Achelois and polygamy

The last couple of weeks, a debate has been going on on various blogs about polygamy, originally provoked by Achelois who made this post attacking polygamy based on various unpleasant incidents she knows of in one of the Gulf countries she has lived in. I responded with this; this was her response, which provoked a further response from Ginny. I have two separate defences for polygamy in Islam: one is that it is permitted without any shadow of a doubt, and the second is that you cannot condemn it based on the fact that some polygamist men are abusive.

As Muslims, we have to accept what Allah has revealed. That is what Islam means — submission of our wills to His. This includes when someone else is given rights over us in a way we don’t like or may be commonplace in our culture. Those who don’t like polygamy cannot simply argue “we don’t like it”, as non-Muslim opponents of aspects of Muslim culture commonly do; instead, they resort to dishonesty, interpreting certain passages of the Qur’an, and certain incidents which took place in the life of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaih wa sallam) as if they meant things they do not actually mean — in this case, that polygamy is actually forbidden in Islam. The fact is that the Prophet and his Companions (radhi Allahu ‘anhum) didn’t consider it forbidden, and practised it.

An example Achelois uses is that of the marriage of Fatima (radhi Allahu ‘anhaa) to ‘Ali, who subsequently proposed to the daughter of Abu Jahl, who had been one of the harshest persecutors of the Muslims in Mecca and was killed in one of the early battles:

Now you can bring in ten different reasons why it was good and necessary and important and helpful and then I will bring ten counter-arguments and this will go on and on. That is why I didn’t want to link that post to Islam because idealism is different from experience and experience tells us that although the Prophet lived with over a dozen women as wives and slaves as a father he had very different sentiments for his daughter and his granddaughter. What was made halal by Allah, and that is your argument, was forbidden by the Prophet for his daughter and granddaughter. He knew how much it could hurt a woman and he didn’t want his daughter or granddaughter to be hurt like that, and the thing is they didn’t! They were not hurt through polygamy. You said polygamy doesn’t always mean abuse. No, it doesn’t but it always means hurt and even the Prophet knew it. Was Ali the kind of man who was incapable of treating all his wives equally? No! But even then the Prophet didn’t want his daughter to share Ali with another wife (he had concubines so it all boils down to sharing rights). I am not saying what the Prophet did was wrong, I am saying it was great and that is what we should all do. If Shariah is to be brought in why not base it on the Prophet’s experience rather than idealism?

When I pointed out who the proposed second wife was, Achelois flatly contradicted the hadeeth in Bukhari that states that the intended second wife was the daughter of Abu Jahl. There is at least one other hadeeth in Bukhari which states that this is who she was. The point is that, although the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) accepted that Ikrimah and other descendents of Abu Jahl were Muslims, this did not mean that he was willing for his daughter to have to put up with living with them in the same house given what Fatima had suffered at their father’s hands, and perhaps even theirs, as a child. A similar incident involves Wahshi, who as a non-Muslim killed the Prophet’s uncle, Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib; the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) told him that he never wanted to see him again even though his Islam was accepted. The lesson is that, although we are not allowed to hold grudges against people, especially Muslims for things they did before they were Muslims, this does not mean we have to love them as individuals or open ourselves up to them.

Achelois doesn’t give a source for her story. Still, I trust Bukhari because he was only a few degrees separated from the actual incident, rather than any modern academic who has read (and certainly has not memorised) a few books about the incident and is many, many more steps removed. The issue of whether women so close to the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) have a rank other women — even Sahabiyyat, many of whom were in polygamous marriages — don’t have does not occur to Achelois, it seems. Still, she does mention that some of them put conditions into their marriages that their husbands not take second wives, and this course of action (the condition must be linked to divorce or a right of the wife to divorce) is available to women who are determined not to be part of a polygamous marriage.

She also contended that the Shari’ah is “not monolithic” because various Muslim countries implement it differently. She named four countries — Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Tunisia — as having “sharia law to some extent” but having banned polygamy. The fact is that the prohibitions on polygamy in all of them were imposed not by Muslims who had decided that it was a bad thing for women, but by secularists or communists who were attached to European ways and either hated Islam or religion of any kind. As the behaviour of the states in both Turkey and Tunisia demonstrates, secularists of the sort found in these countries do not actually give a stuff about the rights of Muslim women, whether as regards education or marriage or just being able to go about their business without harassment. They only care about women of their own kind. These countries may also have some legislation which includes legacies of Shari’ah, but very often they are influenced by cultural tradition and are not wholly Shari’ah (laws on child custody after divorce are a common example). The point is that you cannot judge what Shari’ah is by the laws found in Muslim countries, especially places like Tunisia where secularists have a stranglehold on power. This is highly relevant: by definition, laws fabricated by men who hate Islam cannot possibly be considered representative of Islamic law, or of the variety of how Shari’ah is implemented. There is a big difference between misguided attempts at Shari’ah codes, like the Hudood Ordinance in Pakistan, and the deliberate suppression of Shari’ah by those who hate it, along with numerous other aspects of Muslim religion and culture — the naming of children, dress, even the alphabet, to name three things which were forcibly changed in these countries.

A further trick of the anti-polygamy set is to put a whole load of baseless conditions on it, such as the requirement that the first wife agrees (curiously, they never mention that the second wife should agree when a third is taken, and so on). This is a totally baseless condition and assumes that the first wife will almost never agree. In a comment on Ginny’s blog, Achelois introduces the condition that the husband “be available for every delivery of every child”, meaning be in the house (because all women give birth at home, don’t they?) or at least the same town. However, this isn’t a requirement either: the husband may have good reason to be away, such as business or the illness of another family member (including another wife). If this should be a requirement for a polygamous marriage, surely it should be a requirement for a first marriage also?

The fact is that Islam does not demand that we do the best thing every time. Men don’t have to be around when their babies are born, be it in the same room or the same country. There comes a point where a man’s absence equals neglect and can become grounds for divorce or even a court claim, and becomes a sin, but being there is not a religious obligation. It does not always assume the absolute worst in human nature, as many of its modern critics seems to be doing based on a few horror stories coming out of some Muslim countries. It does not forbid things to everybody based on the fact that some people are not to be trusted with it, because that is how naughty children are to be treated, not adults. Why should all men be denied a right just because a few abuse it?

Achelois seems to have an intense distrust of Muslim men, and assumed that I would be different from other men she has encountered because I’m white and a western convert — by which she meant I might agree with her, and not defend polygamy basically because I would see that it was the root of a whole lot of the evil she sees in Arab society, such that she directed an Egyptian woman who hates wearing hijab, wears it only at her mother’s insistence and wants to find a husband who will let her remove it after marriage, towards my blog among other places. Personally, I became a Muslim to be a Muslim, not to be an Arab and whatever is wrong with Arab society has nothing to do with me, but I have personally known of white converts be somewhat cynical in their treatment of women, as I mentioned in my last post on this issue. Why she thought I would necessarily agree with her on polygamy is a mystery — she has obviously not read much of this blog, and may not be aware that there are numerous white converts in such marriages. I don’t condone the abuse of women, but I am not going to condemn polygamy out of hand because God and His Messenger permitted it and because polygamous marriages can, and often do, work.

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