Social Issues / Polygamy


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Autor:  anton  23 December 2010
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Polygamy means a system of marriage where one person has more than one spouse. There are two basic forms of polygamy: polyandry, where one woman has more than one husband, and polygyny, where one man has more than one wife (Merriam Webster dictionary). Over the course of history and at present, polygyny is by far the most common form of polygamy, though there have been some documented reports of the practice of polyandry in isolated societies (Al-Krenaw, 1995). Polygyny appears to be the only type of polygamy practiced in North America. While Polygyny is practiced in several societies in the world it is most common in Middle Eastern and African nations, where cultural and religious background continue to encourage its practice (Agadjanian, 2000). There has been growing concern and controversy about polygamy around the world. In many countries where polygamy has traditionally been practiced, there has been increasing encouragement for the restraint of polygamy to protect women from abuse and support gender equality. In the United States, there is increasing concern about the practice of polygamy and other abuses of women and children in fundamentalist communities (Altman & Ginat, 1996). Furthermore, these communities are composed of Christian, Jewish and Muslim believers.

In this paper I will use two ethical theories Divine Command and Egoism to discuss the morals and ethics accepting polygamy. Let’s first begin with the assumption that religions are acceptable sources of morals. Morals are broad societal rules or guidelines that define the boundaries of acceptable behavior. In other words, morals are the principles that determine right and wrong in relation to human activity and character (The American Heritage Dictionary).

Moral principles are most often expressed in terms of what should or should not be done. You shall do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Thou shall not steal. These rules fir together seem to create a framework that form moral codes by which a society may behave. Rules that are determined to be crucial for societal order are codified as laws and consequences are affixed (Hinman, 1998). As I continue with an assumption of religion’s being acceptable sources of morals I have selected to discuss three religions Judaism, Islam and Christianity which are closely related, in order to see where they stand on the issue of polygamy. Further I will discuss how ethical egoism can influence and encourages polygamy.

Polygamy is a very ancient practice found in many human societies. The Bible did not criticize polygamy and most of the content in the Bible is an influence of the Old Testament. The Old Testament frequently demonstrates legality of polygamy. In Judaism it is prominent that most of the Old Testament Prophets are polygamous. According to the Old Testament, Abraham "the friend of God" had more than one wife, David had one hundred wives, and Solomon is even said to have had 700 wives 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Also, king David is said to have had many wives and mistress (2 Samuel 5:13). The Old Testament does have some injunctions on how to distribute the property of a man among his sons from different wives (Deut. 22:7). The only restriction on polygamy is a ban on taking a wife's sister as a rival wife (Lev. 18:18). The Talmud (book of Jewish law) advises a maximum of four wives.

Polygyny is permitted in Judaism. According to Talmudic law, Abraham had three wives, and Solomon had hundreds of wives. The practice of polygyny continued till Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah (1030 C.E) issued a law against it (US Marriage laws). An express prohibition of it was not pronounced until the convening of the Rabbinical Synod at Worms, in the beginning of the eleventh century (US Marriage Laws). This prohibition was originally made for the Jews living in Germany and Northern France, but it was successfully adopted in all European countries. Nevertheless, European Jews continued to practice polygamy until the sixteenth century. Oriental Jews regularly practiced polygamy until they arrived in Israel where it is forbidden under civil law (Kershaw, 2000). In earlier times, Christian men were permitted as many wives as they wished, since the Bible puts no restriction on the number of wives. It was only a few centuries ago that the Church restricted the number of wives to one. Although polygamy was practiced among some early Christians, the Christian Church rejected polygamy as inconsistent with the ideal of marriage as a love based partnership of equals (National Post, 2005).

The Quran too allows polygamy, but not without restrictions: "If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one" (Quran 4:3). The Quran also recognizes the challenges of living in a polygamous marriage. "You cannot be fair in a polygamous relationship, no matter how hard you try" (Quran 4:129). The Quran contrary to the Bible limited the maximum number of wives to four under the strict condition of treating the wives equally and justly is an obligation. This applies to housing, food, clothing, kind treatment etc, for which the husband is fully responsible. It should not be understood that the Quran is urging the believers to practice polygamy, or that polygamy is considered as an ideal. In other words, the Quran has tolerated or allowed polygamy. Westermarck catholic encyclopedia, the noted authority on the history of human marriages states, polygamy in Islam is neither mandatory, nor encouraged, but merely permitted. Why is polygamy permissible? The answer is simple: there are places and times in which there are undeniable social and moral reasons for polygamy. The permission to practice polygamy is not associated with mere satisfaction rather; it is associated with compassion towards widows and orphans. The reason for not prohibiting polygamy is due to the fact that there are certain conditions which face individuals and societies in different places and at different times, which make the limited practice of polygamy a better solution than divorce.

As the above Quranic verse indicates, the issue of polygamy in Islam cannot be understood apart from community obligations towards orphans and widows. Quran is the only religious book that contains the phrase “marry only one”. There is no other religious book that instructs men to have only one wife. In none of the other religious scriptures, whether it is the Bible, Torah and Hindu religious books does one find a restriction on the number of wives. According to these scriptures one can marry as many as one wishes. It was only later, that the Jewish Rabbi’s and the Christian Church restricted the number of wives to one. To sum up, Islam being against immorality and against divorce unless no better solution is available, provides for a better alternative which is consistent with human nature and with the preservation of pure and legitimate sex relationships.

According to Divine command theory God commands take priority over reason based moral systems. Conservatives religious believers believe there is no conflict between what God commands and what is morally right, because whatever God commands is always right, and what God forbids is always wrong. Hence, conservatives claim that it is impossible for there to be a conflict between religion and ethics, because God determines the rules or standards that govern the behavior of humans. He wills the physical world into existence, he wills human life into existence and similarly, he wills all moral values into existence. While polygamy raises a mass of questions and issues related to the particular structure and composition of the typical polygamous marriage specifically, the existence of multiple women sharing one male spouse produces critical questions associated with gender relationships. However according to divine command theory polygamy is acceptable and permissible. Conservatives believe Polygamy is freedom given to men by divine revelation; the men never made it the law by themselves.

Although polygamy raises several issues it seems to me that this also topic revolves around the concept of self interest as the vital factor in determining actions. This idea further can be developed into a theory called Ethical Egoism. The implication here is that we engage in behavior for the sake of satisfaction and thus self interest. According to the more moderate position egoism self interest tends to be the primary motivational forces behind human behavior only until needs are met. Once these needs are met then we can afford to consider the needs of others. The majority of those who support ethical egoism argue that we should reflect on our futures and engage in rational choices that will be most beneficial to our self interest in the long run. Pleasure, power, fame, success all count as legitimate self interest. One might ask how ethical egoism is related to polygamy. Below I will describe the relation between the two.

On individual case basis a man who discovers that his wife is infertile and who at the same time wants to have children and legal inheritor of his property when he dies. In a situation like this, then man would either have to: Suffer the deprivation of fatherhood for life or divorce his wife and get married to another woman who is not infertile. In this case neither solution can be considered as the best alternative. Polygamy would give this man the advantage of preserving the marital relationship without depriving the man of fathering children of his own. Therefore these circumstances lead him to a positive consequence for his own self interest.

In a different scenario a man whose wife becomes chronically ill would have one of possible alternatives: He may suppress his natural sexual needs for the rest of his life, or he may divorce his sick wife at a time when she needs his compassion ship the most, and get married to another woman, thus legally satisfying his needs. Clearly the motivation behind these actions according to ethical egoism is self intent for this individual to ultimately make himself feel better. In a situation like this, it is doubtful that any solution would be better than polygamy, which is an optional solution.

Polygamy to me seems like a great temptation for corruption and immorality. But aside from the moral questions I believe these women are exploited. They are used as tools for men’s pleasures and might not have any guarantees, rights or security, financial or emotional. Suppose if these women become pregnant it is their burden alone. But even if these women are ready to pay the price for this personally, society can also suffer seriously from such situations. The increasing numbers of illegitimate children born today under conditions like these have a potential to become confused generation of tomorrow. Furthermore it is heartless, shameful for these children to grow up without knowing who their fathers were and without enjoying normal family life.

On the bright side it is clear that the association of polygamy with Islamic divine command is not unfair or biased but based on confusion and misunderstanding. It is fair to say that polygamy may be harmful in many ways nevertheless Islam does not regard polygamy as a substitute for monogamy. However permission to practice limited polygamy is only allowed with Islam’s realistic view of the nature of man and of the various social needs and problems. It seems accurate to say that Islam regulated this practice, limited it and made it more humane and instituted equal rights for all wives. Polygamy was authorized by various religions, and practiced both before Islam and for many centuries thereafter. It is presently practiced though secretly, by the Mormons, and it is allowed by Christian missionaries in Africa and other areas where polygamy is a social necessity.

Out present day feelings about what is tasteful or distasteful are something we cannot force on all people everywhere, at all times unless it is a question of divined command. God informs humans of commands by implanting us with moral intuitions or revealing these commands in scriptures. This belief emphasize that there is an independent base of knowledge, for ethics which is stranded in human reason, and as such Gods commands will always take the place of ethical rules when there is a conflict. Divine commandments tend to always over rule mans laws. Also if polygamy is immoral, then it seems that the leading figures in the Biblical traditions are immoral. In this case, there would be no holiness attached to the Bible, its Prophets, or it teachings. No sincere Jew, Christian or Muslim would look upon God’s chosen messengers as immoral people.

In the conclusion I would like to address few questions that remain: Number one whether women would ever freely and actively choose to be part of such family structure, and if so, what forces would motivate such a choice. Secondly, we might be concerned about the nature of the relationships between the wives required to share a husband, and the effect of those relationships on women’s well being. Also what are the effects on children raised in households and communities who practice polygamy? Other questions I contemplated with include: What is the situation in countries that banned polygamy? Do they really enjoy sincere and faithful monogamy? How observant are married men and women of the strict monogamous relationship? Are infidelity and secret extramarital sexual relationships more moral than the legitimate, legally protected husband wife relationships? Are there any number of mistresses, sweethearts, and illegitimate children? Looking at the so called monogamous societies in the West they tend to have one legal wife but adultery and fornication level in these societies is high. In the West and parts of the East while polygamy is legally banned it hasn't stopped men from having mistresses as they please. How this is any different than polygamy? Since marriage is not very common in the West, couples live together as committed partners and many couple bear several offspring’s out of wed lock. While staying in committed relationships these people may have other partners and without embellishment are practicing polygamy.


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Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Tale University Press.

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Altman, J. Ginat. (1996). Polygamous Families in Contemporary Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Westermarck (1913). The history of human marriage. Catholic Encyclopedia. Electronic version Retrieved March 18,2008 from

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(21 April 2005). Bountiful women defend polygamy: Silent no more: Wives allow public unprecedented peek at lifestyle. National Post.

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