Polygamy, prophets and moral norms

January 10, 2010 at 1:09 pm (gender issues, moral issues, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I am pretty open-minded and I try not to write off other lifestyles as bad just because I am not culturally conditioned to accept them.

I think polygamy is one of those things that can work for some people. An example of a happy polygamous family is Megan’s. She chose to join a polygamous family. The first wife and the husband decided together to go poly, and they all live in one big house. The “sister-wives” – at this point there are 4 of them – all love and support each other. It actually sounds pretty nice. There clearly must be something in it for these women who’ve chosen to live like that.

But I think there is nothing worse than a man going behind his wife’s back to take another wife, or point blank going against her wishes… and saying to everyone “it’s legal/permissible so I feel no guilt”.

Now, in the history of religions, the norms were different and men wouldn’t have thought there was an obligation to consult their wives about a decision like that. In fact I’m not sure the concept of “consent” even really existed. Sometimes girls were married off young, so young it was not possible for them to give genuine consent. And as for war captives, let’s not even go there.

So would all the prophets of the past have consulted their existing wives before adding a new one? I don’t think it would have been possible for them to think that way. Does that make them bad? I think they have to be judged according to the standard of their time. They weren’t perfect, they were human and it is unreasonable to expect that they could have measured up to our more progressed standards (although in other aspects of life I suspect our standards have slipped since their time). This only poses a problem when we think they were an example for all mankind and that they knew all there was to know about morality. Then we have to either accept their norms as our norms, or find a way of attributing our moral norms to them even though history tells another story.

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70 Comments

  1. Achelois said,

    It’s happened again! I agree with you in what you want to say but haven’t 😀

    If you are going to say “no more prophets” and the world lasts even for 2000 years after that, moral standards *will* change. But what makes it more difficult is that there were prophets who had morals which were very close to modern standards – I’m thinking about Noah, Moses, Isaac and of course Jesus.

    I would have trouble accepting it as just a cultural norm if the man married several times knowing just how difficult it was for his wives to bear that pain. I would have more trouble if he practiced polygamy himself but didn’t wish the same for his daughters. That would just show that it was not just a cultural practice done without regard to women’s feelings.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Achelois – I think you took it further than me! I admit Jesus is pretty hard to fault, but I don’t know enough about the lives of other prophets to say. I remember our conversation elsewhere about Abraham’s questionable behaviour, and David doesn’t look too good in the Bible or the Quran. So I just assumed that none of them would look good by modern norms.

      Your last paragraph – wow, yes! That is a really good point.

      • Achelois said,

        I admit David, Abraham and even Solomon did some really weird things and that’s why I didn’t include their names. But if no prophet ever looked good by modern norms, I would say we should reflect on the modern norms.

        I agree with you completely when you say “I try not to write off other lifestyles as bad just because I am not culturally conditioned to accept them.”

        But I would add that I wouldn’t want to be expected to follow ancient lifestyles either because they would make me so uncomfortable today. Both Jacob and Abraham were given slaves by their wives to have children with; I don’t know how they did that but it was too long ago. Now if someone says I too will become holy if I follow their example of selflessness, sorry but I’m not a saint and I can’t do that!

        And what’s the use of any such sacrifice when the Bible is already written and I have no chance of making an appearance in it! 😀

        OK, I will read quietly now …

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          Do you think wives giving their husbands their slave girls to have children with was considered a really pious thing to do? I never thought of it like that.

          Maybe exclusivity just wasn’t as important to women then, especially if it was a slave and not a rival wife. I’m sure jealousy is natural and universal but if they were socialised to see these things as normal then they might not think their feelings mattered so much.

          Of course, I wouldn’t like to accept ancient lifestyles for myself either. But is that because they were actually worse, or is it all relative? I don’t know. I suppose if there was some objective way of measuring happiness, we could answer that question.

          • Achelois said,

            “Do you think wives giving their husbands their slave girls to have children with was considered a really pious thing to do?”

            There are Salafi writers who think that.

            There is a book I request you to read – From Monogamy to Polygamy: A Way Through by Umm Abdur Rehman Hirschfelder. It actually makes you feel so guilty and selfish for wanting a man as an idol in your life compared to the one God Allah who should be the focus and if Allah wants you to accept polygamy then it is your jihad! There are some really strong emotion stirrers in it like, what your husband is doing in the other room with the other woman is none of your business. If you are feeling restless try to do dhikr by reciting Allahu Akbar over prayer beads all night or get a pedicure to pamper yourself! If he calls out her name when he’s in bed with you, so what? Don’t you mix your children’s names when you have many?!

            For a long time I was psychologically disturbed because I felt removed from God for not wanting polygamy for myself. Now I can see how ancient customs are carried forward from the past and brought in to fit into contemporary lives which isn’t easy for everyone.

            I do think that monogamy is a modern concept. It was rare in the past but it did exist. People marry for love today, but there must have been love in the past too. It is unfair to blame the ancient practices by imposing modern standards. Slavery, concubinage and other actions that may seem as social vices today were not social vices in the past.

            My dilemma is that as a growing child I was taught to believe that every prophet was sent to earth to correct social disharmony and set rules that gave people the chance to better themselves. They were champions of human rights, feminists, judges, counselors and social reformers hence they should not only be respected but emulated. And then we find out what David did for a woman and how Moses killed a man; how many women Solomon had and how Abraham lied and how Muhammad conducted raids and allowed concubinage and then I get depressed because the faith I had in these divine heroes suddenly shatters and I don’t know what is right. If God didn’t mind the many women Solomon had and He didn’t mind the raids and concubinage then they are not social vices and that is the fate of women; that is why we were created – for the amusement of men. And that is depressing.

            I accept that social norms didn’t change for thousands of years and now suddenly there is this growing sense of freedom and human equality, feminism and gender equality, even animal rights and these modern sensibilities are often at odds with ancient customs and traditions. But I feel if the moral standards we have today are good (most are; some aren’t) and if these standards are making people better human beings by promoting monogamy as natural, safer and healthier and condemning raids as social crime then why didn’t any prophet see the benefit in them and use them to reform their societies? Why didn’t any prophet say “women shall not be given as sexual presents to any man!”? Instead we know that there were prophets who accepted women as gifts and gave similar gifts as well. Why did they allow barbaric social customs to prevail in their societies in the name of tradition? That is depressing. I feel cheated that I was not taught the truth since childhood and was made to believe in an ancient society that never existed.

            • Wrestling With Religion said,

              Achelois – wow that book sounds… hmm. Nauseating?! I have noticed in Muslim poly blogs that it is seen as a jihad, something you have to deal with and you will be rewarded for. I find that really objectionable. Life would be much better spent on something more worthwhile. Also I have heard apologists say “No woman has to stay in a polygamous marriage, they can specify in their contract that they will get a divorce if the husband remarries” – as if that’s it, problem solved, just get a divorce! So a family gets broken up because the man selfishly wanted another wife, and all is well?

              I agree with you, and perhaps I have bent over backwards too far at times to understand and justify the actions of the past. A prophet *didn’t* have to accept sexual gifts just to maintain friendship with whoever gave such a gift – that is making excuses for him.

              Since I now think religion is a huge part human in origin, it’s easier to deal with these kind of disappointments in prophets. They were not 100% enlightened after all. No-one is. Whether there is anything in religion worth holding onto for me, I will find out as I go along. I think there have to be universal values in there somewhere – people have not changed that much.

            • susanne430 said,

              “And then we find out what David did for a woman and how Moses killed a man; how many women Solomon had and how Abraham lied and how Muhammad conducted raids and allowed concubinage and then I get depressed because the faith I had in these divine heroes suddenly shatters and I don’t know what is right.”

              Can’t speak for Muhammad, but my Muslim friend thinks the JEWS and maybe the Christians are the ones who made David and Solomon into sinners. Like the thought of David committing adultery and murder was one of the most shocking things I could have read to Samer although he didn’t hold it against me since he knew I was merely stating what my holy book says.

              So I can see how if you grew up like him thinking all prophets were great people with only small mistakes the Bible’s descriptions of David and Solomon can be disturbing!

              Samer said the Jews made the prophets this way so it would excuse their (the Jews) own sins. I countered that it doesn’t make me want to sin, it shows me the consequences for sins and makes me want to avoid them! The Bible doesn’t record that David lived happily ever after. His family paid a HUGE price for his sins! His son Absalom tried to take the kingdom from David and ended up being murdered. His one son raped his half-sister. Then her brothers went to kill the rapist. The baby Bathsheba had died. It doesn’t show that David is rewarded for his sinfulness. Rather it shows us: you sin, you reap the consequences.

              If we think these people were perfect, we will be sorely disappointed. If we see these people as sinners in need of God’s grace and salvation, we can be thankful that God can use sinners. And He can use us!

              To me, it’s an act of God’s goodness to be able to use sinners. It’s not that we are worthy to be used, but that HE cleanses us from our sinfulness. Take two minutes to read through Psalm 51 and Psalm 32. Those are prayers of David re: forgiveness and God washing him clean. You cannot read through the Bible and not notice the message of repentance and forgiveness and how God restores people.

              The important thing is to realize these are just people. They sin like the rest of us. The great thing is: God can use sinners. He saves and redeems them, and HE makes them fit to be used. It’s certainly not because we have cleaned up ourselves good enough.

              Romans 3 says there is none that are good enough for God’s glorious standard. Whoever thinks he is good enough is deceived.

              You cannot save yourself by your good works. GOD is the Savior.

              • Wrestling With Religion said,

                “The Bible doesn’t record that David lived happily ever after. His family paid a HUGE price for his sins!”

                Good point. I remember with Abraham it was at least implied that God brought disasters because of Sarah being in the Pharaoh’s palace. So his actions there were not exactly condoned by God either.

                “The important thing is to realize these are just people. They sin like the rest of us. The great thing is: God can use sinners.”

                I really like that. I always really liked that. Thank you for the reminder.

                I suppose the key question is, did they know when they made mistakes? David certainly did, it’s very clear from those psalms. They were very moving!
                With Abraham I feel less sure because he gave Sarah away again later to Abimelech. But it is really hard for me to judge from a text that is so old and everything.

                • susanne430 said,

                  I think Abraham knew his lie was wrong. So what if he did it again? How many times have I known something was wrong yet still repeated it. We get scared, we get tempted…for whatever reason we often repeat the very things we vowed we would never do again. This only proves Abraham’s humanity.

                  And, yes, David knew he sinned although it took Nathan confronting him to realize the full extent of it. \

                  I’m sure Jonah realized his sin … hard to miss that when you are stuck in the belly of a big fish for three days. 😀

                  • Wrestling With Religion said,

                    That is very true, Abraham was fearing for his life and people can easily make mistakes in that situation. Like Peter who denied Jesus even though he vowed he would never do that. We can’t understand unless we’ve been there. And like you say, we all repeat mistakes anyway. 🙂

  2. Sarah Elizabeth said,

    Hell yea there is something in it for the women. Friendship, and someone to help raise the kids, cook, clean, and some may even welcome someone else having sex with the husband instead of them. Not everyone is in a marriage for love.

    I think polygamy is ultimately harmful for women though, Especially if they got in it as a monogamous relationship. It can easily become abusive. For example, in Malaysia a women’s rights group called Sisters In Islam is fighting the courts because at the present time a man can petition the court to take another wife, and it doesn’t matter what the first wife thinks. Usually all it boils down to is if the man is financially capable, nothing else. The court system sees it as a man’s right, not a privilege, or even an emotional responsibility.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Sarah Elizabeth – Megan seems to be in it for love, although of course what she says on the blog may not be the whole story. Maybe it is problematic in ways I can’t tell as a reader.
      I agree with the Sisters In Islam, it is horrible for a man to just have that right no matter what the motivation or what it does to his wife.

  3. Jasmine said,

    I understand that some people practice polygamy freely. and happily
    Some people practice swingers parties freely and happily

    I think both are yuk.

    I think its a bit rich of men to anoint themselves with the same status and rights as Prophets too.

    So nerh.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Jasmine – yes, neither of those things appeal to me either, but if people are happy with it then fine! But I suspect neither of these things make very many people happy.

  4. LK said,

    I’m ok with it in the way that prophets used it. Like Abraham or Muhammad (I think Moses had more than one wife too). But the modern day usage is soooo far away from what it was meant to be that I think it really should be done away with.

    It is a priviledge and a huge responsibility. I think the law should require written agreement from all the women involved. And the current wife should have a hand in choosing the second. This way they know they can live in harmony. It should be benificial for all involved, not just the man.

    I personally don’t think it works in our time.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      LK – I like your idea about how existing wives should be on board and involved in the choice. I think in those families where it works, that’s how it is. I think it would be good if a wife could veto the idea but even better if men just wouldn’t think of taking another wife.

  5. Hubby said,

    My Confusion lies in the unequality of this. I realize that in those days the man was expected to take care of the family in terms of obtaining food and shelter, but doesn’t seem unequal that the man can take up to 4 wives and there is nothing mentioned about the woman being able to take up to 4 husbands? I mean, why not?

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Hubby – I guess if a woman had 4 husbands, the paternity of children would be undetermined (traditionally at least). Also a man can have more children by having more wives, but a woman can’t have more children by having more husbands. So from an evolutionary point of view it is beneficial for a man to have multiple partners but not for a woman. I guess this could explain why this type of inequality came about?

      • Hubby said,

        I understand how it came about, but it is just another portion of Islam that is sexually biassed toward men. I realize that, supposedly, Islam was a step forward for women during Muhammad’s time, but these are God’s words supposedly stating that it takes 2 women to equate to 1 man and each man can have up to 4 wives (even if the prophet himself had like 16). Anywho. I actually only wrote that trying to be funny.

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          Sorry, no I get what you’re saying, and Islam is definitely patriarchal, traditionally at least. It could have been different. It could have made inheritance equal so that widows did not need to be married in order to be secure, and therefore polygamy would not be needed. Women could have been more independent this way and so their witness would not have to be considered half that of a man because they would have experience in society. But instead, it made men the providers for women and hence the inequality. I do think there are good aspects to that though, along with all the bad. But I doubt God would instruct us that it had to be that way.

          Whether Islam was a step forward for women is not all that easy to determine. Muhammad’s first wife Khadija was very independent prior to Islam, for example. It’s not a clear picture.

  6. coolred38 said,

    ” culturally conditioned to accept them.”

    That pretty much explains much of what passes for religion now days…cultural conditioning…and nothing to do with God.

    Men using the Prophets example as a right to more wives wouldnt be so hard to swallow..if they followed his example in so many other good areas as well…as in…how he treated all those extra wives he had.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Coolred – I agree, a lot of what some people think is religion is probably just cultural baggage. Good point.

      • LK said,

        I wouldn’t want 4 husbands!!!! Good Lord no! One I think would be plenty. 🙂

  7. susanne430 said,

    Since God gave only Adam and only Eve to each other as far as we know and not Adam and Eve plus Rivkah, Dinah, Tamar and Sally, I think the one man + one woman for life is the ideal.

    Jesus reiterates this “formula” by quoting from Genesis 2:24 when God established the family:

    “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one.” — Mark 10:7,8

    How can a man and wife be “one flesh” when Rivkah, Dinah, Tamar and Sally wait in the wings to be part of that most intimate act that we can have with another person? I don’t know why God permitted polygyny, but I don’t see Him sanctioning it in the Bible. Actually since our actions have consequences, I see a lot of friction at times from men having multiple wives. I’m glad it works out for some, like Megan, but I daresay 80% of women find sharing their husbands rather repulsive.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Susanne – I’d be interested to know how Christian polygamists justify it from the Bible. Doesn’t Paul somewhere say each person should have their own (i.e. one) spouse?

      • susanne430 said,

        I’m sure they justify it saying that the Patriarchs had more than one wife. Again, I see that polygamy is in there, but I still believe it was NOT God’s ideal. However, He often permits things and lets us deal with the consequences of our decisions.

        Paul said the qualifications of church elders and deacons were that they were the husband of one wife. I think I shared here or somewhere else one time that when I read that, I thought this meant someone who had not been divorced. However, when Samer read it, he said, “Oh, I see this means no polygamy.” Ha, ha. Amazing how people can see this differently depending on their backgrounds (his is Islamic, Arab, Syrian where polygamy is OK.)

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          I seem to remember it was something like: because there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. But I might have remembered it totally wrong!

          I remember years ago wondering about poly in the OT and whether it was God’s will. I guess I see it as a valid alternative model for relationships, although it is less likely to be “ideal” than monogamy. I don’t see it as morally bankrupt, certainly the way Megan’s family is – there is life commitment, there is honesty, there is love – not much I could criticise really.

          I guess I don’t see life in black and white any more (I think I may have mentioned that before?! 😉 ) so I don’t think there’s just one way of doing relationships that is acceptable to God. Any relationship model can have badness in it anyway. There is a bad way to do polygamy and there is a bad way to do monogamy.

        • Jaytoo said,

          Susanne,

          Interestingly, Christian polygamists don’t only use the examples of David, Solomon, etc. to justify taking more than one wife, they even found some New Testament passages of which they say they support their claims. One website I found ( http://www.biblicalpolygamy.com/ ) quotes 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:
          “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.”

          They say that while the surrounding passages are Paul’s words and thoughts on marriage, these two verses are God’s direct words (because Paul said so).

          Since these passages tell the divorced wife that she can either return to her husband or stay single for the rest of her life but since these restrictions are not put on the husband, he is allowed to take more than one wife.

          Of course, even when I was a Christian I wasn’t really a fan of Paul and his writings. He seems like he was quite the fanatic and I have never liked fanatics and extremists, no matter their religion.

          • Wrestling With Religion said,

            Thanks for this information, Jaytoo, and welcome to my blog 🙂

          • susanne430 said,

            Jaytoo, I see this as men looking for reasons to have more than one wife. Like they are trying to justify it. Typical men wanting more sex! 😉

            I love Paul. He’s definitely a Type A personality though! I can see why some would not like that. I happen to love his zeal.

  8. Amber said,

    I considered polygamy once (as a possibility – I didn’t go so far as to try and find a family or anything…). While I rejected it because I feel the Biblical ideal is monogamy, and the fact that I’m pretty sure I’d wind up committing murder at some point if my husband married another woman (I have issues sharing. I never *quite* grew out of that selfish phase as a child…) I do know that it does work for some people, people who have, as adults, chosen it. But all parties have to know what they’re getting into, and even then, it doesn’t always work out. Even in the historical examples we have, we can see that polygamy caused stress and strife between all parties – it just depended on the kind of people that were involved as to the solutions they came up with. Polygamy was (probably) necessary in the past, but it’s not now.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Amber – I must admit, voluntary polygamy fascinates me. From reading Megan’s blog it seems that there are a surprising number of women interested in it. I used to think it must just be people whose understanding of religion has made them see it as a good thing, but a lot of them are not religiously motivated at all. But reading Megan’s blog I think I do see the appeal of it. But not enough to want to do it myself. 😉

  9. Cornelius said,

    Never mind if it’s the norm in the past and not in modern times. If something is wrong, then it is wrong. I’d imagine that killing another human being was the norm during the barbarians’ times, but it is no longer the norm today. Would God allow killing those days and then disallow it today because killing is no longer the norm? God’s teaching is not subject to time and our cultural practices and lifestyles, unless of course if God keeps changing His mind on what He expects of us.

    The question we should ask ourselves now is whether polygamy is right or wrong, just that. If we believed it is wrong, then it is wrong. Never mind if a man claimed that God told him it’s OK to have many wives because it’s the norm at the time.

    If there is yet another prophet today and he claims that God tells him it’s OK for men to have up to 10 wives each, are we prepared to accept this teaching? Are we going to reject it because it’s no longer the norm for modern day? In fact, I’m inclined to think that many of us will see this present day prophet as someone having a hard time suppressing his libido, don’t you think?

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Cornelius – I’m not sure it’s as black and white as: polygamy is either right or wrong. I think it depends how it’s done. I don’t feel like I want to condemn Megan’s situation as wrong.

      “If there is yet another prophet today and he claims that God tells him it’s OK for men to have up to 10 wives each, are we prepared to accept this teaching?”

      I would expect, if God would say it was OK to have up to 10 wives, that God would also lay down several stipulations to ensure it wasn’t going to be abused at the expense of women. But I don’t think God would bother to give us these kind of instructions anyway… I don’t honestly think God cares what relationship model we adopt as long as we don’t hurt anyone. I’d say polygamy is rarely appropriate because it often hurts people.

      “In fact, I’m inclined to think that many of us will see this present day prophet as someone having a hard time suppressing his libido, don’t you think?”

      Muslims say Muhammad’s marriages were all for really important purposes like forging alliances, and not for personal pleasure. The man who gave him Mariya the slave as a sexual gift would have been offended if he hadn’t accepted. He had to marry Zainab to show once and for all that marrying one’s adopted son’s ex-wife was permitted. These seem a little far-fetched for me, but obviously some people can believe it wasn’t anything to do with libido. 😉

      • susanne430 said,

        “He had to marry Zainab to show once and for all that marrying one’s adopted son’s ex-wife was permitted.”

        Haaa, ha,hahahahhaa! Sorry this just struck me funny – wow! Really? Actually wasn’t it more that adoptions were not allowed, therefore, I can marry your ex-wife since you never *really* were a son to me. Love how that “revelation” happened to sanction Muhammad’s sexual desires.

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          Here it is so you can decide for yourself:

          33:37 (Y. Ali) Behold! Thou didst say to one who had received the grace of Allah and thy favour: “Retain thou (in wedlock) thy wife, and fear Allah.” But thou didst hide in thy heart that which Allah was about to make manifest: thou didst fear the people, but it is more fitting that thou shouldst fear Allah. Then when Zaid had dissolved (his marriage) with her, with the necessary (formality), We joined her in marriage to thee: in order that (in future) there may be no difficulty to the Believers in (the matter of) marriage with the wives of their adopted sons, when the latter have dissolved with the necessary (formality) (their marriage) with them. And Allah’s command must be fulfilled.

          I think adoption is allowed, but adopted children are not considered like bio children, they have to keep their original family name, they do not automatically inherit, and they are not mahram to the adoptive family unless they have been breastfed by the adoptive mother. For people who observe veiling this makes adoption problematic.

          • Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

            I really don’t see what is so far-fetched about the argument that Muhammad was forming tribal alliances and setting examples. He didn’t live in a world where marriage was for love, and concubines were a widespread phenomenon, so why do we assume he married so many women just for sex or his libido?
            He married a Christian woman, to show Muslim men can marry Christians. He married a Jewish woman, to show Muslim men can marry Jews. He married a divorced woman, etc.
            Sorry but if he wanted to have lots of sex, I’m sure he had other options (i.e. concubines). But I am very interested in understanding exactly why you found these arguments far-fetched.

            • Wrestling With Religion said,

              I found the traditional defenses far-fetched for specifically the two examples I gave: Mariya and Zainab. I’m sure in some other cases he WAS forming tribal alliances – that is how things were done then.

              However, I find it hard to accept that he needed to set examples to show whom Muslim men can marry. I feel that the verses stating whom Muslim men can marry ought to be sufficient. And (quite rightly) his example hasn’t actually encouraged Muslims to copy his unions. If anything, marriage to non-Muslims is actively discouraged by imams and scholars. I think many Muslim men would hesitate at marrying their adopted son’s ex, or taking a concubine (even if this were legal).

              I’m not saying libido is a bad thing, anyway. Also, perhaps it was not so much libido but a status thing, most tribal leaders and kings probably had a lot of wives. Also maybe he desperately wanted to have a son. Polygamy is often not the kindest thing for women, but I never believed prophets have to be perfect in all their motivations. If it weren’t for the fact that there is a verse saying up to 4 wives, and a verse giving an unsatisfying (to me) explanation for the marriage to Zainab, maybe I’d be OK with it.

  10. Achelois said,

    “The man who gave him Mariya the slave as a sexual gift would have been offended if he hadn’t accepted.”

    Oh yes, that reason! 😀

    If I were the King I would have actually learnt a valuable lesson worthy of converting to Islam had Muhammad refused to take Maria. And he could have done something else about it – he wasn’t presented Maria in person; Maria and her sister were sent with a eunuch from Egypt. On the contrary we are told in hadith that he re-gifted Maria’s sister and kept Maria for himself because she was more attractive.

    But Reza Aslan discredits all these excuses. He openly claims that Muhammad loved women and most of his marriages/relationships (if not all) were because he found the women irresistible (all of whom except for Sauda were also very young – often in their late teens). He says Muslims should accept the truth rather than cover it up. There is nothing shameful about it!

    Interestingly, there are quite a few ahadith in Sahih Bukhari that quote early Muslims saying that the Prophet loved women; there is also a hadith in which he himself said there are three things in this world he liked: women, perfume and prayer. I think he was very honest about it.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Yes, and we know his wives were wildly jealous of how much time he spent with Mariya.

      Interesting about Reza Aslan’s approach to this. It certainly seems to be the case that enjoyment of sex is not frowned upon in Islam like it is in some branches of Christianity. So why do people try to explain his unions away as being for other reasons, then? Why do a lot of Muslims implicitly acknowledge that it would be bad if it was just for the sake of pleasure?

      • Achelois said,

        “Why do a lot of Muslims implicitly acknowledge that it would be bad if it was just for the sake of pleasure?”

        I think because everything in moderation is OK but when it goes beyond a certain limit it takes another form. I can speak for myself. For a number of years in the past I tried to explain Muhammad’s marriages. Comparatively, four is still moderate than unlimited number of wives, although there was still no limit on concubines. So I had a hard time explaining the 13+ wives. Had there been four it would have been easier – he would also have been following the rule he had set. So I guess most Muslims feel compelled to give reasons other than pleasure because there were just too many.

        Aslan was bold and I respected that and I respect that Muhammad himself never tried to hide the real reason behind his marriages.

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          OK, I forgot about the fact it was supposed to be limited to 4. Pleasure wouldn’t be a good reason for exceeding that limit. But hey, he had a long way to go before catching up with Solomon! 😉 I think Solomon’s case is a bit difficult to defend as well, but then Christians and Jews are allowed to say it was a mistake. Or several hundred mistakes. lol.

          “Muhammad himself never tried to hide the real reason behind his marriages.”
          I’m not so sure… I feel the verse defending the marriage to Zainab was an attempt at an excuse. It was really hard for me to accept and believe, anyhow.

          • Achelois said,

            Except for Zainab. I was going to write that but didn’t. I think that was one marriage that caused a lot of gossip and it had to be defended. That like the Mairaj actually got Muslims to start talking especially since Zaid was called Zaid bin Mohammad for quite some time. It was a huge shock for people even in that time.

          • susanne430 said,

            I’ve never defended Solomon for his many many many wives, and it’s clear from reading the Bible that his heathen wives actually turned his heart away from God! The Bible never excuses this. Again, your actions have consequences and the Bible is real about this. It doesn’t hide the dirty little secrets in order to make people out to be perfect which we know they are not.

            And I really don’t know about certain groups of Christians (as you said) who say sex isn’t for pleasure. Those people need to read Songs of Solomon and some verses in Proverbs for a refresher course! 😉

            • Wrestling With Religion said,

              Exactly – so it is not sanctioned by the Bible, because his actions are not considered a perfect example, nor were they considered to be instructed by God.

              As for those branches of Christianity, I’ve only encountered them in Karen Armstrong’s book, not in real life. Hopefully there aren’t too many like that.

              • Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

                It is not wrong to think that the Prophet loved women BUT the argument that we always hear is that he couldn’t control his sexual appetite and this is different from him loving women.

                Interesting that Aslan made that argument, I hadn’t heard that before. I know Fatima Mernissi believes the same.

                Like I said, loving women and wanting to marry them OR having a huge sexual appetite and marrying women out of greed/lust are two very different things.

                His “large sexual appetite” is also always linked to his marrying Aisha at age 9 as well, in an effort to paint a very specific picture of what he was like. (Even though some historians say she was 16-18 when the marriage was consummated, but we somehow never hear this theory.)

                In the end maybe he married so many women for both reasons: he loved women and he wanted to form tribal alliances, set examples, etc

                • Wrestling With Religion said,

                  Yes, I think a lot of “orientalists” or whatever they’re called do distort the picture. Just because he liked beautiful young women does not mean he was deviant in any way. And he certainly wasn’t out of control, in fact the hadiths indicate what a big deal modesty was, he covered his eyes when he brought female singers in to entertain Aisha, he encouraged women to cover themselves and so on.

                • Achelois said,

                  @ Sara,

                  Aisha’s age is such a bogus argument. Just recently someone was pointing that out to me and it made me very angry.

                  Girls were always getting married so young. According to Biblical calculations, Mary was only 12 or 13 years old when she had Jesus! That is what the times were like. And in fact, Quran itself allows the marriage (and even divorce) of pre-pubescent girls. If Aisha’s age was such an issue back then we would have had some explanation on it, but we don’t because it didn’t matter to anyone in those times.

                  Aisha wasn’t the only young wife, the Prophet had. Saffiya was 16 or 17 years old and Rehana was between 16 and 18 years old. Maria was also only 16 years old when she was brought to Muhammad. I admit what I don’t like is the age difference between Aisha and Muhammad rather than Aisha’s age. If she was 8 and he was 18 it still wouldn’t have bothered me. However, if you look at Muhammad’s age difference with his other wives/slaves, it was comparable. Saffiya was already divorced once and widowed when she married Muhammad at the age of 17 years. So, girls, whether they were Jewish/Christian/Pagan/Muslim were getting married so young.

                  However, I believe you can both love women and have a huge sexual appetite. There is nothing wrong about it. It becomes wrong because Muslim children are taught from childhood that sex is a bad thing, wanting women and men for sex is a bad thing, having more than one wife is a bad thing, concubinage is a bad thing and then they grow up and find out that their own prophet was married over a dozen times and had concubines, and allowed sex with slaves. That is when it becomes a bad thing.

                  As a child I thought he had only two wives, Khadeejah and then Aisha after her death. No one told me when I was 8 years old that when Aisha got married she was my age. Then later I found out he had more wives and I always thought he had only four at a time. And I was taught he married only poor and widowed/divorced women. I didn’t know that at least three of them were widowed because their husbands were killed by Muslims on his orders and one was divorced because Muhammad wanted the divorce. That is when it becomes a bad thing because when you find out the truth you recoil in shock. I am strongly in favour of teaching truth to Muslim children. Why lie?!

                  Creating alliances and setting examples is a recent argument, IMO. No one presented these arguments during his time. When Muhammad took Safiya, he didn’t say that he had chosen her to set an example that Muslim men could marry Jewish women. His Companions didn’t mention that either. What they did say is recorded by his earliest historians. Tabari writes that when he married Safiya and Muslims found out, one of his Companions said, “That stallion’s nose is not to be restrained!”

                  The Prophet knew that polygamy hurts women. If creating alliances was such an important factor he would have allowed Ali to marry into the Banu Hashim clan when they offered him any woman he liked to marry from that important clan. Instead the Prophet got so upset that he climbed the pulpit after Friday prayer and said, “Banu Hisham bin Al-Mughira have requested me to allow them to marry their daughter to Ali bin Abu Talib, but I don’t give permission, and will not give permission unless ‘Ali bin Abi Talib divorces my daughter in order to marry their daughter, because Fatima is a part of my body, and I hate what she hates to see, and what hurts her, hurts me.” He knew a woman hates to see a co-wife and it hurts her.

                  Poor Aslan. He spoke his mind and hence his book is banned in the ME 🙂

                  • Wrestling With Religion said,

                    Hmm. So if the Muslims of the time accepted Muhammad’s marriages (for the most part) without the need for the sort of explanations we hear today, then I guess that was just what was expected of someone in his position?

                    I wonder if it bothered anyone that he had more than 4? Again, I guess not if we don’t hear anything about it.

                    I didn’t know Aslan’s book was banned in the ME. They seem to ban a lot of books over there! 🙂

                    • Achelois said,

                      Yes, lots of books never come here 🙂

                      I hope I get my books from Amazon. They haven’t arrived yet! Now I’m worried.

                      “I wonder if it bothered anyone that he had more than 4?”

                      I think it must have bothered someone hence the verse 33:51.

                    • Wrestling With Religion said,

                      Actually this answers the question of why he married so many – it was a privilege for him. It’s right there. For some reason I didn’t notice it the first time, maybe because I was so horrified by everything else going on in that sura.

                      Here is 33:50-52 for anyone who’s interested:

                      O PROPHET! Behold, We have made lawful to thee thy wives unto whom thou hast paid their dowers, as well as those whom thy right hand has come to possess from among the captives of war whom God has bestowed upon thee. And [We have made lawful to thee] the daughters of thy paternal uncles and aunts, and the daughters of thy maternal uncles and aunts, who have migrated with thee [to Yathrib]; and any believing woman who offers herself freely to the Prophet and whom the Prophet might be willing to wed: [this latter being but] a privilege for thee, and not for other believers – [seeing that] We have already made known what We have enjoined upon them with regard to their wives and those whom their right hands may possess. [And] in order that thou be not burdened with [undue] anxiety – for God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace – [know that] thou mayest put off for a time whichever of them thou pleasest, and mayest take unto thee whichever thou pleasest; and [that,] if thou seek out any from whom thou hast kept away [for a time], thou wilt incur no sin [thereby]: this will make it more likely that their eyes are gladdened [whenever they see thee], and that they do not grieve [whenever they are overlooked], and that all of them may find contentment in whatever thou hast to give them: for God [alone] knows what is in your hearts – and God is indeed all-knowing, for­bearing. No [other] women shall henceforth be lawful to thee – nor art thou [allowed] to supplant [any of] them by other wives, even though their beauty should please thee greatly -: [none shall be lawful to thee] beyond those whom thou [already] hast come to possess. And God keeps watch over everything.

                  • Cornelius said,

                    “According to Biblical calculations, Mary was only 12 or 13 years old when she had Jesus! “

                    According to Biblical calculations (by working one’s way backwards through all those generations), earth is about 10,000 years old. Dinosaur bones, however, suggest a different age.

  11. Wrestling With Religion said,

    Interesting article out today. It seems like all the extra offspring afforded to a man in polygamy are not necessarily an evolutionary advantage if he can’t support them.

    SOME couples come together for love, others for money, pregnancy or because they’re told to. Whatever the reason, socially prescribed monogamy and its ultimate cultural expression, marriage, may have emerged because of the evolutionary benefits that both offer.

    By providing men with increased assurance that their wives’ children are their true heirs and women with the confidence that their kids will benefit from a decent inheritance, monogamous marriage is a win-win situation, argue Laura Fortunato at University College London and Marco Archetti at Harvard University.

    …”there are actually some situations where monogamous marriage is a better strategy for men as well as for women,” says Fortunato, who created a mathematical model to find out how such scenarios might work.

    The emergence of social monogamy – where monogamy is socially enforced and polygamy is forbidden – is a mystery. The Babylonian king Hammurabi prescribed it in his ancient law code around 1790 BC, though the practice probably stretches back thousands of years further. Fortunato … says the fact that many populations around the world practise some form of polygyny is a clear indication that social monogamy is not inevitable and therefore needs explaining.

    Fortunato and Archetti conclude that men and women will tend to form socially monogamous pairs when land is scarce and its cultivation intense, because men would risk diluting the value of their property by dividing it up among too many offspring and heirs. “Having a plot of land that is not big enough to support your family is not clever,” says Fortunato.

  12. Cornelius said,

    So… since no one will raise the question, let me raise it.

    How long do you think Megan’s fairytale will last?

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      I guess it falls to me to answer, since no-one else – except maybe Amber – has expressed the idea that polygamy can work. Well… I don’t know. I know people do stay in those situations for life, but whether it’s really a fairytale, I have no idea.

      • Cornelius said,

        Oh! I do believe that polygamy can work! I happen to know a woman who’s in a polygamous family and has been in that family up to now. I once asked her if she’s happy with her situation, and she said yes, she’s happy.

        BUT! she said if she had a choice, she’d be even happier if she had her husband all to herself.

        I’m just guessing here, but I have a feeling that Megan would also be happier if she had Steve all to herself. Generally speaking, women don’t like sharing their husbands. Maybe Megan is just an exception, but I don’t believe it.

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          Yes, I have got that impression from time to time. I’m sure there are benefits to having sister-wives and being part of a big family, but having to share the husband is not one of them!

  13. susanne430 said,

    “Actually this answers the question of why he married so many – it was a privilege for him. It’s right there.”

    Yes, this supports my comment on another post of yours that Muhammad often got exceptions to the rules — revelations that just so happened to make him above the rules of the common people. *To me* a good leader leads by example, not by exceptions. I don’t like when politicians have one rule for the common folk and another for themselves as if they are somehow superior to the masses. Granted many think Muhammad is superior to the masses and that is their right. I happen to disagree so for me these justifying “revelations” are proof that someone was setting up Muhammad to think more highly of himself than he ought.

    Just my opinion though.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      I discussed some of these issues on a forum – a good one, lol, with highly clever people – and the answer I was given was that Muhammad was not exempt from the rules, and that any exceptions were purely for the purposes of carrying out his role, and that anyone in a similar position would also get the same exceptions. So presumably, any Muslim leader in a tribal pagan system would get to marry more women as well, for the purposes of forging alliances.

      However, the Quran makes no mention of such a purpose, instead it says it was a privilege for him. So I do agree with you that he got exceptions. And I also agree that the idea of a prophet getting special privileges is… uncomfortable. But maybe that’s because in Christianity, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and generally was quite humble and servant-like… to the extent of going to the cross, which in Christianity was God’s will. Kind of the opposite of a special privilege, lol. I have to admit that makes me uncomfortable too, though. I guess Christians are happy with Jesus having to make special sacrifices, and Muslims are happy with Muhammad getting special privileges, and I am somewhere in-between… but nearer to your side. 😉

      Muslims might say too that Muhammad had extra responsibilities, prayed way more than the average believer etc., and if God granted him privileges it was only because he deserved it. Maybe I would be OK with that if it did not come at the expense of other people’s happiness, i.e. the women he married. I like the way the verse points out how happy his wives would be to see him if they didn’t get their turn for a while, lol.

      • Achelois said,

        That is a very interesting observation, WWR!

        It is very amusing that the clever people on the forum explained that “Muhammad was not exempt from the rules, and that any exceptions were purely for the purposes of carrying out his role, and that anyone in a similar position would also get the same exceptions.”

        The Arabic words used for ‘privilege’ are: khalisatan laka min dooni al mumineena, which if you narrowly translate would be:

        khalisatan – specially
        laka – for you
        min dooni – excluding
        al mumineena – all other believers

        Hence the word privilege does not really exist in the Arabic verse, but it basically means that all the rights that were mentioned earlier in the verse were especially for Muhammad and not for other Muslim men.

        So yes it was a privilege or special right but no other Muslim man in similar authoritative position was allowed that; in fact they were clearly forbidden from taking more than four legal wives (concubines were still unlimited) because the verse then continues to state: ‘We know what We have appointed for them as to their wives and the captives whom their right hands possess.’

        Muhammad was definitely exempt from all rules – he was allowed all the legal wives he took, and the concubines, all his cousins, and any woman who wanted to marry him and he accepted. He was allowed to defer the turn of any wife/concubine and take any he wanted out of turn. He was also allowed to accept again a wife/concubine he had divorced/removed without her having to marry another man first. It is all there in the Quran, whichever way you interpret it.

        And yes, he prayed like no other Muslim but Jesus used to pray all night as well. He didn’t have even one wife 😀

        Jokes aside, I think no Muslim man should think if he prays as much or is a king/president that he should be allowed eleven wives as well. Those exceptions were only for Muhammad. Quran is clear on that.

        I should add though that verse 33:52 is disputed amongst scholars. Some propose that it was abrogated since the verse (revealed in 5 or 7 A.H) forbids the Prophet from taking up any more legal wives, however he continued to marry right until his death. All earliest authorities on the Quran confirm that this verse was revealed as a reward for the Prophet’s wives for choosing to stay with the Prophet when they were given the choice to leave him after the major dispute over Maria/honey (33:28-29). However, there is no verse in the Quran to replace this verse if it was really abrogated.

        The words that really caught my attention (in the context we are discussing) in the verses you quoted, WWR, are:

        … nor art thou [allowed] to supplant [any of] them by other wives, even though their beauty should please thee greatly

        So the Quran supports Aslan’s view that the Prophet married so many times because “their beauty pleased him greatly” rather than for building alliances/setting examples.

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          Thanks for the Arabic! I like broken-down analyses like that.

          I suppose they would argue it *had* to apply only because of his role, even if it doesn’t say that. But I’m sure they were not arguing for other people to actually have those rights too. In any case I agree with your take on it.

          That’s true, the part about their beauty is very telling. It could have said “even though there may be important allegiances to be formed”. But it didn’t.

          Did he really continue to marry more women after verse 52? I never really thought about that. Surely that must have raised eyebrows too.

          If I’ve learnt anything, it’s to take my concerns seriously, and not expect that lots of problems can all be explained away just because I want my love affair with Islam to work out. I probably knew about a lot of these things fairly early on, and if I’d investigated them from the start, I’d have saved myself a lot of time. But hey.

          • Achelois said,

            I never thought about it myself. It is hard to find a correct chronology of the Prophet’s wives. Most would say Barra Bint Harith was his last wife whom he married in 7 AH, but Tabari has the most detailed list with a couple of wives mentioned to be married to him during his last year.

            But I paid attention to it when I read Ibn Kathir who actually argues that verse 50 abrogated verse 52! All scholars but Asad believe that verse 52 was revealed in the year 5 AH after which he actually married several times (and hence the need for an abrogation) but Asad claims it was revealed in 7 AH and he didn’t marry anyone after that (Asad lists Safiya as his last wife but forgets Barra). But Tabari and Ibn Ishaq list other wives (at least 3 more) after Barra with whom he never consummated marriage but did marry them.

            • Wrestling With Religion said,

              Asad doesn’t believe in abrogation at all, so it would be a problem for him if he did marry others after. But it sounds very probable if most scholars believe he married Barra in 7 AH and the verse 52 was revealed in 5 AH.
              I’m constantly amazed at how much reading you’ve done! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with me 🙂

  14. susanne430 said,

    “I like the way the verse points out how happy his wives would be to see him if they didn’t get their turn for a while, lol.”

    Ha, ha! Yeah, what better way to stroke a man’s ego! The women WANT you, man! They WANT you! Any man’s dream. 🙂

    Jesus modeled what He expects of us – to honor and serve others. He didn’t come down proclaiming “Here I am…worship me! Exalt me for I’m special. I was born of a virgin! Were you? Can you claim this? So give me special privileges already!” Instead He went around meeting needs, stopping to help the sick and showing us how to live. I like that Jesus gave an example of what we are to be. Thankfully He didn’t leave any mundane silly things like how to enter and use a bathroom, but rather things that matter – honoring others, praying for your enemies, serving others. I admire that so much!

    But then I would. 😉

    • Cornelius said,

      I agree. Although I don’t believe all the stories about the 2 prophets, but looking from the general point of view, I have more respect and admiration for Jesus. The same way how I respect and admire Mother Teresa, and not so much the Pope.

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