Slavery & Polygamy

About a week ago I went to a lecture by Margot Badran, a prominent Islamic scholar who teaches at Georgetown.  The lecture was about the future of Islamic feminism, and she brought up a really interesting point.  She pointed out that before, scholars would try and tackle polygamy in the Qur’an using linguistic tools to prove that the Qur’an was saying polygamy is not allowed. Now there has been a shift, with many scholars instead arguing that yes, the Qur’an does permit polygamy – but does that mean we should practice it?

Fazlur Rahman points out that slavery is also permitted in the Qur’an, yet most Muslims today do not accept slavery and wouldn’t dream of allowing it again. He says we should be applying this same logic to polygamy: yes, it existed then, and yes, the Qur’an permitted it (after severely limiting it), but it is an outdated practice that needs to be abolished, like slavery.

Now I know many Muslims will make the argument that in certain situations polygamy benefits society: but is that the case for the majority of Muslims today? No. And what about the countless women who get abused through this system? Some men have good intentions when they take another wife – for example, if the woman is destitute. But many have bad intentions.  Should we allow a system like this to continue if so many women are getting negatively affected, even if it does benefit some?

So far Tunisia is the only country to ban polygamy.  Whenever the prospect of banning it is brought up in Islamic countries/communities, there is always an outcry – usually from the men. The argument is that you can’t ban something that God has allowed. But then what about slavery?

What do you think of this argument? Is it convincing?
And what do you think about Tunisia banning it?

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4 thoughts on “Slavery & Polygamy

  1. I just wanted to add that I have been thinking about this issue and also researching into Malaysia's policies towards polygamy (Malaysia is a half/half country. Shariah implemented in Family issues for Muslims, civil court for everything else and everyone else.) Anyways,I think polygamy is ultimately harmful for women, 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.

  2. Mezba: I agree that it is not a big problem numerically, but from the perspective of gender and Islam it is a pretty big issue.Banning it might lead to other problems but this didn't happen in Tunisia so who knows. I think if Saudi tried to ban it it would be a much bigger issue.

  3. Sarah Elizabeth: I think a lot of Muslims see polygamy that way: as a man's right, not as a privilege. Asma Barlas wrote that if men knew how big of a responsibility and risk they are taking on by becoming polygamous many would think twice, but unfortunately they are not brought up to see it as a responsibility.

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