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When One Woman isn't the "One"

Sheharyar Shaikh - May 28, 2008

Muslim or not, the family institution in our society is in peril. Yet the pathetically ignorant, self-styled "Martin Luthers" of Islam find no other preoccupation worthier than to use fringe issues to take stabs on Islam at a time when attacks come from all sides – and for what? A paltry 2-minute-publicity?

The latest example is that of a hijab-clad Muslimah, Noor Javed, who felt it a duty to write a scathing article on polygamy practiced in the GTA in a recent Toronto Star article entitled: "GTA's Secret World of Polygamy".

Javed's article, spun around a single case, starts off with the story of a Safa Rigby who discovers that her husband had taken two other women as wives during her 1-year stay in Egypt. Angry and upset, Safa felt she needed to opt out of marriage. And she does. No one says that Safa had no right to be upset, most women would be, but what bothered me was that Noor Javed used this one particular case to indict something she knows fully well to be permitted in Islam. Moreover, Javed repeatedly and erroneously cites the "illegality" of an Islamic polygamy in Canada in her article. Perhaps she forgets that a second additional marriage that is undeclared and unregistered with the city does not bear any legal recognition. Hence, it can not be "illegal" as no enforced law is broken. It would be similar to a person having one legal wife and 10 girlfriends on the side with whom his relationship can not be called illegal. One wonders whether Noor Javed would write a similar article in condemnation of adultery, which victimizes Muslim families on a much grander scale and which thrives as an acceptable institution in society.

Polygamy (or more correctly polygyny), although discouraged (Surah an-Nisa: 4), is clearly permitted in the Quran. We neither apologize to anyone about it nor do we feel ashamed about what we believe to be a right given by the Almighty. So here is an advice: If you are a Muslim man or a woman who finds the Islamic allowance of polygyny irreconcilably abhorrent, then we advise you to choose a life-path other than Islam that is more acceptable to you. But if you remain in Islam, then integrity demands that you accept and submit that unruly nafs (self) to what you dislike as being revealed from your Creator. The Quran reminds the believers:

O You who believe! Enter Islam fully and do not follow the footsteps of Satan; he is to you an open enemy (al-Baqarah: 208)

But even if you were to leave Islam for another religion, the polygyny-issue would not leave you. Founders and holy figures of major religions apparently had no qualms with it. The Jewish Old Testament mentions 40 Biblical figures that were polygynous, including Abraham, Moses, Jacob and Solomon. The Tibetan Buddhism readily allows for taking on a consort under the Consort Practice. The Hindu Vedas specifically proscribe laws that regulate polygyny. Ram and Krishna were both polygynous; the latter having 16,108 wives. The great St. Augustine struggled with its permissibility whereas the Protestant reformer Martin Luther once wrote in a letter that he could not forbid polygyny "for it did not contradict Scripture". The Ethnographic Atlas Codebook notes that out of 1231 societies around the world a mere 186 are monogamous.

Noor Javed's second Star article "I do, I do, I do. The Last Taboo" seemed to suggest albeit in an amateurish way that even if polygyny was practiced in the past, it should certainly be banned in today's day and age.

I can cite numerous reasons for why the practice of polygyny makes sense in a present day society. A nearly twice as high male birth mortality rate as compared to the female birth mortality rate naturally leaves more women in society than men. All Western societies comprise of female populations that outnumber the male – sometimes in millions. Polygyny as a way of life makes sense for some, if not for all, of those single women. Beyond the higher birth mortality rate, we must also take into account the unavailability of existing men in society for potential marriage; men fight and die in wars, automobile accidents and by natural illnesses, risk long-term imprisonment, or prefer a homosexual lifestyle – all in far greater numbers than do women! On top, marriageable age for a woman as defined by society is considerably less than that of a man. The point: a society based on strict monogamy is impractical. Thus, the allowance of polygyny makes good sense in today's day and age. Yet the single most powerful reason for me to accept its allowance is simply because the Book that I hold to be from God allows it. And so should you, if you are indeed Muslim.

And remember that allowance for polygyny is just that: an allowance. Marmaduke Pickthall (a British revert to Islam) once said: "In Christianity, celibacy is the ideal and monogamy is a concession to human needs. In Islam, monogamy is the ideal and polygamy is a concession to human needs." The permission of polygyny certainly does not require every Muslim to go out looking for another spouse. We know that only a tiny minority of Muslim men opt to take another wife. Perhaps it is so because in a society in which adultery thrives as the norm, it is far more tempting for a dodgy man to have multiple affairs outside marriage without having to pay any spousal support. In order words, reap all the benefits of marriage without having to shoulder any of its financial obligations as proscribed by Islam.

So at a time when it has become rather fashionable to go out and reform Islam, one would advise Noor Javed and her likes to reconsider Islam as a life-choice or focus on issues that affect the common Muslim and not seek cheap publicity by raising alarm bells on a side-issue and, as a result, unwisely add to the already existent Islam-hate in society.


Sheharyar Shaikh is the President of North American Muslim Foundation. He is specializing in contemporary Islamic thought and modernity. She can be reached at: 

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