JTL was talking in the comments about community responsibilities toward families in polygyny. This is a really important topic, because community support or lack thereof can have a significant effect on a polygynous marriage.
While I’m sure there are ideal communities somewhere that support the families within them regardless of their marriage style, most communities fall into one of two general categories when it comes to polygyny.
Consider the polygyny-obsessed community. This is a masjid or a region where the idea of polygyny is being actively preached and practiced, and the leaders and others make it their business to encourage brothers to take additional wives. This is a an unwise proposition because brothers who might not otherwise even think about polygyny can be guilt-ed into “bringing back this sunnah”, and they might not be financially, emotionally or spiritually ready for such an endeavor.
In addition, once the brothers marry there is usually no counseling or instruction to assist them with the heavy responsibilities they’ve taken on, and often not even any good, humble, open role models for them to emulate. There is also often no sheikh or “big brother” to hold them accountable for doing polygyny right (avoiding welfare fraud, being fair with time and resources, dealing with stepchildren and half sibilings, etc.). The communities where polygyny is encouraged are most often made up of reverts, and it has to be remembered that they did not grow up with polygyny as part of their culture, so they have no reference point for how to be a husband in polygyny, nor do they usually have the support and help of their families.
Pushing polygyny is also dangerous because it can breed an atmosphere of judgement and even bullying for the sisters. Many sisters are made to feel inadequate or downright sinful if they object to or have a hard time adjusting to polygyny. There is an attitude that polygyny is the be-all and end-all of deen measurement and that its acceptance is incumbent upon each woman, regardless of her circumstances or her reasons for not liking it. If her husband stops supporting her, cheats her out of her time, abuses her verbally, forces her to live on state subsidies, even moves away completely, she is encouraged to accept it as qadr. This reflects a poor understanding of both polygyny and qadr. Would these same people encourage a man to “be patient” with a wife who decided not to ever cook again or who refused to care for her children? Not many would. But those things, too, are qadrullah. It is no more halal to abuse or cease supporting a wife than it is to stop cooking or to neglect one’s children. (In fact, according to Maliki fiqh, women are not even required to DO housework and cooking, and if they choose to these are considered nafl acts!) This attitude that women are not good Muslimahs unless they accept polygyny unconditionally, without even the limits Allah put on it, is insidious and ignorant.
Of course I’m not saying that women should bail out or should be encouraged to leave their husbands at the very mention of polygyny. But neither should they be encouraged to stay and be endlessly patient in a destructive marriage. And putting up with abuse should definately not be used as a measuring stick for their iman.
Then there is the other extreme, which is a community that rejects the idea of polygyny altogether and denies any kind of support or encouragement whatsoever to families who choose polygyny. Some community leaders simply advise against it carte blanche, without considering each case on its own merits, and then leave families to deal with all their problems alone because, after all, they were told not to enter polygyny and they chose to do it anyway, so they will just have to muddle through as best they can.
In our case, the Islamic school’s tuition was set up according to family, with discounts being given for each additional student. One year it was even a flat fee per family. But the school insisted on counting polygynous families as two separate families. Of course schools are not required to count all of a man’s wives and children as one family, but this seems like one small way a community could support the polygynous families in its midst rather than make things more difficult for them.
In both polygyny-obsessed and polygyphobic communities, the least people could do would be to refrain from gossiping about a polygynous family. This, of course, often proves most difficult and even some normally dignified Muslims fall prey to discussing and dissing polygynous families. If community members cannot even pass this tiny test from Allah, how do they justify expecting the polygynous family members to pass such a great test with no help or support?
Polygyny seems to me to be a symptom of a larger problem that Muslims have with supporting each other and with implementing and maintaining organizations and services to help our ummah become strong. If we don’t get it together and start taking our community duties seriously we will see more and more division, more and more failed marriages of every type, and more and more assimilation as people have to turn away from the Muslim community to get resources and assistance they need.
When people ask me what my stand on abortion or divorce is, I tell them that I think these questions require starting at the wrong end of the problem. The way to really address the high abortion rate or the high divorce rate is to begin at the other end, by instilling modesty and self respect in our young girls and emphasizing true manhood and responsibility to our young boys. We have gotten to a place in our society where these traits have not only receded, but they are not even any longer the ideal. Our young people are literally inundated with ads and media images that glorify and encouage wantonness, capreciousness, narcissism, and irresponsilibty. Men are portrayed as sexually and physically aggressive and hungry, while women are portrayed as either temptresses or passive objects. Almost no one in the media even thinks about the consequences of their actions, let alone takes responsibility for them. So if we’re going to address abortion or divorce or similar social problems, the place to begin is by reclaiming our real values and rising up to purge our society of the socially acceptable evils that are exploited and encouraged by the media.
This approach is the sunnah of Allah. In Makkah for 13 years Allah concentrated in inspiring and nurturing the iman of the fledgling Mulsim community. All the Makkan surahs emphasize spirituality, explain Allah’s nature and familiarize us with the realities of the next world. Then in Madinah, after the Muslims were solid in their deen and were in a position of power, then is when we see laws being sent down and socieity’s rules being dictated. The Qiblah, fasting, hijab – all of this was revealed in Madinah.
As humans, though, we often get the cart before the horse. The Christian Right and the Taliban are examples of this phenomenon. Rather than taking the time and effort to do things the spiritual way and begin with inspiring people’s iman so they will be self-motivated to follow Allah’s rules, these groups try to enforce piety from the outside; a doomed idea if ever there was one. They are attacking their societies’ problems from the wrong end.
Similarly, people who see women suffering in polygyny automatically jump to the conclusion that the polygyny itself is the problem. They want to begin by outlawing polygyny. But just like the problem with abortion is not caused by the doctors performing the operations, the problem with polygyny is not caused by the imam’s performing ceremonies. The problem is the people involved in the polygny.
OK, usually not the people.
Usually the brother.
I hate to come out with it like that, but most often when polygyny goes bad the brother is not maintaining his duties to all his wives equally. Either he’s neglecting the wife he doesn’t have children with, or he’s comparing his wives to each other, or he’s not supporting one or more of them financially, or he’s allowing one wife to be nasty to the other one…..but in most cases the problem is that the brother is not practicing his deen well enough to successfully shepherd a poly family. A lot of the jealousy and resentment that wives feel toward one another and a lot of the anger wives feel toward their husband could be avoided if the brother would conscienciously maintain all of their rights fairly.
The problem is that in a case where the brother married additional wives for less than altrusitic motives, he is obviously the type of person to give in to his desires. And a person who is a slave to his nafs is certainly not going to be able stand up under the burden of being the head of a polygynous family.
So when we see that many polygynous situations turn sour, we need to address the problem by starting with the men. We need to raise our sons to respect Allah and respect women, insha’Allah. Our brothers need to volunteer with MYNA or Boy Scouts or the masjid youth group, to serve as role models for the young men. We need to have marriage classes and marriage counseling available without stigma so our brothers can learn the ins and outs (no pun intended!) of what is expected of them as husbands and fathers. And our men need to begin to hold themselves accountable for their decisions and their actions.
Too many men have the idea that everything Allah requires of women is an iron-fisted law etched in stone, and evrything Allah requires of men is a vague suggestion that they might want to give some thought to someday. This attitude has got to stop.
Because only when it does will polygyny be successful. Only when it does will monogamy be successful! Allah made men leaders of the family, so come on, brothers! Lead your families correctly, do it for the sake of Allah, and make your wives proud!!! Or we’ll sic the Talibaat on you.
(Pardon the dust – still in the process of editing this)
Some sisters I know were discussing their various situations, with some urging sisters to be patient and others urging sisters to leave their husbands. A big row ensued about whether women should stay in polygynous/abusive situations or not. Then I got a comment here on ye olde blogge that indicated women should not even try to adjust to “something as horrible as polygyny”. So apparently there are two different issues that need to be teased apart:
To be in a polygynous marriage is not, in-and-of-itself, horrible. Many women all over the world are in polygynous marriages, and they are happy to different degrees depending upon such things as their husband’s temperament, their co-wife’s(ves’) attitudes, their own nature, their health, the climate, their children’s ages, whether their mom lives close by, whether they have a hang-nail today or not….all kinds of variables go into whether or not a person is happy. Polygyny is not a make-or-break factor.
The behavior of the husband, however, is often a make-or-break factor. One woman can be in a horrible monogamous marriage and another in a stable, happy polygynous one. Yet another woman may be in a happy monogamous marriage but her sister in a disastrous polygynous one. If a man treats his wife badly – whether the bad treatment manifests in obsessive control, beating, neglect, lack of maintenance or whtaever – then the issue(s) needs to be addressed as bad treatment. Whether the marriage is monogomaous or polygynous is really inconsequential. If the situation involves bad treatment, it needs to be addressed as such. It bothers me when people see a polygnyous husband who treats one or more of his wives badly and they automatically blame it on the polygyny, when obviously the problem is the brother.
Now – a further distinction: There is a difference between “an abuser” – a person who habitually abuses those in his care – and “a husband who committed an abusive act”. In the first situation, not only should the wife leave the husband, but it could be considered fard on her to leave him, depending on the type and severity of the abuse, whether her children are being abused as well, etc. In the second case, a woman has to make a choice. She can cite the abusive act and request a divorce, no blame on her if she does that, or she can choose to forgive her husband and remain by his side even though he made a serious mistake, no blame on her if she does that either.
I believe that women in general should be much more open to polygyny, but I do not believe that women should be more open to being betrayed – or abused in any manner.
It is an extremely serious thing to advise a woman to request a divorce or to advise her to remain “patient” if she is being abused. And the thing is, unless a person is very intimately involved in a situation, knows both parties, and has seen them interact, there is no way to know who is suffering what. Maybe the wife who is in tears because her husband just took away her checkbook is a shopping addict who indulges her own desires while there are groceries that need to be bought! Or maybe the husband who is at his wits end because his wife is a nagger who won’t leave him alone is unemployed and neglecting her while he spends time out with his friends and neglecting the children while he watches TV! We can never really know what a situation entails, especially over the Internet. So insisting that someone should divorce or should stay married is not a wise thing to do.
As an advisor, all one can do is stress the need for the person to pray istikhara and give helpful tips on being patient, if that’s what the person is trying to do, or on relying on Allah for a decision made if they have decided to divorce, and always, always, on trying to improve one’s relationship with Allah, no matter what their marital choice is.
Whether to stay and be patient through a difficult trial or to pluck up one’s courage to leave a dangerous or iman-draining situation is, in the final analysis, a choice that can only be made by the persons involved. May Allah guide us all to whatever is best for us in the dunya and the akhira, and help us to always remind each other of Him. Ameen.
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.