Speaker’s Corner: Ziad Amir on “Polygamy, Pragmatism, Lust and Love”
Nohoudh scholar Ziad Amir discusses the concept of polygamy in Islam, in light of recent public statements by Baroness Cox that “in some communities with high polygamy and divorce rates, men may have up to 20 children each.”
Above: Baroness Cox
The issue of Muslim polygamy has been a consistent point of contention for critics of Islam since the earliest European polemical writings. Both morally-sensitive themes of women’s social position and sexuality are conjured up by this single subject, making it an instant point of fascination for many outside the faith. Usually, however, this fascination is negative in spirit for a number of continually changing reasons.
The negative perception of Muslim polygamy flourished extensively during the colonial period when European missionaries travelling to Africa and Asia absorbed polygamous practices of indigenous cultures into the narrative of irrational barbarism and lustful decadence. Monogamy was not only presented as an alternative form of marital union, but as one that is exclusively “civilised”. Accordingly, many Victorian writers saw “the Mohammedan woman” as “essentially a means of sensual gratification and procreation (Krafft-Ebing 1984). In similar vein, Robert Roberts (1907) had claimed: “No words can adequately express the great and many evils of polygamy, bringing, as it does, in its train the most degrading consequences to both sexes alike.” Not all Victorian writers shared this sentiment however. Schopenhauer (1851) spoke positively of “polygamous nations” where “every woman is provided for” in contrast to monogamous nations where many women are destined to remain alone. “In London” he reasons, “there are 80,000 prostitutes. What are they but the women, who, under the institution of monogamy have come off worse?” Annie Besant (1903) had also defended Islamic polygamy, critically highlighting that “It is not monogamy when there is one legal wife, and mistresses out of sight.”
The recurring association of Muslim polygamy with sex and lust narrowed the dominant European understanding of the institution’s wider social benefits such as social security for disadvantaged women and children, greater economic prospects for a family/tribe with the increase of children, and pacifying or strengthening cross-tribal relations. Instead, the permissibility of polygamy was generally seen as another lust-generated practice, which, along with earthly harems and sexual unions in paradise, was more proof to a Victorian prudish culture that the religion of Islam was obsessed with the fulfilment of sexual desire.
The general moral orientation of the Prophet Muhammad’s teaching regarding the everyday life of a believer often tends towards sexual control. To marry due to lust, therefore, seems out of place in a religion which centrally glorifies fasting and abstinence. Strict restraint from necessary desires, aggressive behaviour, and moral obscenity are institutionalised in the yearly cycle of a believer’s life with arrival of every Ramadan. The month provides an opportunity to outdo oneself in the mastery of the self and their sexuality, including that with their spouses and with themselves. “Your worst enemy”, the Prophet taught, “is your nafs [the base or lower part of our character] which lies between your flanks’. Wanton sexual desire is seen, here, as a self-indulgent pursuit. Even the “lustful look” is unlawful in Islam: the longing gaze at that which is beyond one’s business, and from which the turning away “makes for greater purity” (Qur’an 24.30). These are, of course, not exhortations to celibacy. “There is no monasticism in religion”, said the Prophet. But his encouragement of marriage as “half of religion” cannot be read as the fulfilment of lust; more relevant is the intimate interpersonal condition – uniquely created by marriage – in which one is required to exercise the compromise of the ego in the spirit of compassion for another, thus drawing closer to God. There is more reason to suggest, then, that marital practices of early Muslims, at least in theory, had more to do with spiritual virtues and pragmatic virtues of welfare, societal stability and positive demographics, than the encouragement of lustful inclinations.
In modern times, there is another imposition on the subject, namely in the form of romantic love. The increasingly exclusive identification of marriage with the concept of finding the one you love has exacerbated negative perceptions of polygamy, especially in a culture of social comfort and gratuitous consumerism. Polygamy can perhaps be seen as at least more acceptable in a traditional culture in which high child fertility rates threaten the social security of the family, or where wealthier individuals have a much more exclusive role as a ‘welfare’ providers. However, such practical and pragmatic factors for marriage seldom exist in the modern urban world. In comparison, to marry again for love or romantic interest, seems selfish and unnecessarily hurtful to the first partner. This dynamic of the criticism against Muslim polygamy is thus justified insofar as the practice strays from its originally intended pragmatism into an entirely different marital ethos of love, romance, and ‘how you make me feel’. It might also be reasoned that Muslim women can afford to have romantic love factor into their decision for marriage more than men since they are free from the responsibility of equal treatment in material provision and affection. Romantic love can sometimes be excitingly spontaneous and adorably irrational, which, while endearing for a wife to express towards her husband, might corrupt the intentions of man who takes the fair devotion to his wives seriously with a somewhat impartial and calculated conscience.
What further perpetuates the disconnect between polygamy and the modern world is the increasing acceptability of multi-dating as manifested by the ‘tinder culture’. Modern psychotherapist, Esther Perel, addresses the moral duty of staying faithful to one partner in a culture, which, at the same time encourages the fullest satisfaction of all desires as a “profound contradiction”. The rise of polyamory and open relationships are further testament to the change in the ethos of modern relationships where many are increasingly questioning the need to forever commit to one. It is a heightened manifestation of Schopenhauer’s conceded reality in which polygamy “must be taken as defacto existing everywhere and the only question is how to regulate it.” Thus traditional polygamy also gets mistakenly swept up in a narrative of desiring more romantic connections, and a dissatisfaction of being with only one person. Such principles and rules of modern relationships are subtly imposed upon the idea of polygamy, and this is almost impossible to avoid – even for those wishing to practice it.
The case would therefore seem to be that marrying for lust or sexual variety seems inconsistent with wider principles of Islam. Moreover, for a man to marry again primarily for feelings of love also seems an unjust and insensitive mistake. Polygamy’s primary validation, therefore, is in its spiritual and pragmatic context, which, while still possible, is ever shrinking in the modern world.
 BBC Radio 4, Monogamy and the Rules of Love (Dec 2013), Jo Fidgen