Comparative Polygamy

I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Cairo when a man came up to me. He commented on what I was wearing, suggesting that I wear red more often.

I was used to this. Egyptian culture, unlike the culture that I grew up in, encourages men to have opinions about things like the colors that women wear. Men will accompany their wives to makeup counters, and even go alone to department stores to purchase high-end cosmetics and perfume for their wives, mothers, and sisters.

We fell into conversation. His English was excellent. As we spoke, he mentioned Islam and asked if I was married. I was used to this, too. Muslim men in Cairo – even married Muslim men – would often approach single women and flirt with or proposition them. A common line was “I should take you as my second wife.” It was always a bit jarring to me, as an American woman, to have men approach me in an obviously lusty, flirtatious way when they were already married. But this particular man in the lobby had not yet married. He was planning on working a few more years before he did so.

Did he plan to marry more than one woman? I asked.

His brow furrowed. “No.” He had always wanted one wife, and only one.

I was genuinely surprised at this. I had never heard such a response, not once, in all of my time in North Africa.

I asked him why. He looked me in the eye for a moment and then told his story. His mother had been his father’s first wife. His earliest memories were of his parents as a happy couple. Then, when he was eight, his father married again, a second wife. As a little boy, he watched his mother’s heart break, and saw her turn from a mirthful, laughing, joyful person into a devastated, broken woman, slighted by a husband who turned his affections to the new wife and came to ignore her, his first love.

He paused, then looked at me again. “I would never take a second wife. I would never do that to my son.”

This brief encounter has stayed with me. His reason for not wanting to be a polygamist surprised me for its blunt honesty, for its clarity. I would have expected him to say that he would not take a second wife because he did not want to break the heart of his first wife. But he was saying even more – taking another wife would hurt his children as well. His mother’s agony had made an imprint upon him.

I’ve thought a lot about this in relation to LDS polygamy. In Islam, polygamy – or, more accurately, polygyny – differs markedly from the way LDS polygyny was practiced in the nineteenth century in several fundamental ways (a post on this is forthcoming).

Most important for this post, polygyny in Islam is not only practiced differently – it is also, at its base, viewed and understood differently. Taking an additional wife in Islam is neither a salvific act nor a particularly meritorious one. The common justifications given for polygyny, based on the Qur’an (see here, verse three, and here for the two verses that deal with it directly) and hadith literature are related to male weakness, with the implication that it is better to marry a woman than to fornicate or commit adultery. The Qur’anic verses emphasize the necessity to treat all wives equally, and state that doing so is very difficult. (Some Muslims understand this to mean that it is impossible to treat wives equally, and that therefore polygyny should in actuality be forbidden.) Either way, polygyny is not related to exaltation (or its Muslim afterlife correlate) and is not considered a higher or superior marital arrangement relative to monogamy. Because of this, Muslim women may voice their displeasure with it without being perceived as unfaithful or unrighteous.

LDS polygyny, on the other hand, was from its earliest days described and promoted as a step towards achieving exaltation. It was lived and practiced as an expression of faith and commitment to ideals. Because of this, LDS women who lived it were expected to handle the emotional fallout. Living it without complaint was an expression of devotion to God; jealousy and bitterness were understood as weaknesses and tests of faith. Heartbreak was to be swallowed. I find that – the notion that polygyny was to be both lived and loved as a lifestyle by the truly righteous – to be among the hardest parts of our cultural legacy.

12 thoughts on “Comparative Polygamy

  1. 1

    I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s still, in these days of one man and one woman, so difficult to deal with – even if we don’t have to live it, if we are faithful, we should love it.

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    Wow. That was so powerful to hear how that affected him as a boy. My mind immediately flashed back to the general conference talk a few years ago, “men, the best thing you can do for your family is to love their mother.”
    Most of the stories of polygamy in my family history come in the form of wives and children being abandoned in poverty as the husband goes on missions and/or takes on new wives to go settle a new community, never to be seen again. Family values, indeed.

  3. 3

    Great post, Galdralag. I love the perspective you’ve brought from Islam. Your conclusion totally makes sense: Even more than the polygamy, it’s the rhetoric about it–you must love it or you’re evil / in the next life you’ll love it because your evil selfishness will be purged, etc.–that’s disturbing. I love that you really highlighted that these are separable issues (the practice and the exhortation that it must be loved/embraced/whatever).

  4. 4

    Beautifully put, thank you.
    I had a friend tell me recently that polygamy was awful, but D&C 132 was a distinct thing from the actual practice of polygamy, and that it was a whole new level of awful. The requirements, the threats of destruction, the idea that women are objects “given” to faithful men, the “law” of Sarah–it’s all way more awful than just the practice of one man being married to more than one wife.

  5. 5

    Thought provoking.Thank you sharing this with us. I personally believe Brigham Young pushed the wickedness of polygamy on the early saints. Your post is a heartbreaking example of what God warned the Nephites about in Jacob 2.

  6. 6

    Galdralag,

    While I appreciate your perspective, I think it’s important to remember that the Muslim world is vast, spanning many cultures where polygyny may or may not be practiced. Beyond this there are many interpretations of Islam, including the allowance of polygyny. Thusly, I think it’s important not to paint with too broad a brush in portraying the practice of polygyny. For instance,

    “Because of this, Muslim women may voice their displeasure with it without being perceived as unfaithful or unrighteous,”
    does not always hold true. Women are sometimes expected to be patient and are considered going against shariat if their husband takes a second and they complain. It is often considered unrighteous. These things are always contextual.

  7. 7

    Eloquently put, Galdarag. You’ve put into words a discomfort I hadn’t fully conceptualized. Polygamy’s ties to exaltation in Mormon thought mean that we are never rid of it, even when we aren’t currently practicing it. And it’s true, confessing my abhorrence for the practice among faithful LDS feels like a declaration of unrighteousness.

  8. 8

    My family lived in India last year and is currently living in the United Arab Emirates. Our dearest friend from India is Muslim and is taking care of his aged mother, who was the first of two wives. Although our friend is devout Muslim and was raised in a polygamous household, he has decided not to take a second wife. I do not know his wife’s view on this, as we do not know her as well.

    I guess the only thing I can contribute to this topic is this observation: our friend’s Muslim faith seems to be an integral part of his identity as a human being, friend, husband, and father. Knowing him has given our family a feeling of brotherhood with Muslims; he is a self-disciplined, family-focused, God-loving and -fearing person who strives to live with integrity. All the things that our family as Mormons strives to be.

  9. 9

    Thanks, all, for your comments, and my apologies for my delay in responding.

    M Miles – While I don’t want to veer too far outside of the main point of an intentionally brief blogpost, to clarify I’m talking about Islamic law, meaning the jurisprudential traditions. As you may know, within Islamic jurisprudence, human acts are placed under five broad categories: obligatory (wajib); recommended (mustahabb); permitted (mubah); disapproved or ‘hated’ yet still allowed (makruh); and forbidden (haram).

    All four of the Sunni madhhabs and Shi’ism classify polygyny as a permitted act (permitted because of human weakness, as stated in the post) and monogamy as a recommended act. In other words, monogamy is, according to the jurisprudential traditions, a preferable marital arrangement in terms of holiness before God.

    Whether women or men choose to shame each other for not accepting polygyny since it’s not technically forbidden is another matter and will obviously vary according to community. In a religion of one billion people, there will be variety. Plus, as you imply, Islamic law is by its nature inherently pluralistic. I’m sure exceptions can be found.

    My general point holds, however: polgyny is not seen as salvific and / or meritorious in any major Islamic tradition (regardless of what an imam may have taught), and it was seen as precisely those things in early Mormonism.

  10. 10

    Olea, Ziff, and Galelujah –

    Yes. I was taught as a girl that polygyny may seem abhorrent to us now, but that’s just because we’re currently living during a time when it’s forbidden. If it’s ever restored, so the logic went, we will immediately be completely fine with it.

    It’s such a damning double bind – feeling miserable in a marital arrangement and simultaneously feeling like admitting discomfort is a sign of personal unrighteousness. I don’t like to imagine what those poor women went through.

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  12. 12

    I’d like to point out that one’s current feelings toward polygamy or polyandry are not necessarily synonymous with the feelings one will have should the requirement ever be reinstated. I, for instance, think that polygamy sounds like a terrible thing that I would never want to be a part of NOW, but if the prophet told us tomorrow that it was reinstated and we needed to start living it, and I new by the Spirit that this was true, than I would be 100% willing to do it.

    Thus, I don’t see an unfavorable attitude NOW as being indicative of unrighteousness, because it says nothing about whether or not one would actually be willing to obey the commandment should it become a commandment, which is the real test.

    Now, if it were a commandment and you followed it grudgingly, would that be a problem? After all, we often hear that doing something with your hands (metaphorically) but not your heart is no better than not doing it at all. But wasn’t Joseph Smith himself a reluctant polygamist?

    Thoughts?

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