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Polygyny – Part 2

Last week I broached the topic of polygyny, the act of one husband having multiple wives. Polygyny has been around since the dawn of recorded history. It's a social construct, much like a marriage. The relationships between the partners are not casual. They are enduring and serve purposes. Once the intentions are no longer helpful, the tribe, clan, and community condemn the practice, and it fades into obscurity. Many countries, some Muslim, see no purpose in polygyny and have banned the practice.


Polygyny serves several purposes.

  • First, as I mentioned in my previous blog, "Polygyny – Part 1," one purpose of polygyny was to allow the community's male members to provide for the widows and orphans whose husbands and fathers were casualties of war.

  • A second reason is to provide lineage. If the first wife is infertile, the second wife may provide an heir, much like the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar (Genesis 15:4-5).

  • A third reason polygyny was necessary was to secure political alliances. Political affiliation is established if one king marries another king's daughter. The union is even stronger if that queen has a child in line for the throne.

  • A fourth reason is to have a social safety net. In developing countries, having large families with multiple children who can work is essential to the security of the family unit. Even here in the U.S., 100 years ago, families had 10-12 children on average. Large families who could work the fields were more food secure. That is still the case even in undeveloped countries in Africa and South Asia.

  • Other reasons that might be considered would be protection against physical, moral, and spiritual ailments (Q 4:25; 2:188), companionship and peace of mind (Q 30:22), and growth of relations of love and compassion (Q 4:2).

In Muhammad's lifetime, polygyny served a purpose in a chaotic tribal society, but it had no rules or regulations. Muhammad imposed the limit of four wives and stipulated equity among wives. While Muhammad had eleven wives over his lifetime, he received much criticism because he seemed hypocritical of the rules he imposed on others. Looking closely at Muhammad's marital affairs, we might see reasons for his behavior.


Muhammad's Married Life

Muhammad did not marry until he was 25. Tradition suggests he married an older, wealthy, and highly respected woman in Mecca. Her name was Lady Khadijah. She bore him six children, including two sons who died in infancy. When she died in 619 A.D., about the age of 65, their marriage lasted 25 years, and the Prophet was now about 50. There were no other wives in the household.

During the last 13 years of his life, Muhammad married ten wives (and maintained one concubine) for various reasons. Let's see what is listed about each.


Wife #2: Her husband, one of Muhammad's early converts, passed away in exile, and she was left a poor widow with five small children. With Lady Khadijah's death, Muhammad needed someone to care for his four small children.


Wife #3: This was Aisha, the young daughter of Abu Bakr, Muhammad's successor in the Islamic movement. At the time of the betrothal, both Abu Bakr and Aisha were still in Mecca. This betrothal and marriage were actions to get Abu Bakr to come to Medina. The use of underage girls to garner political alliances was not unheard of. See a list of them in my book, Muslim Mechanics.


Wife #4: She was a widow and daughter of the second Caliph, Umar. Her former husband was an early Muslim convert and belonged to a strong tribal family.


Wife #5: She was a two-time widow. Her latest husband had died fighting for Islam in the battle of Uhud. She died less than a year after her marriage to the Prophet.


Wife #6: She was a widow. Her husband died from wounds he received while fighting for Islam in the battle of Uhud.


Wife #7: An enslaved person who had been captured in the battle against the tribe Banu Mustaliq. She was a widow; her husband was killed fighting against the Muslims. She was also the chief's daughter, and the marriage became a strong political alliance.


Wife #8: The Prophet's cousin was also a widow and a divorcee. Muhammad placed his female cousin to marry his adopted son. The marriage was stormy, and Muhammad allowed the couple to divorce. In Arabian tribal society, divorce made a woman untouchable. Thus Muhammad himself married the cousin to settle the feud.


Wife #9: She was a widow, and her deceased husband were early converts to Islam.


Wife #10: Much like wife #7, this slave had been captured at the Battle of Khaybar, and she was the daughter of the chief of the Jewish tribe, Banu Nadir. She was a Jewish princess. She converted to Islam and became a political advocate for her tribe (like Esther in the Book of Esther, 7: 3-4).


Concubine #11: She was a slave sent to Muhammad from the Governor of Egypt. Muhammad kept her as a concubine. It is doubtful they were married, but she gave Muhammad a son. Muhammad had two sons from Lady Khadijah, who both died in childhood. This son also died in childhood.


Wife #12: When Muhammad visited Mecca for the pilgrimage, he married a woman with kinship ties to Banu Makhzum, a tribe that fought against Muslims.


Summary: Muhammad's marriages after Lady Khadijah's death were to help his companions' widows, create political alliances, and unite different clans through marriage. Given the circumstances, these seem noble causes.


Polygyny is Rare

According to the Pew Research Center, polygyny around the world is frequently legal but rare – except in one part of the world. The area of West and Central Africa is known as the "polygamy belt."


Burkino Faso, Mali, and Gambia have the highest polygyny rate in the world, where 30+ percent of people live in polygamous households. In Burkino Faso, some 24 percent of Christians and 40 percent of Muslims live with polygamy. In Chad, 21 percent of Christians versus 10 percent of Muslims are polygamous. Religion is not the dominating force in sub-Saharan Africa; food insecurity is. Many families use polygyny to enhance their social safety net. Women become breeders, and children become workers. The more children a father has, the more food they bring home to the table.


Polygyny exists because it serves a social function. Once those social issues go away, so does the need for polygyny. Only about two percent of the global population live in polygynous households and it is declining. Polygyny is about fulfilling a social need, not lust and passion, although it's still fun to fantasize about the lust and passion part.


Credit to Wikipedia Commons for the world map showing all of the countries (in green) where polygamy is acceptable.

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