These days – especially in the West – we are encouraged to be ruled by our emotions and shehawaat (passions), and to trust them as the real guides in how we live our lives. We are literally bombarded with those kinds of messages every day. Popular culture insists that if you’re “in love” you should be able to do anything you want – from commit adultery to marry a person of your own gender (“If lovin’ you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right…”). Many psychologists even recommend that a person should divorce their spouse if they “fall in love with” another, because somehow it’s healthier for the children to have parents who follow their dreams than to have parents who willingly sacrifice for the good of the family and out of loyalty to their vows.
Even in the mundane departments of life we are constantly told to give in to our desires and worship our emotions. The makers of Sprite encourage us to “Obey our thirst”, and Newport cigarettes had a campaign that showed people engaging in fun activities and sported the tagline, “Alive with pleasure!” In this atmosphere it’s no wonder that some men think, “If I desire polygyny, I should naturally give in to that desire”, and on the other hand, some women think, “Polygyny will cause me sadness, pain and jealousy, therefore it is an unreasonable challenge and I should reject it out of hand.” We’ve been raised to believe that our emotions are the foremost concern in any given situation, and, like children concentrating more on the ball than the traffic, we often base our decisions on how we feel at any given time.
But just like the cigarettes, which will actually kill you instead of making you “Alive with Pleasure!”, appeasing your emotions in every situation is short-sighted, prevents growth, and can actually be detrimental to your iman. A man who indulges in polygyny because he is intrigued by it or has fallen for another woman, without praying istikhara, consulting his wife, and doing some serious soul-searching, risks not only the wrath of his first wife but also his own happiness and the future stability of his entire family. Likewise, a woman who cries divorce at the first thought of polygyny may be risking even more pain on the part of herself and her children, letting herself and her children in for a life marked by economic stress, and may also be depriving herself of some very great blessings.
It is much wiser and more Islamic to weigh things carefully, asking Allah to grant what is good for you in the dunya and the akhira. Asking Him to strengthen your iman and make easy for you the path that leads you closest to Him. In this way men can look at the entire situation before jumping into the nikah, and women can carefully consider whether polygyny is something their hearts can hold or something that necessitates escape.
Part 1 of this post was some words for brothers about broaching the subject of polygyny with their current wives. Part 2 is some words for sisters about their reaction to the subject.
(Photo from http://themuslimwoman.org ) Sisters, I advise you to think pragmatically about polygyny rather than emotionally. Keep it in the back of your mind as a different lifestyle, not as a monster lurking around the corner, threatening to strike you. Think of it like….moving to another country. You might not necessarily want to move to another country, but it would be something that would have perks and quirks of its own that you would get used to if, for some reason, you had to make such a move. Living somewhere else wouldn’t make you any less alive, and likewise a different style of marriage wouldn’t make you any less married. Once you think of polygyny as a different but normal form of marriage, it loses some its ability to devastate you.
If all parties involved enter polygyny with the intention to please Allah and with their hearts set on the hereafter – if the husband is sensitive and fair and the wives are kind to and about each other – polygyny can be far superior to monogamy. Especially for women whose husbands are high-maintenance or whose careers demand a lot of their time and attention. When your husband is not with you, you can both miss him and do whatever you like to do. When he is with you, you can truly enjoy his company and be more mentally/emotionally “present” – not just skimming along in life taking everything for granted.
If your husband brings up the subject of polygyny – hopefully as an abstract idea rather than in the form of a woman already chosen – consider it rather than throwing a wailing conniption. This will hopefully do three things: one, it will remove the “forbidden fruit” variable for your husband. It is human nature to long and be excited by that which is illicit or prohibited. Once polygyny becomes a legitimate choice that you are willing to support, he will be forced to move from fantasizing to actually considering. And considering means taking into consideration the heavy responsibilities, the financial burden, and the practicalities. That can render polygyny immediately less attractive, and he might decide against it after all (although I wouldn’t recommend this as a strategy to get him to give up the idea. Your acceptance of it has to be spiritually and emotionally genuine to do YOU any good, regardless of whether you wind up in polygyny or not).
The second possible result from your openness to the idea of polygyny is that it could very well endear you to your husband’s heart. This doesn’t mean that he will necessarily shuttle the polygyny idea, but it does mean that he might be more sensitive to your feelings. Paradoxically, the more impassioned and distraught we wives are about something, the more our husbands can be tempted to shut down emotionally toward us. So the more you object to polygyny the less likely your husband might be to consider your feelings. If you offer a measured response, your husband is more likely to consult you further. In fact, I know of several sisters who became actively involved in helping their husbands choose a second wife. Compatibility between co-wives is almost as important as compatibility between husband and wife in a polygynous situation. It can work with co-wives who don’t get along, but it is most often a miserable exercise for everyone concerned, and can have a negative impact on the family members’ iman, as well.
Most importantly, by being open to polygyny – truly open to enduring it or even supporting it, as an act of worship – you open yourself to blessings you could not imagine. Not because of polygyny in-and-of itself, but because any time we do anything for the sake of Allah, He sends us help from places we would never expect. He blesses us in ways we could never anticipate. All trials from Allah are blessings, in that Allah uses them to expiate sins or elevate our rank, if we are patient through them and call on Him.
At this point you might be ready to drop-kick me. You might be wondering what kind of insane maniac could expect a normal, healthy woman not to blow a gasket when anyone even mentions the subject of polygyny. I’m not suggesting you swallow your emotions and become an unhealthy jumble of suppressed anger and misery; if you don’t experience sadness and jealousy you wouldn’t be human. But I am saying that you don’t have to be ruled by those emotions. You don’t have to base your decisions or your behavior on those emotions. Be honest with your husband – tell him there are parts of polygyny that scare you, that you are worried about how difficult it will be and if it will change your relationship with him and that it means he will love you less, or whatever you are feeling. But try not to rule out polygyny because of those fears and difficulties. If we ran everything in our lives solely on our emotions and whether the experience was easy and suited our mood or not, we’d never have colonoscopies or do laundry or have children!! So be honest about your emotions but don’t become belligerent or run away or throw down ultimatums. Break out of your tunnel vision and see the potential advantages of polygyny, in the dunya and the akhira.
When the subject of polygyny first comes up in a marriage, it can be either a casual exploration of an idea or it an extremely delicate and threatening topic that causes all kinds of trauma. So some words for both sisters and brothers on the subject:
Brothers: I imagine that when a brother begins thinking about polygyny, he spends a good bit of time considering it, weighing the potential advantages and disadvantages, and – let’s face it – maybe even fantasizing about being one of those men who can successfully keep two (or more) women happy. So I advise you to take at least as much time as you spend thinking about all these things to truly, honestly, think about how your current wife will feel. This kind of empathy is difficult for brothers – they often block out a lot of what they themselves feel; what someone else feels is pretty far down there on the list of things they want to contemplate. But if you’re considering polygyny, you’d better get used to it, because a man who is a successful polygynous husband spends a lot of his time anticipating the feelings of his wives and understanding the feelings of various family members.
The way a man brings up the idea of polygyny to his first wife can say a lot about whether he’s even spiritually qualified to enter it. While there can be extenuating circumstances, as long as your first wife is not a criminal or an abuser herself, kindness and respect should rule your behavior. I know of a man whose first wife found out about his philandering (for that is what it is when you marry behind your wife’s back) when his friend called her one day and said, “I just thought you had a right to know: your husband is not on a business trip. He’s getting married in the next town over”. I also know of a woman who found out about her co-wife when her husband came to her with a woman and said, “Hello, Honey, I’d like you to meet my wife”. I even know of a case where a woman who found out her husband was married to another woman when that woman delivered his baby. These are not kind or respectful ways to broach the subject of polygyny with your wife.
A much better method would be to tell your wife you’ve always admired the sahaba and other polygynous families (or whatever intro you’d like to use), and that you would like to consider marrying another sister. It is better to bring your wife in on your musings as soon as you begin contemplating polygyny, because it can then become a decision you both make, as opposed to a decision that you impose upon her. She might be able to bring up variables you had not thought of and help you reach your decision with a more complete picture of the pros and cons. Speaking to her about it right away also gives gives her time to adjust to the idea before it becomes a reality. Polygyny as an abstract concept is much easier to accept than polygyny in the form of a woman your husband has already fallen for. Telling your wife of your thoughts early on makes polygyny something a Muslimah can approach as a good deed – not what she had envisioned as a young girl fantasizing about marriage, but something she is willing to tackle for the sake of Allah. It also communicates the message that you and she have a meaningful marriage, in which trust and respect matter, and that you care enough about her to bring her in on a decision that will affect her life greatly. It also demonstrates that you take seriously the Islamic precept of mashura. There are even many couples who go about choosing a new wife together. On the other hand, dictating it to her or telling her after the fact is a form of betrayal – a kick in the stomach that communicates the message, “you are inadequate and I don’t really love you.” It involves duplicity and deceit and all the attendant feelings those evil deeds stir up. It is much more noble, Islamic, and wise to consult with your wife about the idea of polygyny before you even dream of making it a fact.
This is not to say that broaching the subject early on will cause her to jump up and down and clap her hands with joy at the idea, but it does increase the chances that, if it should become a fact for your family, your first wife will be able to meet the challenge with a healthier, more positive attitude. And no matter what difficulties she faces as a co-wife, at least she will not have to shoulder the searing, often cauterizing pain and humiliation of having her husband spring his new little passion-fruit on her unawares or marry on her behind her back.
One further note of caution: be aware of your wife’s personal past experiences with polygyny. If her father married on her mother and she watched her mother suffer for years in an unfulfilling or downright abusive marriage while her mother’s co-wife was enjoying a happy marriage with her own father, polygyny may not be something she will ever be open to, no matter what. In that kind of situation, if you have a hankering to marry another woman, you might just as well reconcile yourself to the idea that it will not be polygyny, because it will probably cost you your current wife.
In addition, it seems counter-intuitive, but the recommendations I’ve made apply mostly to converts or people whose wives are converts, because those sisters are often the most open to polygyny. Malaysians and some other Asian/South Asian sisters might be a bit more comfortable with the idea, but I’ve noticed that many Arab women have an active hatred of the idea. Such a vile repulsion that it causes them to bad-mouth those who are in polygyny and actually ostracize them. They say things like, “It is wrong.” When it is pointed out that it is halal, they still do not make the connection. “It is halal, but it is wrong.” It is a fanatical view that has a lot to do with colonialism and Arab classism. Most converts don’ t hold such violently anti-polygyny views, since they have had to shuttle all their old cultural norms and accept a set of norms that is defined only by Islam.
The granddaddy of all bad reasons for a man to think about polygyny is: Midlife Crisis.
Many men go through a period in middle age where they feel compelled to cling desperately to (or recreate) things they feel represent their spent youth. This compulsion can manifest itself in any number of different ways, including the proverbial red sports car, a wacky haircut (if there’s any hair left!), wearing clothes from the Gap, taking up snowboarding, or booking that trip to Italy that was a teenage dream. But the important thing is that many men reach a point where they believe their good years are ending and, they attempts to keep them rolling by external means.
When a guy tries to keep them rolling by getting a younger wife, it can be a disaster for all concerned.
Although some women take this quite well, other women are devastated by such a turn of events. Can you imagine having been a loyal wife for twenty or thirty years, raising children with your man, supporting him in his early career when there wasn’t enough money, defining your life by the rhythms of your relationship with him, only to be repaid by him turning to a younger woman because she has no stretch marks or crows feet – does not bear the beautiful marks of a long life lived together? This is another instance where a little empathy would go a long way on the part of the husband. But unfortunately, a man in the throes of a pathological midlife crisis is not thinking or feeling clearly. He is obsessed – wrapped up in maintaining his own pleasure.
Some second wives in this position are likewise unhealthy. Such a marriage feeds their ego, and they enjoy their position as the husband’s trophy. So between the lack of empathy on the husband’s part, the depression and rage the first wife may feel, and the superior attitude of the second wife, these situations often turn into one big mess. In addition, the second marriage often fails as the husband realizes that what he really wanted wasn’t the responsibility and permanence of another wife. The excitement of someone new and young can wear off after awhile. If the man is lucky, his first wife will be waiting for his return to sanity. If he’s not, he might lose them both.
There are many reasons a person or a couple might consider polygyny. Some of them make sense, some of them are laudable, some of them are just fodder for fantasies and some of them are pathetic.
Some men consider polygyny because they may have moved to another country and gotten married there, but their their families ‘back home ‘ have a girl they want him to marry. Perhaps she’s the one he was promised to when he was young, perhaps it would make a good family alliance, perhaps one of his cousins graduated with great grades and the family thinks she deserves an opportunity at a Western education. Whatever the reason, some families do push a second wife on their ex-patriot sons. This can make things somewhat easier for the first wife to take – at least her husband didn’t go gallivanting around and fall for some other woman. But much then depends on the personalities of everyone involved and how well they mesh once they are all together. Sometimes this sets up a real “superiority complex” on the part of the first wife. “I’m the one he chose, you’re just the one who was forced on him.” Conversely, it can also make things more difficult for the first wife, because the second wife will probably be younger, she knows his culture, his language, how to cook the food of his homeland, etc. So the stage is set immediately for jealousy to fly both ways. If the first wife doesn’t speak his language and the second wife doesn’t speak his adopted language, things can be even tougher, because not only will communication be difficult between the wives, but there is nothing more apt to arouse the monster of suspicion like not being able to understand what your husband might be saying to your other wife. It is a truly complex situation. A husband in this case needs to be adept at making both is wives feel special and valued for their differences and not give any impression of valuing what one has to offer over the other. In a situation like this, more than some other situations, the man has a big role to play in helping his wives hit it off and in keeping things on an even keel by helping each one present her most humble and spiritual side to the other.
Usually, though, polygyny is not thrust upon people by others. Men sometimes contemplate polygyny because they fantasize about more sex, sex with a different partner, or even the status polygyny might grant them among their friends and acquaintances. You gotta know that when one man marries a second wife it’s like fathering quintuplets or something: some of his friends will slap him on the back with the ol’ wink, others will stand in chin-gaping awe of him, still others will regard him as a good businessman, because if he can manage all that family drama, he can manage anything. These are among the reasons that make polygyny a great fantasy, but if any man actually takes the step of marrying a second wife for any of these reasons, he should be summarily shot. Both because he is selfish and because he is obviously too stupid to be allowed to procreate any more than he already might have. Not only are all those reasons very dunya-oriented and shallow, they are also short-lived – each and every one of them. The winks die away after about a week, the sex becomes routine with wife #2, just as it did with wife #1 (if you can’t keep sex lively and fun and intimate with one person, chances are you’re not gonna improve that with more sex!), and other men’s awe of you will turn to acidic gossip the first time your family runs into trouble. So if you’re thinking of marrying a second wife for the extra fun you can have, go take a cold shower.
On the other hand, there are some situations where woman’s sexual appetite is virtually nonexistent for one reason or another, and her husband’s is “very healthy”. In a case like this, after careful consideration and mutual consent, polygyny might provide an answer. It might even increase the intimacy between the first couple because there is less pressure on the relationship revolving around sex. In fact, if you’re a woman whose husband has a more voracious appetite than you do, you might want to suggest polygyny to him.
A good reason to think about entering polygyny is if there is a sister in your community who is truly in need of a husband. These kinds of situations are not as rare as you’d think, because as cliche as it sounds, a good Muslim man is sometimes hard to find. The pool is contaminated with lots of racists (or “ethnists”), who only want to marry within their own ethnicity and who think that converts aren’t “really” Muslims; slackers, who only pray at Friday Jumuah; fanatics, who think Islam grows on beards, Saudi scholars or whoever looks the most conservative is always right, and exhaling is bida’; snobs, who write matrimonial ads that read, “seeking slender, light-skinned, PhD virgin who knows how to make chutney and can do the splits”; and rovers, who suffer from temporary religious amnesia and go around dating non-Muslim girls. With the pool this crowded with undesirables, a guy who has already proven himself as a good husband can become the most attractive fish in the pond. A couple might look at it this way: if a sister marries into their already stable Muslim family, they could actually be saving her from a terrible experience with some schmuck. This is especially true of young mothers who have already been divorced. A young Muslimah who has been through something like that can still be a lovely, kind, spiritual, fun person, but having been divorced and already blessed with a child or children she faces an even steeper cliff than a first-time wife when it comes to finding a suitable husband. This is not how it should be, but in many places it is indeed the reality. So an established couple might contemplate polygyny if another sister is having a hard time finding a husband.
One of the worst reasons, by far, to entertain the idea of polygyny, is if you are a man who has let his spiritual guard down and begun thinking with the wrong head. By this I mean a guy who finds himself attracted to a woman at work or school or the DMV, and instead of lowering his gaze he feasts it upon her and then follows his shehawaat (passions) into a relationship with her. Then he rationalizes to himself, “Well, I’m allowed to marry more than one, so it’s not haram. I’ll just ask her to marry me and all will be well with the universe!” Not cool.
First of all, no amount of rationalization will erase the fact that he has already committed haram. He has flirted, giggled, talked and wooed his way into an emotional affair, and besides those things being haram in and of themselves, he has betrayed his wife. He has allowed his desire for dunya to outrank his duty to his Lord and his wife. By this very act he has proven that he probably does not have the spiritual fortitude to be the head of a polygynous household. That takes patience, wisdom, self discipline, self sacrifice, and compassion. To fall for someone else outside of marriage means that a person is lacking in all those qualities. So if you’re thinking that inviting that cute co-worker to lunch is not haram because you might ask her to marry you, you need to find another job. And prepare to find yourself divorced sometime as well, because if you’re always this cavalier about your wife’s feelings, you deserve to be dumped.
There’s one really big, bad reason that some men “marry on” their wives, but it’s so obnoxious it deserves its own separate post, so I’ll save it for next time. But remember: polygyny can be a blessing and a trial. Which side of those scales tips the other has a lot to do with the reasons a family entered it in the first place, so if you’re thinking about it, make sure you examine your niyat and your reasons really carefully. Be honest (brothers) and be open (sisters). More later on that subject as well…..
I heard a woman interviewed yesterday about the upheaval currently being experienced by the Anglican church (Episcopalians in USA) regarding the ordination of women and homosexuality. She was from somewhere in the South…one of the Carolinas, I believe, and she said, “I just think about when we have to deal with the Bishops in Africa who have more than one wife! We’ll look back on this and say, ‘Man, that was NOTHING!'”
Hmmmm. It always puzzles me why Westerners are so intimidated by polygyny. It’s not as if they’re monogamous themselves! Between premarital sex, adulterous liaisons, blatant homosexuality and frequent divorces (“serial polygyny”), they are definitely living on the wrong side of many commandments and Judeo/Christian/Islamic teachings – and polygyny is not against any teachings of any of the Abrahamic faiths. It was a well-established and accepted practice in the Old Testament (with no limits, incidentally), was not spoken against by Prophet Jesus (upon him be peace) or anyone else in the New Testament, and was regulated by the final revelation, the Qur’an.
Actually, most Christians would be aghast to find out why they abhor polygyny so much. It is because it was against the practices of the pagan Romans, under whose authority Christianity began. Just as Christmas was adopted from pagan practices, so was “strict” monogamy.
Another reason Americans are repulsed by the very concept of polygyny is the way it is practiced by some cultish offshoots of the Mormon church. Caddish old dodgers forcing innocent young teens (and sometimes their sisters!) into wedlock against their will….unlimited numbers of wives…blatant social services fraud…all this makes for a frighteningly immoral representation of an institution that, in other areas of the world, is part of strong societal structures.
From a First Amendment point of view, one man providing (acknowledgedly) for two or three or four women falls completely under the first amendment, and is MUCH less harmful to society than, say, young men “sewing their wild oats” and having a bunch of baby mamas to whom they spread diseases and whom they don’t support.
The Bishops in Africa who are in polygynous marriages are not harming society or the church at all. If they provide for all their wives, raise their families, and fulfill their religious and cultural/societal duties, their style of marriage should not be a concern. Of course, Paul did say that a deacon should be the husband of only one wife…. But then Paul never met Jesus, and he was, after all, preaching to pagans!