associated with the Mormons and the Muslims. Indeed, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons, publicly practiced polygyny from 1852 to 1890, but even then, it was the exception and not the rule. There are still probably Mormon sects that engage in it on a covert level. In 2017, a Gallup public opinion poll found that 17 percent of Americans find living a polygamous lifestyle morally acceptable. In the last decade, the liberalization of social attitudes has exploded with the acceptance of gay marriage and LGBTQ recognition. One TV channel, "TLC" aka "The Learning Channel," has prominently promoted one show called "Sister Wives," which featured polygamist characters in the mid-2000s. To be clear, polygamy remains illegal in all 50 states – it is a common misconception that Utah still enables the practice.
In Islam, polygyny is allowed but with reservations. The Quranic verse most referred to with the topic of polygamy is verse 3 of Chapter 4, "Women":
"If you fear that you might not treat the orphans justly, then marry the women that seem good to you: two, or three, or four."
This verse was revealed after a major battle in which many Muslim men were killed, leaving widows and orphans. The ulama (religious scholars) consensus is that Allah was concerned for the welfare of women and orphans who were left without husbands and fathers who died fighting for the Prophet and for Islam. I can relate to this condition. In my own family, my great grandfather quickly married another woman when his first wife died in childbirth, leaving him with six young kids to take care of. He was a farmer, not used to bathing, feeding, clothing, and caring for young children. He needed somebody quickly to step in so he could get back to farming. This verse was about compassion towards women and their children; it is not about men and their sexuality.
The second reservation is equal treatment among wives. Again from Chapter 4, this time verse 4 and 6:
"If you fear that you will not be able to treat them justly, then marry (only) one…This will make it more likely that you will avoid injustice."
Muslims may marry up to four wives providing they possess the capacity to treat them equitably. Islamic law approaches legitimate sexual contact as being a quid pro quo arrangement. Understanding sharia is vital to understanding the outcome of the law in Islamic societies. Sharia is concerned primarily with actions rather than emotions, desires, and lust. For example, marriage in sharia is not a sacrament but a contract. Of course, some ceremonies and rituals express love and companionship, but after the crowds have gone home, all that remains is a binding, lawful contract between a man and a woman. The man supplies the woman with financial support in return for exclusive sexual access. It is a contract that has sex and procreation legal in God's eyes and legitimate in society's eyes. The basis for marriage in sharia is vaginal intercourse and financial obligations between a man and a woman.
The necessary parts of any contract would be an offer, an acceptance, and the performance of such conditions. In this case, the man would make an offer. The woman or her custodian would negotiate stipulations and then affirm their acceptance. In this phase of the negotiations, the woman can stipulate there be no other wives, and, of course, the man can turn down the contract. Negotiations could also mandate a certain level of financial security before other wives can be brought into the marriage.
The last part of the contract would be the performance of those stipulations, such as any payment or services performed. For example, if stipulations of the agreement include children, and if the woman is barren, polygyny might be allowable. The marriage contract is a formal binding contract. It can be either written or verbal, with witnesses that can be taken to a religious court that gives specific rights and privileges to each party. Since marriage is a contract that can be broken, either party can seek to break the contract through divorce proceedings.
Since the Qur'an allows men to have four wives, there is a possibility of several wives in the household. Technically, a husband cannot marry any other female without the permission of his first wife, but on more than one occasion, the first wife found out after the fact. Women in Islam do have the option of divorce. While divorce for women takes more effort, it can be done if the woman has been wronged. Since the husband's financial obligations may be strained with a new wife's addition, the first wife may demand proof that financial obligations will not be seriously affected. In other words, the husband must prove he can afford the new wife. In some countries, evidence of economic attainment must be presented to Imams or ulama before the marriage is approved.
Polygyny in the Bible
There are numerous signs of polygyny in the Bible.
· Lamech, Adam's great (6x) grandson, had two wives (Genesis 4:19).
· Abraham had two wives: Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16:3).
· Jacob had two wives and two concubines (Genesis 32:22).
· David had eight or nine wives (1 Chronicles 3:1-3).
· Solomon had 1000 wives and concubines (1 Kings 11:3).
Overall, in the Bible, there are about 40 polygamists described in both the Old and New Testaments. The founder of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, wrote: "I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture."
The Roman Empire did not practice polygyny and neither did the Roman Catholic Church that emerged in the Second Century. While it was acceptable in the Hebrew scriptures, it was used sparingly as most family units had no need for it.
Credit for the accompanying image of one rooster and four hens goes to Unsplash.com.
Next week: Reasons why polygyny was acceptable; countries where Christians engage in polygyny more than Muslims, and a review of Muhammad's eleven wives.