Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Slavery & Polygamy

About a week ago I went to a lecture by Margot Badran, a prominent Islamic scholar who teaches at Georgetown.  The lecture was about the future of Islamic feminism, and she brought up a really interesting point.  She pointed out that before, scholars would try and tackle polygamy in the Qur'an using linguistic tools to prove that the Qur'an was saying polygamy is not allowed. Now there has been a shift, with many scholars instead arguing that yes, the Qur'an does permit polygamy - but does that mean we should practice it?

Fazlur Rahman points out that slavery is also permitted in the Qur'an, yet most Muslims today do not accept slavery and wouldn't dream of allowing it again. He says we should be applying this same logic to polygamy: yes, it existed then, and yes, the Qur'an permitted it (after severely limiting it), but it is an outdated practice that needs to be abolished, like slavery.

Now I know many Muslims will make the argument that in certain situations polygamy benefits society: but is that the case for the majority of Muslims today? No. And what about the countless women who get abused through this system? Some men have good intentions when they take another wife - for example, if the woman is destitute. But many have bad intentions.  Should we allow a system like this to continue if so many women are getting negatively affected, even if it does benefit some?

So far Tunisia is the only country to ban polygamy.  Whenever the prospect of banning it is brought up in Islamic countries/communities, there is always an outcry - usually from the men. The argument is that you can't ban something that God has allowed. But then what about slavery?

What do you think of this argument? Is it convincing?
And what do you think about Tunisia banning it?


Candice said...

I think it's only allowed under specific circumstances that do not exist in Canada, so if Canada were "Islamic", I would still want it banned. Laws can be changed if ever the need for polygamy comes back, but I seriously doubt it would arrive here in Canada.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it banned in Turkey as well?
Good question - "The argument is that you can't ban something that God has allowed. But then what about slavery?"

For me, it's pretty clear that slavery should be outlawed. But then if I use my own reasoning I could apply that to polygamy as well.
The only 1 case I know of personally where someone has a 2nd wife (in Turkey, outside the govt.'s knowledge, and the guy who did it is not 'religious') - isn't fair to the 1st wife who is just treated like a servant because the 2nd younger wife is obviously favored, with the husband sharing a bedroom with the 2nd wife.
So where was I.
I think that if all the parties involved are willing to participate in a polygamous relationship, then they should be free to do so. Not when the husband takes a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th wife without getting the consent of the other wives.

Bahlool said...

Salam some points.
Imam Jafar al Sadiq was asked, if we shias allow muta, why didnt he give out his daughter for muta. He stated, that just because its allowed, doesnt mean you have to do it.
Same goes for slavery. If you read hadiths and texts about it, you see that the Prophet bought and let free a lot of slaves. According to Ayatollah Sistani, i as muslim have to pay to free 60 slaves, if i break the fasting under Ramadan without due reason. So the whole system was working to abolish or to free as many slaves as possible.
Same applies to polygamy, you are allowed to have several wives, but its made almost impossible to do that without breaking the rules.
The Quran and the tafsir allow it, so to forbid it like Tunisia, a state that makes it hard to bear hijab and that even tried to stop the habit of fasting under Ramadan, doesnt work for a muslim.
In the west polygami isnt allowed, but they allow people to be unfaithful. In sweden up to 50% have been unfaithful to their partner at one time or another, isnt polygami better in that case?

humie said...

This is a very interesting post. It was at close to home but i missed it. :(
def. gives a different perspective of things. I was watching a show about Islam and Hinduism and the muslim scholar was saying that in Hinduism polygamy is also allowed and there is not limit on the number of wives, at least in Islam the limit is 4 and even there the quran says that if you can't be equally just to all 4 of the wives then it is better to just have one.

Anonymous said...

I see both sides.

On the negative, I have literally heard about men cruising dating sites looking for "a second wife" and it's not because it was in any way needed, it was just what he felt was within his right and wanted to do.

I think it is like your point about men "casting down their eyes" when it comes to being modest and the whole discussion about sexual harassment. They don't cast down their eyes.

Same with polygamy, it is accepted but with rules, but does anyone follow those rules? Rarely, because the truth is that we don't really live in a world where we would be in situations where it is needed, but yet there are still a lot of polygamous marriages.

On the other end, I know of women from polygamous families, and they are college educated, intelligent young women by all means. Mentally are they messed up? I don't know. I wasn't close enough to them to get to know their stories.

I am against it because I think it is abused a lot, the rules are not followed, but I think I am not knowledgeable about the statistics or percentages nor do I hear enough personal stories to be able to say I have a solid opinion on the matter if the rules were followed.

At the moment I think I can see both sides and have not been convinced one way or another.

Jasmine said...

I am grateful to Tunisia for acting in accordance with their morals. I think polygamy in the Quran is different to the polygamy we see in action today.

I think polygamy will end up with the same fate as the Niquaab in Turkey (people were using the Niquaab to get away with things like crime, affairs etc and it was being used in a corrupt fashion)

Once one can find sufficient evidence and support that polygamy is actually having bad consequences by virtue of people abusing it - then it will be banned.

My personal opinion in polygamy in todays world is that how can a women rest peacefully within a marriage in which she knows that her husband can still covet other women without feeling a shred of guilt or remorse in his heart?

No, Hate it. Hate it.

nadia said...

Taking the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is instructive. He was married to one woman, Khadijah, for twenty-five years. It was only after her death when he had reached the age of fifty that he entered into other marriages to promote friendships and create alliances. Remember that this was the time when Muslims didn't have the freedom to practice their beliefs. It's highly unlikely that men today are marrying to promote friendship or create alliances. It's more of a selfish desire to have a younger wife.

I think before a man can take in a second (or third wife), there should be a homestudy and counseling involved, just like when a couple is bringing home an orphan to support or foster.

For a Muslim country like Tunisia to ban polygamy, when in fact it is lawful in Islam, is wrong.

Sara said...

I don't know about slavery being allowed in Islam..because I know it was forbidden at one point.

Happy new year!

Stimulus said...

Slavery was only permitted temporarily until the society was able to get rid of it completely, as some people paid all their money for their slaves and to fobid it suddenly would cause chaos and lots of financial losses. However, just like lots of other Haram things in Islam (e.g. alcohol) it was gradually forbidden to make it easier for muslims. (Muslims initially were only forbidden to be drunk while praying, not constantly).But now, slavery is forbidden.

Polygamy was never forbidden in Islam, and it is wrong for us to ban it. However, Islam does have specific rules for polygamy which are unfortunately not abided by. Having said that, this shouldn't be a reason to ban it - rather, we should deal with it and for instance educate Muslims more about it.


Anonymous said...


where is your information concerning slavery from? Because I see the Quran clearly forbidding alcohol, of which the prophet DID slowly introduce, I agree with you on that, but what about slavery? Who made it permitted "temporarily" and then gradually made it forbidden? Because I see the Quran still talking about slavery, how we should treat slaves, etc, but nowhere in the Quran do I see it forbidden. So, who forbade slavery, and if they were a human after the prophet's time, then why can we not still follow ijtihad and forbid Polygamy also?

Stephanie said...

I really don't think polygamy should be banned. I think the real issue is giving women the freedom and rights to self determiniation and preservation. For instance, a women can stipulate in her marriage contract that should her husband wish to take a second wife, then she would be able to then divorce. For this to work, she would first have to have the means to seek and be granted a divorce, be educated and have the means to support herself.
Slavery and polygamy are two very different issues. Slavery is the systematic exploitation and control of a group of people, usually minorities. It totally obliterates the enslaved individuals right to freedom of choice and self-determination. MOst of the ancient world, including Arabia in the time of the Prophet, had an economic system based on slavery, so to forbid was out of the question, and at the time Islam's treatment of slavery was actually quite revolutionary. Now that it is banened, there is really no reason to bring it back. Society has moved forward.
Polygamy, on the other hand, if entered willingly by both parties, really hurts no one, In fact, here in the States there are some Christian groups that practice polygamy,ie. Mormons, and to say that one cannot practice something they believe to be religiously okay, could actually be argued to be a form of religious persecution.
In short, for polygamy to be "OK" in my book, it should be entered wilingly by both parties, wheras, that'can't really be the case for slavery.
Yes, men abuse polygamy, but men abuse alot of things, so I don't think banning it is the answer. No one can ever be guaranteed that their spouse won't do something that will crush or emotionally damage them. This can be seen in many marriages in which one spouse is unfaithful. Instead, women should be enabled to make the choice to participate in it or not.

Umm Omar said...

I don't think it's a good idea to outlaw it, because the fact is, it is allowed in Islam. And once we open the door to outlawing established laws in Islam, well, who knows what Islam could turn into. What we need, rather, imo, are laws controlling it since this social welfare system has clearly been abused. Maybe age, income, and character should be considered when allowing people to enter into polygamous marriages. And I think it should be established at the start of marriages whether the woman is interested in living such a lifestyle.

Stimulus said...

Sarah Elizabeth,

Forgive my ignorance and assuming words. Slavery, I guess (still not sure) was never explicitly forbidden. However, one of the actions that are very much encouraged in Islam is to "free slaves". Furthermore, Omar bin Al-Khattab (RAA), although not a prophet but a very "good Muslim", said once: "When did you start enslaving people while they were born free?" (Note - this is a literal translation, not necessarily the perfect one). Now this implies that enslaving people should not be done - yet again, not explicitly "Haram".

Having said that, it is clear that enslaving people is not something "encouraged" or merely "OK" in Islam. Clearly, Islam discourages it, and encourages quite the opposite: to free slaves.

Now to compare this with polygamy would not be correct. Yes, Islam put specific conditions for polygamy to be correct, but never discouraged polygamy per se. So in my view, keeping in mind that I'm not an islamic scholar/academic, I feel comparing them would be incorrect and hence it is wrong to forbid polygamy.

Hope this answers your questions :)

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Candice: I agree, there are very specific conditions attached to polygamy, and it definitely seems to be one of those practices that made sense then but not now.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Aynur: my problem with the consent thing is many women don't have the freedom or capability of saying "no", even if they want to. If she is tied to her husband economically, it's not that easy for her to say no to him taking another wife, especially in societies where men are the providers and divorce is highly stigmatized.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Bahlool: "that just because its allowed, doesnt mean you have to do it."

Good point.

About adultery in the West, I'd have to disagree that polygamy is better since it only gives men an alternative to adultery, and not women. Also polygamy was never meant as an extra outlet or as a means of satisfying whatever you aren't being given in your marriage; it was purely for orphans to get taken care of.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Humie: welcome to the blog :) She was speaking in Cairo, not Georgetown, so you didn't miss it :P She just teaches at Georgetown...

Mormons also practice polygamy, although I'm not sure if they have a limit on the number of wives. In pre-Islamic Arabia men were allowed to marry as many women as they liked, so the Qur'an actually restricted polygamy by limiting the number of wives to 4.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Sarah Elizabeth: the rules are very important. Who ensures that the man treats the women equally? And what about societies where women aren't very powerful - how many of them will really go to court and say that their husband is not treating all his wives equally? It's very problematic.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Jasmine: that's exactly my problem with polygamy too: how can I be okay with the man I'm in love with being with another woman as well? I realize though, that that's my own personal issue with polygamy, and that it doesn't make the whole practice wrong since presumably some women don't have a problem with sharing their men.

"Once one can find sufficient evidence and support that polygamy is actually having bad consequences by virtue of people abusing it - then it will be banned."

It's weird but there is a lot of evidence that it is being misused, yet still it continues...

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Nadia: very few people look at the example of the Prophet's marriage to Khadija, preferring instead to focus on how he was married to so many women at the same time later in his life. Islamophobes love to stress that fact as well.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Sara: slavery was never forbidden outright by the Qur'an. The Prophet used to buy slaves and release them, though.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Stimulus: yes, slavery was forbidden in the end, but by Muslim states, not the Qur'an. So these states decided to ban it even though the Qur'an did not, which is why some scholars make the argument that the same should happen with polygamy.

Welcome to the blog :)

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Stephanie: good point about the marriage contract. However, some Muslim women don't really have control over who they marry let alone what goes into their marriage contract.

I think we're imagining a perfect world when we say that "both parties should enter willingly" or "women have the right to say no" because many women, esp. in Muslim-majority countries, do not have these rights, although Western Muslim women might. A relative of mine had to accept her husband taking a second wife because she was economically dependent on him, as many women in Egypt are. So it's very complicated and sadly in the process many women get abused, because like you said, men abuse a lot of things.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Umm Omar: that's why I find the case of slavery so interesting: it IS allowed by the Qur'an, but has been banned, and it didn't really open the door to all other sorts of things being banned as well.

Like I said in my comment above, it's hard to know whether a woman is really in a position where she can say yes or no without negative consequences. Maybe if she says no her own family will be angry. Or maybe if she says no she will end up being divorced.

coolred38 said...

To face the fact...slavery "ended", and I use that term the Muslim world simply because Western pressure (by which I mean the nonMuslim world) demanded it before doing serious business with which I mean basically the Middle East. Slavery just wasnt acceptable anymore (all though there are still those who dont seem to be in a hurry to let it go).

Who knows if slavery would actually be banned right here and now in the Muslim world...if the rest of the world hadnt pointed a finger and said "shame on you".

Having said that...America has no finger to point but hey...we do anyways.

Jaz said...

I say, good for Tunisia. I don't know much about Tunisian politics so I'm hardly qualified to discuss the ins and outs of why the policy was made but I do not believe that there is an Islamic reason to have more than 1 wife in this day and age.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Coolred: I agree that Western pressure is the reason slavery in some Arab countries was stopped, esp. Saudi where it actually continued until the 1960s (!)

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Jaz: I completely agree, and I also think what Tunisia did is positive. There were intense debates about the issue before the law was passed and I think in the end they just couldn't see the benefit of polygamy in this day and age, and they also saw that there seemed to be more men who abuse it than don't.

mezba said...

I don't think you can equate slavery to polygamy. Also, I don't think polygamy is a BIG problem in the Muslim world (I think almost ALL the people I know have one spouse). So banning it will cause other problems.

Anonymous said...

Guys, you are wasting your time discussing how to modernize (universalize) a social code highly contextual to the 7th century Arabia when you can follow one which was universal from the word go aka Christianity. A much more easy step! To Stephanie and other people I have no clue what made you convert. Btw by studying different cultures (regardless of religion) I found Europe (apart from Medieval witch hunts) to be better at gender equality than most other societies throught history. Let's take a look: India- dowry killing, honor crime,female infanticide/selective abortion, widow burning (less now), pretty much legal rape, widow towns Currently India has the lowest man woman ration 100:84 (European average 100:105)
Sub-Saharan Africa: unlimited polygamy (even Christians I personally know one), genital cutting (trans religious), breast flattening or cutting (Congo), teeth knocking (prematurely),those stretch your ears earrings, isolation due to fistula
None of these in Europe EVER apart from social inequality, domestic abuse (pre feminism) but that is trans cultural
FORMERLY in Far East: foot binding,legal prostitution,legal to sell your daughter to be geisha and/or prostitute, kimono belts that actually managed to deform the stomach Note the word formerly! I hope and pray the practices in Africa and India will become former too. I wonder how the Far East especially Japan modernised so quickly?

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add that I have been thinking about this issue and also researching into Malaysia's policies towards polygamy (Malaysia is a half/half country. Shariah implemented in Family issues for Muslims, civil court for everything else and everyone else.)

I think polygamy is ultimately harmful for women, especially if they got in it as a monogamous relationship. It can easily become abusive. For example, in Malaysia a women’s rights group called Sisters In Islam is fighting the courts because at the present time a man can petition the court to take another wife, and it doesn’t matter what the first wife thinks. Usually all it boils down to is if the man is financially capable, nothing else. The court system sees it as a man’s right, not a privilege, or even an emotional responsibility.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Mezba: I agree that it is not a big problem numerically, but from the perspective of gender and Islam it is a pretty big issue.

Banning it might lead to other problems but this didn't happen in Tunisia so who knows. I think if Saudi tried to ban it it would be a much bigger issue.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Anonymous: every society has its own forms of gender equality. America for example has a domestic abuse rate of 1 in 4 women. (Got this from Oprah so I hope it's credible :P).

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Sarah Elizabeth: I think a lot of Muslims see polygamy that way: as a man's right, not as a privilege. Asma Barlas wrote that if men knew how big of a responsibility and risk they are taking on by becoming polygamous many would think twice, but unfortunately they are not brought up to see it as a responsibility.