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Historical Causes of Polygamy (I)

What are the historical and social causes of polygamy? Why have many nations of the world, especially the Eastern nations, accepted this custom, and why have other nations, such as the Western nations, never practised it? How is it that out of the three forms of polygamy only plurality of wives could gain considerable popularity? Polyandry and sexual communism either have never been practised or have been practised rarely, and only in exceptional cases.

Unless we look into these questions, we cannot discuss the question of polygamy from the point of view of Islam, nor can we study it from the viewpoint of modern human requirements.

If we do not take into consideration the ample social and psychological studies made in this respect, we, too, may, like many superficial writers, harp on the old tune and say that the causes of polygamy are obvious. That is, this custom has come into existence as a result of the high-handedness and the domination of man and the subjugation of woman. It is an outcome of the patriarchal system. As man has dominated woman and has ruled over her, he has given the laws and the customs a turn to his own benefit. That is how he enforced this custom which is beneficial to him and harmful to woman, and has been practising it for centuries. As woman was suppressed, she could not put polyandry into practice. As now the age of the high-handedness of man is over, the privilege of polygamy should, like many other false privileges, make room for equal and reciprocal rights of man and woman.

This way of thinking is very superficial and puerile. Neither the cause of polygamy is the oppression of man nor that of the failure of the polyandry the suppression of woman. If the custom of polyandry has practically come to an end, that is not because the age of man's high-handedness is over. Man has lost no privilege; he has actually gained an advantage over woman.

We do not deny the factor of oppression as one of the factors which give a particular turn to history. We also do not deny that man has, throughout history, misused his domination over woman. But we believe that it is sheer short-sightedness to explain family relations on the basis of the oppression factor only.

If we admit this view, we must also admit that during the period when polyandry was popular among the pre-Islamic Arabs or, as reported by Montesquieu, among the Nairs on the Malabar coast, woman had got an opportunity to dominate over man and impose polyandry over him. It also must be admitted that that period was the golden period of woman. But we know for definite that the pre-Islamic period of Arabia was one of the darkest periods in the life of woman. Earlier we have quoted Montesquieu as saying that the custom of polyandry among the Nairs was not due to the domination or respect of woman, but was the result of the decision of society to keep the soldiers free from the burden of family responsibilities.

Further, if patriarchy is responsible for polygamy, how is it that this system did not gain popularity in the West? After all, the patriarchal system is not confined to the East. Have the people of the West been, from the beginning, pious Christians believing in the quality and reciprocity between man and woman? Has the factor of domination worked to the benefit of man in the East and for the promotion of justice in the West?

Till half a century ago, the Western woman was among the most unlucky of the world. Even her own property was controlled by her husband. The Europeans themselves admit that during the Middle Ages the position of the Eastern woman was far better than that of her counterpart in the West. Gustav Leabeon says that Islam, in its early days, gave the woman exactly that position, which the European woman could get after a very long time; that is, after the chivalry of the Arabs of Andolusia was transmitted to Europe. Courteous behaviour towards woman is the main part of the chivalry which the Europeans learnt from the Muslims. It was Islam, and not the religion of Christ, as is believed by the common people, that enhanced the position of woman. During the Middle Ages the chiefs and barons, though Christians, never held woman in respect. A study of ancient history leaves no doubt that the behaviour of the dukes and barons of Europe towards woman was most barbaric.

Other European authors have also given a more or less similar description of the position of women during the Middle Ages. Though patriarchy prevailed in Europe during that period, polygamy could not become customary.

The fact is that neither polyandry (wherever it was practised) was ever due to the power and domination of woman, nor was its ultimate failure due to her weakness and suppression. Similarly, polygamy in the East is neither due to the oppression and high-handedness of man, nor is it unpopular in the West owing to the existence of equality between man and woman.

Adapted from the book: "Woman and Her Rights" by: "Shahid Murtaza Mutahhari

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