Sunday, April 29, 2012

Of Slavery and Polygamy

As salaam alaikum,

"And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among [other] women such as are lawful to you--[even] two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then [only] one--or [from among] those women who you rightfully possess. This will make it more likely that you will not deviate from the right course." (4:3)

"And if any of those whom you rightfully possess desire [to obtain] a deed of freedom, write it out for them if you are aware of any good in them: and give them [their share] of the wealth of God which He has given you. And do not, in order to gain some of the fleeting pleasures of this worly life, coerce your [slave] maidens into whoredom if they happen to be desirous of marriage; and if anyone should coerce them, then, verily, after they have been compelled [to submit in their helplessness], God will be much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace!" (part of 24:33)

I just finished reading Qur'an and Woman (finally) by Dr. Aminah Wadud, after years of avoiding anything written by her, convinced by the mainstream that she was a woman overstepping her bounds. I started reading it, and it was very empirical and understandable, and I wondered what all the fuss was about in what was a pivotal book...then, I got to the ending, when she began making her conclusions. And though I agreed with her in spirit, I really had hoped for some of the same empiricism through the text that had led her arguments earlier in the book. One particularly powerful argument in which I wish there was more textual proof for was her argument about polygamy...and, similarly, slavery.

This paragraph caught my eye:
Although in some instances the Qur'an proposed immediate abolition of certain ill practices, most of the time it advocated gradual reform. Few reforms were completely implemented before the final revelation. 'If all these customs had been entirely abolished by God, several problems would have ensued; not many of His commandments would have been obeyed.' However, the means for completing others were provided for by the flexibility and the intent of the text itself. 'It was considered wise...not to totally abolish some of the reprehensible traditions such as polygamy [or slavery], as there were so many difficulties involved.' - Wadud, Chapter 4, Qur'an and Woman

Quoted within is a references from Nazirah Zein ed-Din and Shaykh Al-Ghalynini as quoted by Nazirah Zeid-ed Din, "Removing the Veil and Veiling." For more extensive citations, please see Dr. Wadud's book...

Why did this catch my eye? The calling of polygamy a reprehensible tradition and Dr. Wadud's assertion that it is one such tradition, like slavery, that was not abolished in the Qur'an but, as she later concludes, was meant to be eventually completely abolished. Dr. Wadud concludes that, given the spirit of the Qur'an, we as believers should understand that these are the so-called "reprehensible traditions" that eventually should have been abolished completely.

Quoted above are two suwar from the Qur'an that speak most directly to the two issues mentioned (Muhammad Asad's translation)...polygamy and slavery. Surveying the text (briefly, and through translations), I recognize that I don't see anything calling for the abolition of slavery or the end of polygamy completely. And as Dr. Wadud notes, not all of the reform enjoined upon us by revelation (or thereafter implied) took place before the final revelation. It would take centuries after revelation for slavery to be abolished in the Muslim world, and a few more centuries for the global community to completely abolish and criminalize slavery (and don't think for a second that there still aren't millions of slaves, and some of them are in this hemisphere, this continent, this country).

Dr. Wadud poses an interesting question. As you can see in the suwar above, polygamy is modified, with the limitation of four wives so long as you can be equitable to all of them. Slaves are allowed emancipation...if you judge them fit. But slavery is more or less universally seen as a reprehensible act that should have been done away, centuries later. What of polygamy? Dr. Wadud and many other Muslims regard polygamy to be as archaic and irrelevant to their lives as slavery. But many others do not.

I'm part of this facebook group of black Muslim women, primarily from Southern Atlantic states. Very interesting articles come up, and not that I'm doing an ethnography on these women or anything, but their reactions to some of the issues are very different from my own. For example, there was an article I didn't read about a woman feeling trapped and cheated on in a polygamous relationship. One of the women in the group responded by stating that she really seeks refuge with God and tries to understand these parts of Islam that are hard for her to understand, such as the allowance of polygamy.

A lot of women in this group believe that, as part of Islam, it is a man's (or even their own husband's) right at any time to seek another wife. I...don't. I believe, as I have read and have been taught, that polygamy is discouraged precisely because most men do not have the material or emotional means to care for more than one wife...and personally, I think some men are just greedy. Now, granted a man has the material, emotional and spiritual needs to have more than one wife, and his wife and potential wife and everyone involved are game, then God is Judge. Despite my feeling that polygamy is for the most part unnecessary today (with the high propensity to be dysfunctional), I am actually neutral towards polygamous marriages. Yes, actually. It works well for some couples, and who am I to say anything against them?

I'm very marriage-equitable, though, the topic of another entry...

But anyway...why are there still echoings about polygamy being okay, about it being a husband's "right," while there are no echoings about taking slaves? Like polygamy, slavery is against the law in this country. More than polygamy, slavery is decried and outlawed by the international community. And while I guess some "traditional jurists" called for the reopening of slavery (God!), most all of us agree that slavery is un-Islamic...but somehow, polygamy didn't quite get there. Even though it is modified in the Qur'an as slavery is, with no explicit end called for.

So what can we conclude from that? Dr. Wadud concludes that polygamy, like slavery, is not for our time, was an artifact of 7th century Arabia that had to be gradually modified in order to make the Qur'an more palatable for that community. Based on her proofs, though, I could not really come to that conclusion. And it's not just because I'm neutral to polygamous relationships as I mentioned above...although admittedly, that is part of my bias. But we really do not have proofs besides our interpretation of the spirit of Islam. She argues that Islam calls for so much restraint and modesty from men, that it seems incongruous that polygamy would be a practice that would be continued to be practiced. She uses the same argument to argue against the notion that men would receive a number of partners in Jannah.

She also argues that if such a rigorous level of modesty is expected/demanded and, for the most part, upheld women in our communities, why are standards for men so lax?

And I mean...I think my overall feeling at the end of reading the book is that it's one of those things that the text cannot tell you, even with a rigorous exegesis as she demonstrated. I agree with a lot of her points, all the same, but I realize that there are questions that just reading the Qur'an, even if I had more authority, cannot answer. I believe that yes, slavery should have been eventually completely abolished, and reinstatement of slavery is in no way Islamic. But can we and should we put polygamy in the same place?

...let me clarify. I do not want to be in a polygamous marriage. Haha, this is not something I want for myself, but I'm not sure if polygamy and slavery can be considered similar reprehensible traditions that are completely un-Islamic.

Or is it, as Dr. Wadud asserts, that "God's permissibility only showed man's cruel heart, his inability to submit to truth and justice, and his immoral character, acquired from the worst pre-Islamic customs... Had it not been for the viciousness in his mind, his misguided soul and his cruel heart, God would not have granted him then such allowances that He disliked and which were meant to vanish with time."

Or, were allowances made because men can never practice self-restraint as much as females, and therefore still need to know they have the option to have more than one wife? Just like the emancipation of slaves was conditional on their character, because there are still people who deserve to be enslaved?


  1. Interesting.... and topical for me at least, I was talking about Dr. Wadud with another classmate, and my teacher just last week.

    hmmm so much to say, I commend you for finishing here book, I tried but her writing style was not to my liking... ha, ha... but I've heard her talk and read some of her other stuff... on the one hand I like what she is trying to do, get past the male-dominated interpretations that have somehow become accepted as holy fact almost... on the other hand I think her process is all wrong.

    that was my other problem with the book, she bases her conclusions on her interpretations of Quran and Sunna, why not instead use rulings from jurists to beef up her case? I'm sure if she looked hard enough should would find something interesting from some of the Mathabs about this issue... it would also make her conclusions more palatable. Otherwise, you just get accused of putting your personal spin on things without really understanding the historical context or the cultural backdrop etc. etc. etc.

    interesting that you pointed out how villified she is in some Muslim circles. This is problematic of course, but it makes me think about the wider ramifications of here work, what good is it if the people you are aiming to change don't? perhaps this has more to do with the leading Friday prayers thing, it seems a lot of people like/love her books, but she got a bad rap for her stance on women being Imams.

  2. I think she is saying what most women would like to believe in. Yes most islamic interpretation are male dominated thats a fact which can be easily verified. Muslim men should understand that they are in a different time and culture meaning in the Holy prophet time women had no rights but islam came and gave them so many rights therefore alot of women and most women converted to islam, however in todays society all women from all faiths have alot of rights so if you have the option of having a man all by your self vs sharing(jealousy, envy) obviously you will not see polygamy as positive.

    In addition to all the horror stories of polygamous marriages we see and hear about, for a polygamous marriage to work a mans fairness and piousness plays a big factor most of the time hard to acquire. Not saying that there are no successful polygamous marriages but it all boils down to acceptance of people involved of the relationship, which to say the truth I dont see alot of it happening most of the time the 1st wife is bitter and has to keep up with this marriage because of children or fear of divorce or the 2nd wife having a hard time because she's feeling neglected like 1st wife demands more time as she is the mother of the children.

    Lastly, I personally do not want to be in a polygamous marriage and I think its my right not to be in one. I do not think that polygamy will make me closer to Allah or more pious or go to jannah as a matter of fact it may be the opposite. I do not feel that I should be the one who have to deal with jealousy for the rest of my life and I definitely do not want to shut my feelings out for the sake of polygamy. Furthermore polygamy is a mubah not a must and monogamy is the lifestyle that I will live in and tolerate cuz I know my limits.

    1. You tackle a lot in your comment, and I'm on board with most of what you said. I especially like that you pointed out that women from other religious groups in this day and age also have a lot of rights. While Islam provided women tons of rights above their non-Muslim peers in the 7th century Eurasia (don't know about Africa and Americas at that time...), at this point, women of other faiths and secular women have rights. So when we defend the position of women in Islam, I'm not sure it's that helpful anymore to talk about the rights originally introduced to the early Muslim women. It's more about how we've adapted to these new times while still maintaining the seemingly-elusive spirit of Islam.