Polygamy, or rather polygyny, is among the most controversial, yet often misunderstood, issues when it comes to Islam – among non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Undoubtedly, polygyny doesn’t suit everyone; it needs lots of patience and compromise. But as Allah (SWT) gives this right to men, there must be wisdom behind it.
To understand polygyny, there are two important points we need to consider. First, Allah (SWT) in the Qur’an allows the option of marrying more than one wife, up to four, with certain prerequisites that must be fulfilled: justice with time and financial support. This is a huge responsibility on men, which is often neglected when Muslim men tend to look at polygyny through the lens of their heated desires, thereby breaking their family’s heart. They forget that the main purpose of polygyny is providing support and care. While most sisters in normal circumstances would never want to share their husband with anyone, the reality is that many sisters find themselves in the situation where the option of polygyny enables them and their kids to live in a family and feel loved and cared for. Thus, polygyny should unite and not tear families apart, nor cause hatred. It should not be forced on anyone, but approached wisely with the right intention.
Although, we hear more stories of heartbreak than the positive stories in relation to polygyny, there are still wonderful examples where instead of jealousy, everyone is content and wives feel sisterly love towards each other.
For sceptics out there, the following story of Sister Mariam* and Fatimah* is an outstanding example of polygyny. They both live in the West in different countries, yet are dreaming to finally move in together – all under one roof. Mariam is the first wife and married her husband, with whom she raises their children, a decade ago. So then, you might think, one day her husband decided to marry another woman. Well, the reality might surprise you; the notion of having another wife originated not from the husband, but from sister Mariam herself!
“I just felt like this was something he was meant to do very early on, but it wasn’t something where I looked around. Then, I got to know Fatimah, and I just had a feeling, which Allah put in my heart I believe, that this was meant to be.”
Mariam has always looked at polygyny in a positive way as something which intrigued her, but prefers more of a “sister-wife” approach, just like among Mormons. She believes polygyny can work well if all wives are informed and consent. “This approach acknowledges the relationship between co-wives as a special bond, and they are expected to have good-will and sisterly love for one another. Sister-wives often live together or at least live as neighbours while being co-mothers. Hence, this female-female support can free up a lot of mental space and time for women as well. What I also like about this approach is that adding another wife and her kids is a family decision, and the compatibility of the wives is included alongside her compatibility with the husband. That’s important, because, I believe, that for most women, problems like jealousy come because of how Muslims approach poly in the first place. Usually, the husband finds another woman who is a stranger to the first wife, thus women perceive each other as threats. In my case, I’ve found that my husband and I had a sort of “renewal” of our marriage when he married Fatimah, because he was able to appreciate all the things about me he loves.”
Before agreeing to the marriage with Mariam’s husband, Fatimah had just left an “emotionally turbulent” marriage, as she describes it, with mixed feelings about polygyny in general, though she had already started to incline to it. She knew Mariam’s husband professionally before, and with Mariam they had had a lot of mutual acquaintances, but only really ‘clicked’ when they actually got to know each other and became best friends. Thus, when Mariam came up with the idea, she contently accepted it, which she hasn’t regretted since then. “I’ve never felt jealous for Mariam; we care for each other deeply, and despite the fair amount of challenges, we try our hardest to nurture our relationship as both part of and separate from poly/our husband,” Fatimah adds.
What are the challenges?
Fatimah: “For me, the greatest challenges have been my emotional baggage from my previous marriage and facing up to my insecurities. I was afraid whether I would be able to develop a healthy emotional relationship with my husband in light of my baggage, and how long distance would contribute to that. I was also nervous that perhaps I wasn’t as interesting in ‘real life’ as I am online!”
Mariam: “Usually family disapproval, social disdain and internal struggles a person naturally faces when they feel insecure or jealous. It’s also been hard to watch our kids missing their dad for days in a row while my husband has been gone. ”
Co-wives can face another troubling challenge when entering into a polygynous marriage: making their wider family accept their decision. While most of sister Mariam’s family is yet to know, she predicts it won’t be much of an issue because her family is very “hands-off” when it comes to her personal decisions. However, Fatimah’s Muslim parents were directly against her decision to become a second wife, but soon realised that they had no legitimate shari’ah reason to forbid her from it. “My relationship with my parents is better now, but still very tense.”
Mariam had this to say about her kids’ reactions, “They love their stepmom. They’re not bullied, because I homeschool them, and among our Muslim friends, polygamy is recognised as normal.”
Fatimah has a young daughter from her previous marriage whom her biological father doesn’t want to have any contact with, thus Fatimah’s husband is now her father figure. At the same time, she also loves Mariam, or “Aunty”, as she refers to her.
In such an unusual situation where the first wife initiates the idea of having a second wife, no doubt, the most fascinating question arises, what was the husband’s reaction? Which man doesn’t dream of having two women for himself, one might think, but polygynous marriage is not all about fun. Rather, it’s a huge responsibility not only financially – especially living in the West – but physically and emotionally, too, keeping in mind that if one doesn’t maintain that God-expected justice, he risks his place in Jannah. Unfortunately, this essential part is often forgotten by many brothers. But masha Allah Mohamed*, Mariam and Fatimah’s husband, is a role model in this regard.
Mariam: “First, he was very surprised at the idea. It’s been very stressful for him because he worries a lot that he isn’t doing a good job (he is). He loves us both very much, and we all have great chemistry together, but the stress of finances, being equal (which he takes very seriously), and having to leave one family to visit another has been very draining for him.”
Polygyny vs. Monogamy
“Polygyny still consists of two monogamous couples and each marriage exists on its own no matter the number of wives. I think brothers should generally be monogamous, and if anyone wants to go into poly, they should make sure they’re really great at monogamy first. I do think monogamy is the ideal for most women, and I realise I’m an exception to the norm,” Mariam says.
“The second wife definitely has to be aware of the risks she’s taking and potential issues that could arise legally speaking. Therefore, I do strongly recommend that for those who feel a strong need for legal status as wives, they discuss this with their potential husbands and co-wives. Depending on the country you live in, there may be ways to cohabit without formal documentation and to negotiate or determine parental rights in the eyes of the law. In my case, unfortunately our marriage is not legally documented yet, but there aren’t any problems with it as Mohamed is an honourable man who does his best to support me.” Fatimah adds.
Fatimah: “Never go into a polygynous marriage without the first wife’s knowledge and (relative) peace of mind. You need to have a genuine, ideally good, friendship with each other outside your marriage, so that you feel about her the way you feel about your other good friends. At the very least, remember the hadith about wanting for your sister in Islam what you want for yourself. This is almost as important as your relationship with your husband. Also, do your research. Don’t go into it lightly. Think hard about the consequences for you and your children.”
Mariam: “Build your relationship with Allah through the hard times, and hold your husband accountable if he is mistreating you. If your husband wants to do it, be part of the decision and meet your co-wife and make her someone you both agree to.”
In part 2, two other sisters, Amina and Aishah, share the delightful story of their polygynous marriage with the hope that amongst the pain, abuse and injustice, the shy voices of those who are flourishing in polygyny will be heard as well, breaking down the walls of fear and stigma.
*names have been changed.
Timea Aya Csányi is a reverted sister from Hungary living in Egypt with her husband. She works at Onislam.net as counselling service editor of the Family section; she is a student at IOU, a freelance writer in Hungarian and English, and an active blogger. You can contact her through her blog:magyarlanykairoban.wordpress.com