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Polygamy and contemporary morals

By Keysar Trad - posted Friday, 27 June 2008


The debate over the last couple of days on the issue of plural relationships has highlighted a number of very interesting paradigms.

First, if you are an Australian Muslim, make sure that you do not offer a faith-based solution for a social problem, this may hurt the cause, because the reaction is likely to be hysterical and some in the political establishment will have particularly interesting ways of looking at the matter.

Second, there are social practices which society is unwilling to address, people know they exist, some practice them, but overall, society lives in denial and blissful ignorance.

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In February this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Right Reverend Rowan Williams, suggested recognising aspects of Sharia to address problems that women face in the UK. He was lambasted all over the media, there was a hysterical frenzy because he had the audacity to suggest that the Divine teachings in Islam could, because some people believe in them, offer real solutions to these adherents.

Recently, there were several reports about the UK government considering the recognition of plural relationships, which for lack of a better idiom, are referred to as polygamy.

When we refer to polygamy, for the purposes of this article, we are not referring to a secular marriage, but to an amorous union among a group numbering more than two consenting adults. The term polygamy covers both polygyny which is a union of one man with more than one woman and polyandry which is a union of one woman with more than one man. In essence, this term is gender neutral in that it does not give preference to one gender over another but includes relationships between one person of either gender and more than one of the other gender.

The UK government did not state that it would encourage the practice, rather, it said that it would grant official recognition to such marriages where they take place outside the country. While most articles focused on the entitlement to welfare, little discussion has been accorded to a recent Sharia court decision in Malaysia to delay approval for such a marriage to a man unless he proved that he had the financial and physical ability to support such a relationship.

The Old Testament raises the issue of numerous historical figures who had supported more than one wife. Their polygamy is not criticised in the Bible nor does the Old Testament in any way restrict the practice. Some verses in the New Testament seem to present the celibate ideal of Saint Paul, glorifying a monastic tradition and only suggesting marriage if the person would otherwise burn with passion. There is also the statement of Christ describing divorce and remarriage for any reason other than infidelity as adultery. This discouragement of divorce is also seen as a monogamous restriction by some.

Googling the words "Christian polygamy" will reveal several Christian websites, not just Mormon Christians, who support polygamy through the Christian scriptures.

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In practice many people support simultaneous amorous relationships with more than one partner. A number of websites on infidelity suggest varying percentages of men and women have engaged in extra-marital infidelity, one website suggesting that 45-55 per cent of married women and 50-60 per cent of married men have engaged in such relations with 37 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women admitting to having affairs.

Some Muslim scholars estimate that only 1 per cent of men in Muslim societies make a legally recognised commitment to more than one wife. This suggests that the religious teachings reduce the incidence of plural relationships.

The potential of the UK decision, despite the theatrical hypothesising of the media about welfare abuse, is that individuals may eventually be protected, the welfare system will be protected and children will be recognised and theoretically, be able to grow up in a loving relationship where both parents commit to their full responsibilities.

All forms of human relations can be abused and exploited, some monogamous relationships have been entered into with ulterior motives and it is quite likely that some plural relationships may be entered into with similar ulterior motives. However, most amorous relationships are entered into because one person develops love or succumbs to the desire for another person.

Decades ago women in all societies were warned not to engage in amorous relations unless there was the commitment of marriage in case they were just being exploited for sexual gratification. The father and the mother would guard their daughters like hawks.

The world has changed dramatically, parents are no longer involved to the same degree, and as many young people develop their own relationships an increasing number are exploring life with the same or different partners outside of marriage. Amorous relationships amongst consenting adults have continued to morph over the years and cover all different possibilities.

Most of our laws dealing with business, taxation and scientific advances are regularly reviewed. The marriage laws seem to have only changed from church laws where marriage was "till death do us part", to one where either party can apply for an annulment through secular courts.

The law has consistently only entertained the notion of monogamous marriage among couples of the opposite gender, but more recently we have started to debate whether this law should allow same-gender unions. This is to provide protection to a section of society. Discussion about other traditional forms of amorous unions among consenting adults continues to be a taboo and an affront to our sensibilities.

When we discuss the UK decision, we owe it to ourselves to put aside all emotive issues that may influence our analysis. If we don't, we could blind ourselves to real issues that affect ordinary people. Many of us are aware of individuals in our society who may put themselves in vulnerable positions and have an affair. We have legal brothels; we have a certain level of street prostitution. All these point to a real fact: that there are people in our society who enter into extra-marital relations.

What usually happens in those relations differs with the individuals, but generally, the person who is not the first partner has no certainty in the relationship, may never be able to have children for fear of the social stigma and if they do, these children themselves do not receive the same level of fatherly support, if they receive any.

This is not about any religion calling for privileges, the examples I have outlined are diverse and the secular outnumber the religious. They are real life examples. Some of the people who enter into them may attend their place of worship on Sunday or Friday and many may not.

In all these cases, the most vulnerable person is the second woman and the children. The poor little children are completely innocent and should not face any stigma because our society dictates that the love of their parents must remain secret.

The Islamic teachings came at a time where polygamy was prevalent. The Koran brought the restriction down to four and said: but if you fear that you cannot be just to them, then only one.

In a traditional society where sexual gratification is only permitted in marriage, this restriction placed a responsibility on males that if they choose to place themselves in an additional amorous situation, they must be certain of their ability to respect, honour, support and love these women equally. If they have any fear that they cannot, then, only one wife. This made monogamy the norm, and kept a safeguard for those who cannot be monogamous.

In a sense, the scriptures are applying psychology, that if a person finds himself in a situation that may lead to amorous overtures, this can only be progressed through a full commitment and responsibility. It makes the person think about it and in many cases, make a strategic retreat because of the stringent difficulties attached to the issue. Next time, this person is less likely to go in that direction. In the absence of this religious restriction, the aforementioned studies show large percentages of people embracing an extra-marital relationship.

To be honest with ourselves, we should introspect about the real nature of our own objections. Are we objecting to sex outside of marriage? If so, why do we condone brothels, de facto relations and boyfriend/girlfriend relations? Why do we condone the club life where a person is more likely to experience a different partner every day? We condone changing partners on a daily basis in the case of unattached club-goers, we generally turn a blind-eye to a person who has an affair, we are aware of partner-swapping bars, some dating sites openly advertise for singles and couples seeking other singles or couples but we scoff at any person who suggests a long term or permanent commitment to more than one partner?

In essence, we are saying, do it, but don't tell us about it. This is fine for many people had the law not intervened to criminalise "commitment" leaving without criticism uncommitted behaviour of the same nature.

From my perspective as a Muslim, I really do not wish to rock the boat. I am happy not to talk about the issue and not to disturb the status quo, because my experience is that you would rather hear about this issue from a secular perspective and seeing my bearded face discussing it is likely to polarise your views. Yet, as a responsible member of society, I believe that we cannot ignore the rights of women and children of philanderers. And as such, the original UK decision was a praiseworthy decision that more than anything, commences the process of safeguarding the rights of women who wish to leave such relationships and has less impact on those who wish to stay in them. That decision also protects the emotions and well-being of the children.

Today, the issue is not simply children born outside of wedlock, it is more of an issue of those children who may be ignored by a father who fears that acknowledging a "lovechild" would affect his standing or his first relationship. The rights of this child should be seen as greater and more significant than the mere "social standing" of the father who was happy to enjoy the relationship with the child's mother. The rights of the mother in this type of relationship should not be ignored just because she was wooed by an attached man. She should always be entitled to the respect of her peers.

I do respect that Sheik Khalil Chami, in his own personal capacity, has made a public appeal to the government on behalf of these women and children. Having seen the hysterical public reaction and the response of government, I will not be making any such appeal, I am hoping that some non-Islamic intellectuals will make a rational analysis of the issues involved without the polarising emotiveness that prevents us from comprehending and addressing our changed societal practices, even as a secular democracy.

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About the Author

Keysar Trad is the spokesperson for the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia Inc. which he founded.

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