A Personal Tale of Polygamy
By: Zeinab Merhi
Published Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Buthaina, Salma, and Hawraa experienced a great deal of harm when their husbands or fathers took other wives. Though many of these women are religious, this did not help them understand or accept this practice.
On February 27, Buthaina set herself on fire. She stepped inside the bathroom at her home in the Lebanese village of Jouaiya, doused herself with flammable bug spray, and set herself on fire. It’s been said that Buthaina chose death over seeing her husband take a second wife.
Buthaina was religious, and perhaps did not need anyone to tell her what’s halal and what’s haram – that is, what’s permitted or prohibited by Islam. Nevertheless, she could not bear the idea of her husband marrying another.
Another woman in a similar situation is Salma, who is still alive. She wears the chador, and the least one can say about her is that she is very devout. Much of her time is spent praying, but when her husband took another wife, she objected very strongly and was deeply hurt.
Since the harm’s been done, Salma had no choice but to pray some more, asking God to give her patience. Salma did not see her husband’s actions as something religiously acceptable.
But where does Islam really stand on the matter? Has Islam sanctioned something that many women, religious or not, would never accept? Do the scholars of Islam not all acknowledge that the Quran addresses both men and women?
Hawraa, Salma’s daughter, gave us the full account of her parents’ drama. After her father married another, he came to favor his second wife. Though Hawraa said she loves her father very much, she is upset by what he did to their family.
Hawraa said that shortly after her parents married, they traveled to Libya, where her father had a simple job. Four years later, a friend of the father offered him his sister’s hand in marriage.
Hawraa said that her father was taken by surprise at his friend’s offer, since he was already married. But his friend kept insisting until “somehow, it finally happened.” The father married his friend’s sister without telling his wife Salma. Although the man was deeply religious, he still did not feel that it was his religiously sanctioned right to do what he’d done.
Fearing how Salma might react, he chose to run away rather than confront her. He told her something had come up, and that he had to return to Beirut for a few days.
The father spent two months in the Lebanese capital, without getting in touch with Salma. According to Hawraa, that period of time proved to be the worst in Salma’s life. That is, until she found out from other people that her husband had taken another wife.
Soon after, her husband returned to Libya and she confronted him. The mother could never come to terms with had transpired, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Indeed, Salma, as she explained to her three children afterwards, had no choice: With her first child still a baby, she had to accept the situation, as she would have never agreed to give it up to her husband’s second wife and go back home.
In the event of divorce, as Hawraa said, Salma’s “harsh” father would not have wanted to raise “other people’s children,” and would have surely forced his daughter to give up her son and send him back to her husband.
Hawraa told us, “My sixty-something mother still suffers today from health-related and psychological consequences of that period in her life.” In truth, Hawraa too had suffered in the care of her overbearing stepmother.
She said that the stepmother had often tried to co-opt the father to her side, and would not let the siblings meet. “To this day, I still feel this distance with my half-siblings. For me, my only real sister is the one my mother had.”
Should we overlook what happened to Salma, Buthaina, or Hawraa, and many other women, and just surrender to the claim that God sanctioned polygamy?
We spoke to Sheikh Hisham Khalifa, Director General of al-Awqaf, the Islamic Endowments Authority, who explained the issue and its social misconceptions. He said, “Islam emerged in an era where polygamy was already common. Islam did not invent the practice, and only regulated it as it had done with other customs prevalent at that time.”
Khalifa added, “Islam restricted polygamy through the following: first, it specified the maximum number of wives, and second, it set out conditions. The verse in the Quran that permits polygamy says, ‘But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one.’”
“This means that God has left it up to each individual to decide, and yet, God decided that it is impossible to achieve the required justice (whether emotionally or financially). A verse says, ‘You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives.’”
Khalifa said that this means Islam permitted polygamy because it may serve certain needs of individuals and society, but because this is the exception, then it is subject to conditions. “It is as if we are being told not to go near it unless we face crises or particular situations,” he said.
So what are the reasons that may push one to resort to polygamy? Khalifa said, “Islam is a religion and a legal system that provides solutions, but leaves room for scholars to use reason to develop new solutions according to developments.”
Khalifa said that the main problems Islam has sought to “resolve” through polygamy could be situations where a wife has a chronic illness or is infertile. “Finally, should there be repulsion between the spouses, the husband has two options: divorce or marry another, if the social environment in question would stigmatize divorced women or other circumstances do not allow divorce,” he continued.
“To those who practice polygamy claiming they are emulating the Prophet’s ways, I call on them to commit to that literally. In other words, the Prophet practiced polygamy for specific reasons, so let us see what those reasons are and do the same if we can. However, we must not practice polygamy for reasons of lust and use the Prophet’s life as a pretext.”