Saturday, September 27, 2008

Polygamy: A Perspective

In a 2005 study of the effects of polygamy upon Arab women, an Egyptian psychiatrist arrived at the conclusion that there should be a clinical classification for symptoms attributed to the practice of polygamy. Lotfy A.M. Al-Sherbiny, Ph.D., author of The Case of the First Wife in Polygamy, has found that many women fall victim to identical somatic and psychological symptoms when exposed to the practice of polygamy and proposes that there be a classification called “first wife syndrome” as a way of diagnosing and treating such women. Although her study was based on Arab women and the findings are thus Arab culture specific, one cannot ignore the ramifications of such findings and how they can in effect impact practices within Western civilization and the Muslim world.

Personally, upon encountering Al-Sherbiny’s report, I was filled with relief, hope and a growing excitement. The fact that another woman would care enough to delve into such an area for study was touching and liberating – inspiring because of the doors such a study can open for the psychological health of women, especially Muslim women.

Women have undeniably lived with mental health ailments throughout the twentieth century, most of them suffering silently through the effects of bad marriages, economic injustices and physical/mental abuse. And although the West, particularly the Women’s Rights movement of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s in the U.S. can be credited as having been a leader in terms of seeking that women be liberated from the pain and shame of mental illness and abuse, fewer gains have been made in the behalf of the female populations of poorer nations, if modern western media is to be believed. Whether what the news reports is true or not, a study such as this has emerged and to discover such a find and not share it would be a blunder on my part.

I first need to point out that in terms of polygamy, I have unfortunately found that most women when asked about it react with disdain, disrespect or outright anger, rarely taking the time to try and understand why a woman may choose to practice polygamy or to see any good that may be inherent within it.

I can certainly attest that unless one has embarked upon a journey as a polygamous wife it can be very difficult to put oneself into the shoes of another that has made such choices. From my own perspective, I can imagine the pain it may cause a woman to visualize living in a polygamous household, especially in the West because of the images that we are constantly bombarded with professing to define womanhood for us; but the fact nevertheless remains that a significant percentage of women, whether by choice or circumstance, is familiar with aspects of sharing a spouse or significant other.

For instance, there has been a new development in recent years within popular American culture, particularly urban pop culture with the advent of the “baby daddy” and “baby mama;” terms that refer to estranged or absent parents that do not participate as an official spouse but that function within the family unit nonetheless. Cultural norms have now emerged where it becomes necessary for individuals to identify and interact with one another in a new way due to the increasing numbers of children within society that are born out of wedlock or subject to divorce and re-marriage.

These circumstances often require individuals to interact in ways that are similar to the ways in which polygamous households function for the sake of the children involved. We even have spin offs such as “baby mama/daddy drama, ” that alludes to the stress and anxiety involved in interacting with the mother/father of the children of one’s former spouse or significant other.
If we were to analyze the prevalent social norms in modern American society we would not be able to ignore the fact that we do indeed deal more directly with aspects of polygamy and bigamy than we would expect from within the constructs of a “monogamous Christian society.” The Bible after all contains several narratives of polygamous marriages within the Old Testament, and the Judeo-Christian tradition is not without it’s own history of polygamous marriages throughout the ages.

All this to say that regardless of one’s opinion concerning whether polygamy is right or wrong, it cannot be denied that analyzing the effect that polygamy has on women’s minds and their psychological health is an important and commendable accomplishment. Whether I believe polygamy is good or bad becomes insignificant in light of what women are going through psychologically because of a lack of understanding and support from the medical profession.

Al-Sherbiny documents that, at least within the confines of Arab culture, women of a certain demographic and social status tend to practice polygamy more than others. This alone provides an excellent opportunity to endorse literacy and education throughout the Muslim world, especially quality religious education so that women can be cognizant of their rights in polygamy according to Islam. This can not only alleviate the symptoms that women tend to experience but also to elevate her social status.

The study states, “following Islamic principles and adhering to the rules surrounding polygamy can minimize or eliminate side effects.” So while providing treatment to prevalent symptoms, education in the form of literacy and religious teaching can also treat the greater social condition of women and thus assist the family structure as a whole.

I am obviously extremely excited about this study and much respect goes out to Dr. Al-Sherbiny. I pray that women around the globe continue to emerge as leaders and advocates for one another in the struggles for justice and the establishment of human rights. We are all trustees upon this earth and it is our duty to do our best to be worthy of such a trust.

With peace and blessings for you and yours!

Relevant Reading:
Scriptures: Listed by Chapter and Verse

Wives in the Qur’an:
2:187, 2:223, 4:3, 4:19-21, 4:129, 13:38, 23:6, 24:6-9, 33:37, 37:22, 40:8, 43:70, 60:10-11, 64:14, 66:10-11, 70:30

Wife in the Bible:
Gen.2:24, Prov.18:22, 19:14, Hos.1:2, Mark 10:11, Luke 14:20, 17:32, Eph.5:33, Titus 1:6, Rev.21:9

Wives in the Bible:
Eph.5:25, 1Tim 3:11

Matriarchs in Polygamous Structures:

Qur’an: Sarah, 11:71, Hajar 14:37;

Bible: Sarah, Gen.11:29, 18:15, 21:12, 23:1+2, 19, 49:31, Heb.11:11, 1Pet.3:5+6, Hagar Gen.16:1-16, Keturah Gen.25:1, 4, 1Chr. 1:32, 33, Leah Gen.29:16-32, 30:9-20, 31:4, 31:14, 33:1-7, Rachel Gen.29:6-31, 31:34, 35:16-24, Matt.2:18, Zilpah Gen.30:9, Bilah Gen.29:29, 30:7, 35:22, 35:25, Zipporah Ex.2:21, 4:25, 18:2, The Ethiopian Woman (Moses’ Wife) Num.12:1, Hannah 1Sam.1:2, 1Sam.2:1-11, 2:31, Peninnah 1Sam.1:2, Michal 1Sam.14:49, 18:17-28, 19:11-17, 2Sam.3:13, 3:14, 6:1-23, Abigail 1Sam. 25:39-41, Ahinoam 1Sam.25:43-44, David’s wives 2Sam.3:2-5, 2Sam.5:13-16, Bathsheba 2Sam.11:3, 12:24, 1King.1:11, 2:13, 2:18-19, Pharoah’s Daughter (Solomon’s Wife) 1King.7:8, Solomon’s Wives 1King.11:3

Polygamy and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):

Wives of the Prophet:
1)Khadija bin Khuailid, 2)Sawda bint Zam’a, 3)Aisha bint Abu Bakr, 4)Hafsa bint ‘Umar, 5)Zainab bint Khuzaimah, 6)Umm Salama, 7)Umm Habiba, 8)Zaynab bint Jahsh, 9)Safiyya bint Huyay, 10)Juayriya bint al-Harith, Maymuna

Polygamy: The Qur’an Restricts the Number to Four
Abu Dawud: al-Harith ibn Qays said, “I embraced Islam while I had eight wives. When I mentioned that to the Prophet (pbuh), he said, “choose only four of them.”

Tirmidhi: Abdullah ibn ‘Umar said, “Abu Ghaylan ibn Salama ath-Thaqafi embraced Islam and he had ten wives whom he had married during the pre-Islamic period. His wives also embraced Islam with him. Thereupon, the Prophet (pbuh) commanded him to choose only four of them.”

Sahih Sunan Abi Dawud: vol.1, pg.358: “Fear Allah concerning women, for you have them under Allah’s security, and you have the right to sexual intercourse with them by Allah’s word. You have the right to expect from them that they do not bring into your houses anyone whom you dislike. But if they do that, then strike them lightly, without violence. They, on the other hand, have the right to expect from you that you feed and clothe them reasonably.”

“What kind of wealth should be sought?” He replied: “Each one of you should seek a thankful heart, a mindful tongue, and a believing wife who will help each of you in the matter of the Hereafter.”

Life Reminders

Psalm 145:8-9 The Lord is Gracious and Merciful
The Lord is Gracious and Merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and His Compassion is over all that He has made.

Matthew 11:28 Gentleness and Humility
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Surah 33:21 Beautiful Pattern of Conduct
Ye have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern of conduct for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the Praise of Allah.

Sahih Muslim, Book Unknown: Changing an Evil Action
“Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest of faith.”

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