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Historical Causes Of Polygamy (ii)

Historical Causes of Polygamy (II)

    Man's lust for indulgence in sensual pleasure and his unrestricted domination alone are not a sufficient cause for the emergence of polygamy. There must be some other contributory causes also for a licentious man to satisfy his taste for variety. It is easier and less cumbersome to indulge in free love instead of having a woman of his choice as his legal wife and shouldering the responsibility of the maintenance of her possible future children. Plurality of wives gains popularity only in the societies where there are moral and social restrictions on free love and a voluptuary has to pay the price of seeking variety by accepting the woman concerned as his legal wife and by shouldering the responsibility of fatherhood of her children.

    Now let us see whether there is any contribution of geographical, economic or social factors in this respect.

Geographical Factors

    Montesquieu and Gustav Leobeon insist that climatic conditions are the main cause of the development of polygamy. These intellectuals believe that the climate of the East is such that this custom is inevitable there. In the Eastern countries puberty and old age in females commence earlier and, therefore, a man requires a second and a third wife. Moreover, they think that one woman cannot satisfy the sexual needs of a man brought up in the Eastern climate.

    Gustav Leobeon in his book, History of Islamic and Arab culture says: "The custom of polygamy was not introduced by religion. It is an outcome of the climatic conditions, the racial characteristics and other causes related to life in the East. It needs not be emphasised that these are very strong and effective factors. Furthermore, their physical and temperamental traits, their nursing of children and their ailments and diseases often force the women of the East to keep themselves aloof from their husbands. As the climatic conditions and the national characteristics of men in the East are such that they cannot bear even temporary separation, polygamy has become customary".

    Montesquieu in his book, the Spirit of Law says: 'In tropical countries women attain puberty at the age of eight, nine or ten years and after being married, soon become pregnant. It may be said that in tropical countries, pregnancy immediately follows marriage".

    Predo, giving an account of the life of the Prophet of Islam, states that he married Khadijah, at the age of five and consummated the marriage at the age of eight. Because of a very early marriage, women in the tropics become old at the age of twenty. He says that before they become mature, they are already old. In the countries having a temperate climate women retain their charm and beauty for a long time. They attain puberty at a later age and they are more mature and experienced at the time of their marriage. They have children at a comparatively advanced age and the husband and the wife become old almost at the same time. That is how equality between man and woman is established and men do not need to have more than one wife.

    Thus it is because of the climatic conditions that the law prohibits polygamy in Europe and allows it in Asia.

    The above explanation is in no way correct. The custom of polygamy is not confined to tropical regions in the East. During the pre-Islamic period this custom was common in Iran, where the climate is temperate. It is purely fictitious to say that in the tropics, women get old at the age of twenty, as alleged by Montesquieu. It is even more fantastic to say that the Prophet of Islam, married Khadijah at the age of five and consummated it at the age of eight. Everyone knows that at the time of their marriage Khadijah was forty and the Prophet was twenty -five.

    Secondly, if it is accepted that the early onset of old age in women and the intense virility in men are the causes of this custom, why did the people of the East not adopt the practice of free love and debauchery, as the people of the West did both during the Middle Ages and in the modern times. In the West, as Gustav Leabeon has pointed out, monogamy is found only in the legal books and there is no trace of it in daily life.

    Again, in the East polygamy exists in its legal form. The man has to accept the woman as his legal wife and has to bear the responsibility of her children. In the West, it exists in an illegal and clandestine form. Man indulges in free love and escapes all matrimonial responsibility.

Polygamy in the West

    We deem it necessary to give a brief account of polygamy in Europe during the Middle Ages, as described by an eminent Western historian. This account should convince those who criticise the East for polygamy that in spite of all its defects it is much more dignified than what existed in Europe.

    Will Durant in his book, History of Civilization, vol.17, gives an interesting account of the state of morality in Italy during the renaissance. We give below a summary of what he has said under the heading 'Morals in Sexual Relations'.

    In the course of his brief introduction he says that before describing the morals of the laity it may be pointed out that by nature man is polygamous. Only strict moral restrictions, an adequate amount of hard work and poverty, and a continuous vigilance of the wife can compel him to maintain monogamy.

    Then he says that adultery was not uncommon during the Middle Ages, prior to the Renaissance. As during the Middle Ages the guilt of adultery was extenuated by chivalry, similarly, during the Renaissance period, it was watered down among the educated classes by the craving for the polished manners and the refined spirit of the females. Girls belonging to respectable families were, to a certain extent, kept segregated from the males not connected with their own family and were taught the merits of pre -marital chastity. Sometimes these instructions were exceptionally effective. It is reported that a young woman, after being assaulted, drowned herself. That must have been an exceptional case, because a bishop took the trouble of installing her statue after her death to commemorate her chastity.

    The number of pre-marital affairs must have been considerable, because there were innumerable children born of illegitimate relations in every town of Italy. It was a matter of pride not to have an illegitimate child, but to have one was not a matter of shame. Usually a husband persuaded his wife at the time of the marriage to bring her illegitimate child with her, to be brought up along with his children. Illegitimacy was not a slur on the reputation of anyone. Furthermore, a certificate of legitimacy could easily be obtained by bribing a clergyman. In the absence of other lawful or eligible heirs, an illegitimate son could inherit property and even a crown, as Frante-I, succeeded Alfonso-I, King of Naples. When in 1459 Pius-II came to Bavaria, he was received by seven princes, all of whom were illegitimate. Rivalry between the legitimate and illegitimate sons was an important cause of a long series of commotions during the Renaissance period. As far as homosexuality is concerned, it was only a revival of the ancient Greek tradition.

    San Bernardino found this sort of perversion so common in Naples that he thought it to be threatened with the fate of Sodom. Artino found the perversion equally prevalent in Rome. The same thing can be said about prostitution. In 1490, out of a total population of 90,000, there were 6,800 registered prostitutes in Rome. Of course, this figure does not include clandestine and unofficial prostitutes. According to the statistics of 1509, out of a population of 300,000 of that city, there were 11,654 prostitutes. In the 15th century, a girl who had reached the age of 15 without having a husband, was regarded as a slur on the fair name of her family. In the 16th century, the 'age of disgrace' was extended up to 17 years, to enable the girls to receive higher education. Men, who enjoyed all the facilities provided by widespread prostitution, were attracted to marriage only if the woman concerned promised to bring a considerable dowry. According to the system of the Middle Ages, husband and wife were expected to love each other and share each other's joy and grief. Apparently in many cases this expectation came true, but still adultery was rampant. Most of the marriages of the upper classes were diplomatic unions contracted for political and economic gains. Many husbands regarded it as their right to have a mistress. The wife might feel dejected, but usually connived at the situation.

    Among the middle classes, some people thought that adultery was a lawful pastime. Machiavelli and his friends apparently did not feel uneasy about the stories of their unfaithfulness which they exchanged with each other. When in such cases, the wife followed the example of her husband to wreak vengeance upon him, he usually connived at her behaviour and did not feel jealous or perturbed.

    This was a specimen of the life of the people who regard polygamy as an unpardonable crime of the East and have occasionally blamed its climate for this supposedly inhuman custom. As far as their own climate is concerned, it does not allow them to be unfaithful to the wives and to exceed the limits of monogamy!

    By the way, it should be remembered that the absence of lawful polygamy among the Europeans, whether good or bad, has nothing to do with the religion of Christ, who never prohibited it. On the other hand, it confirms the rules of the old Testament, which expressly recognise polygamy. Thus we can say that, in fact, the religion of Christ allows polygamy, and the ancient Christians have actually practised it. Hence, the legal abstinence of the Europeans from it must have some other reason or reasons.


    Some others attribute polygamy to woman's menstrual periods and her aversion to sex during that time as well as to her exhaustion after child-birth and her desire to avoid sexual intercourse during the nursing period.

    Will Durant says that in the primitive societies women grow old quickly. That is why, in order to be able to nurse their children for a longer period, to lengthen the interval between their own pregnancies, without interrupting the husband's desire to have children, and to enable him to satisfy his sexual urge, they encourage their husbands to have a new wife. It has been often observed that the first wife, with a view to making her own burden lighter, has persuaded her husband to contract another marriage in order to have more children and to acquire more wealth.

    There is no doubt that woman's menstrual periods and her exhaustion as the result of child-bearing place man and woman, sexually, in dissimilar positions.

    These reasons often make men turn to another woman, but they alone cannot be a sufficient cause of polygamy, unless there exists some social or moral impediment preventing man from indulging in free love. The above factors can be effective only when man is not free in the pursuit of his sexual desires.

Limitation of the Period of Fecundity in Females

    Some believe that the limitation of the period of fecundity of a woman and her menopause, are one of the causes which gave rise to polygamy, for it may happen that a woman reaches this age without being able to bear enough number of children. It is also possible that her children may have died.

    In such cases, if the husband does not like to divorce his first wife and at the same time wants to have more children, he has no alternative but to have a second, or sometimes even a third wife. Similarly, the sterility of the first wife may be another reason for the husband in contracting a second marriage.

Economic Factors

    Some economic factors have also been mentioned as the cause of polygamy. It is said that in ancient times, several wives and a large number of children were regarded as an economic asset. Man extracted work from his wife and children and treated them like slaves. Sometimes he even sold them out. Most of the slaves were not captured in battles, but were sold by their fathers.

    This may be a cause of polygamy, because man can have children only by accepting the woman as his legal wife. Free love cannot ensure this advantage. Anyhow, this cause cannot explain all the cases of polygamy.

    Some primitive people had several wives with this idea. But that was not the case with all the people. In the ancient world polygamy was customary among the classes which lived with dignity and decorum. The kings, the princes, the chiefs, the divines and the merchants had several wives.

    As we know, these classes never exploited economically their wives and children.

Number of Members of a Family

    Interest in the numerical increase of the children and the expansion of the family has been another cause of polygamy. The position of a man and a woman with regard to the number of children each of them can have is different. The number of children a woman can bear is very limited, whether she has one husband or several husbands. But the number of children which a man can beget depends on the number of women he has at his disposal. It is theoretically possible that a man may have thousands of children by hundreds of wives. Unlike the modern world, in the ancient world the number of family members was counted as an important social factor. The tribes and the clans did all they could to increase their numbers It was a matter of pride for the ancient people to have a large tribe. It is obvious that polygamy was the only means of achieving that end.

Numerical Superiority

    The last and the most important factor, which has contributed to the emergence of the custom of polygamy, is that women have always outnumbered men. It is not that the birth-rate of females is greater than that of males. If occasionally in certain places more females are born, in other places more males are born. But still the number of the women eligible for marriage is always higher than the number of men so eligible. The reason is that the mortality rate among men has always been higher. It is possible that, in case monogamy is enforced strictly, a large number of women will go without having legal husbands, legal children and a household life.

    There can be no doubt that at least in the primitive societies this was the position. We have already quoted Will Durant, who says that in primitive societies the life of man was constantly in danger because he was always busy with hunting and fighting, and that is why the rate of mortality among men was higher than among women. As the number of women increased, there were only two alternatives: either to adopt polygamy or to force a large number of women to pass their entire life as spinsters.


    We have described above all the causes which can be presumed to be the source of polygamy. As you must have observed, some of these causes such as climate are actually no causes at all. Hence we ignore them. Other causes can be classified into three categories. The first category includes those causes which might have been effective in persuading man to adopt polygamy, but they provide no justification for his action. They have an aspect of oppression, high-handedness and cruelty. The economic causes come under this category.

    It is evident that the sale of children is one of the most cruel and barbaric human acts. To resort to polygamy for this purpose is as unlawful as this act itself.

    The second category includes those causes which may be regarded as a justification as far as the husband or society is concerned. Sterility of the first wife, her reaching the age of menopause while the husband still requires a child or the need of a large body of people by the tribe or the country, are such causes. As a general rule, all causes, which emanate from the dissimilarity between husband and wife as regards their sexual needs or procreation power, have a justifying aspect.

    The third category consists of a cause which, if it is admitted that it ever existed or still exists, not only provides a justification for polygamy, but also makes it obligatory. In this case, polygamy is a woman's right which man and the society must discharge. This cause is the numerical superiority of women over men. In case the number of women eligible for marriage is larger than the number of such men, polygamy becomes an obligation of men and a right of woman, for, in the case of legally enforced monogamy, a number of women are bound to be deprived of their right of family life.

    The right of marriage is a basic human right and no one can be deprived of it under any pretext. Society cannot take any action which may deprive a section of the people of this right.

    The right of marriage is as natural a right as the right of freedom, the right to work and the right to get food, shelter and education. Hence, the law of monogamy is repugnant to the natural human rights in the case of the existence of a larger number of women eligible for marriage than the number of available men.

    This, at least, has been the case in the past. In the next chapter we shall see whether there still exist circumstances which not only justify polygamy, but also create a woman's right to it. And if such circumstances do exist what is the position of this right vis-a-vis the right of the first wife?

Right of Woman in "More-Than-One" Marriage

    We have explained the causes of the failure of polyandry and the prevailing of polygamy and have shown that multifarious causes have contributed to the origin of the latter custom. Some of the causes originated from the man's spirit of oppression and domination and others from the disparity between man and woman as regards the duration of their power or procreation and the number of children which each of them can beget. The latter type of causes can be regarded as a justification for polygamy. But its main cause, throughout history has been the numerical superiority of women eligible for marriage over such men. This cause leads to the creation of a right of woman and an obligation of man.

    To avoid a lengthy discussion, we skip over those causes which can be regarded merely as a justification for polygamy and confine our attention to its main cause which, when in existence, turns it into a right of the fair sex.

    To prove the case two preliminary points have to be established. First it is to be proved that according to the reliable statistics the women eligible for marriage actually outnumber such men. The second point to be proved is that the actual existence of circumstances creates a right which married men and women owe to the women who have been deprived of marriage.

    As for the first point, fortunately almost authentic statistics exist in the modern world. A census is taken in every country periodically. In the advanced countries not only are the total figures of males and females collected, but the number of men and women in various age groups is also shown. These figures are regularly published by the United Nations in its annual reports on world population.(We have before us the 1964 report, republished in 1965.)

    It may be pointed out that for our purpose it is not enough to know the total number of males and females in any given country. Simultaneously, we should also know the ratio between the number of men and the number of women eligible for marriage. In most cases this ratio is different from that which exists between the total population of males and the total population of females. There are two reasons for this difference. One is that the onset of puberty in females is earlier. That is why in most countries the legal age of consent in the case of girls is lower than in the case of boys. Practically in most of the countries of the world the husband is on an average five years older than the wife.

    The other and the more important reason is that the mortality rate among the boys is higher than among the girls, with the result that during the marriageable age the balance between them is upset. Sometimes the disparity becomes very marked. It may be that the total number of males and females in a country is almost equal, or even the number of males is higher, but still the girls of marriageable age far exceed the boys of the corresponding age group.

    The United Nations Population Report for the year 1964 bears witness to this fact.

    For instance, according to this report, the total population of the Republic of Korea is 26,277,635 people. Out of this total 13,145,289 are males and 13,132,346 are females. Thus the number of males is 12,943 more than that of females. This ratio is maintained in the children of less than one year, of 1 to 4 years, of 5 to 9 years, of 12 to 14 years and of 15 to 19 years.

    Statistics show that in all these age groups the number of males is larger than that of females. But in the age group of 20 to 24, the ratio changes. In this age group the total number of males is 1,083,364 and the total number of females is 1,110,051. In all the higher age groups, which are the groups of marriageable age, the number of females is greater.

    Still the case of the Republic of Korea, where the total number of males is greater than females, is exceptional. In almost all other countries, not only in marriageable age groups but also in the total population, the females outnumber the males. For instance, the total population of the Soviet Union, is 216,101,000 and out of this total 97,840,000 are males and 118,261,000 are females. This disparity is maintained throughout all age groups, pre-marriageable as well as marriageable, that is from 20 years to 24 years, from 25 years to 29 years, from 30 years to 34 years and even from 80 years to 84 years.

    The same is the case with other countries, such as England, France, West Germany, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania, Hungary, U.S.A., Japan etc. Of course at certain places, such as West Berlin and East Berlin, the disparity between the number of males and the number of females is abnormally large.

    In India, in the marriageable age group the number of men exceeds the number of women. Only in the age group of 50 and above, the number of women is greater. Apparently the supposed paucity of women is due to the fact that many people in that country do not like to mention the names of their young wives and young daughters at the time of census.

    According to the figures of the last census, Iran is one of the exceptional countries, where the number of males exceeds the number of females.

    It is surprising that some critics insist that the law allowing polygamy should be abolished at least in those countries where the number of men exceeds the number of women. In the first instance, this law is universal. It is not meant for any particular country. Secondly it is not enough to know the ratio of males and females in the total population. We have seen that in the Republic of Korea, though the number of males is greater in the total population, there are more females in the marriageable age group. Furthermore, the census figures are not very reliable in many countries. For example, we know for definite that though polygamy has been customary in Iran, both in the urban and the rural areas, yet never has a shortage of would-be brides been felt there. This fact speaks better than the census figures.

    Ashley Montague, in his book, 'Woman the Superior Sex', admits that throughout the world the number of women in the marriageable age exceeds the number of men.

    The statistics of 1950 show that the number of women of marriageable age in America exceeded the number of men by about one million four hundred and thirty thousand.

    Bertrand Russell in his book, 'Marriage and Morality' says that, in the present day England, more than two million women exceed men. According to the custom they should forever remain childless, which is a big privation for them.

    Some years ago a news item appeared in the press. It said that following much pressure by those German women, who were unable to get husbands and family life, because of the huge German casualties in the Second World War, the German Government had approached Al-Azhar University to provide it with the formula of polygamy. Later it was learnt that following serious opposition by the Church the proposal had to be dropped. The Church preferred the privation of women and the spread of licentiousness to the system of polygamy, because this system is Eastern and Islamic.

Why are There More Women of Marriageable Age than Men?

    Though the birth rate of girls is not higher than that of boys, yet there are more women of marriageable age than men. The reason is clear. The mortality rate of men is higher. Deaths usually occur at the age when man should normally be the head of a family. If we take into consideration the deaths which occur following accidents such as, wars, drowning, falls, motor collisions etc. we shall find that most of the victims are men.

    It is seldom found that woman is among the victims. Whether it is a case of a clash between human beings or between man and nature, most of the victims are male adults To know why the balance between men and women of marriageable age is upset it is enough to realise that since the beginning of human history there has not been a single day when wars have not been waged and men have not perished.

    The casualties resulting from wars in the industrial age are a hundred times more than those which occurred in the hunting age or in the age of agriculture. During the last World War, the casualties numbered about seven million. You will agree with us if you calculate the casualties of the regional wars in the Far East, the Middle East and Africa during the past decade only.

    Will Durant says that several factors have contributed to the decline of this custom (polygamy). Stable agricultural life has lessened the hardships and perils of the life of men, with the result that the number of men and women has almost equalised.

    What Will Durant has said is quite amazing. Had the losses of human life been confined to the struggle of men against nature, there would have been a difference between the hunting age and the agricultural age. But the wars have taken a greater toll of men's lives and the number of war casualties has not gone down in any age. Further, the main reason why women have suffered less casualties is that men have always protected them and have themselves shouldered the most dangerous jobs. Thus like the hunting age disequilibrium has continued during the agricultural age also.

    Will Durant has not uttered a word about the industrial age, though this is the period which has witnessed the greatest killings of men and during which the balance has been badly upset.

Woman has a Greater Power of Resistance against Diseases

    It has been lately discovered that man possesses lesser power of resistance against disease than women. This is another reason why the mortality rate among men is higher.

    Some years ago, the French Bureau of Statistics reported that in France, 105 boys were born against every 100 girls and the number of women exceeded the number of men by one million, seven hundred and fifty-eight thousand. It attributed the difference to the female power of resistance against disease.

    Not long ago an article was published in the illustrated UNESCO magazine, Courier. According to this article, woman is intellectually superior to man. Her average longevity is more. Usually she is healthier than man and has a greater power of resistance against disease. She is cured earlier. Against one stammering woman there are five stammering men. Against one colour-blind woman there are 16 colour-blind men. Haemorrhage is almost confined to men. Women are more immune against accidents. During the last World War it was proved that, in similar circumstances, woman could bear the hardships of blockades, prisons and concentration camps better than man. Almost in all countries the cases of suicide by men are three times those by women.

    Ashley Montague has mentioned his theory of woman's greater power of resistance against disease in his book, 'Woman - the Superior Sex'.

    If by chance one day man decides to wreak his vengeance upon woman and succeeds in plunging her into the most dangerous and fatal jobs or pushes her into the battlefield to face the guns and the bombs, even then the balance between men and women will not be restored, because she has a greater power of resistance against disease.

    This much is about the first point viz. numerical superiority of the women of marriageable age over the men of marriageable age. We know that this superiority is an actual fact. We also know its causes. And its cause or causes from the beginning of the human history do exist even now.

Right of Woman in Polygamy

    The second point is that the numerical majority of women of marriageable age not only creates a right for them but also an obligation for men and married women.

    There is no denying the fact that marriage is one of the most natural and most basic rights of human beings. Everybody, whether man or woman, has the right to lead a family life and have children. This right is similar to that of doing work, having a house, receiving education, utilising the health services and enjoying freedom and security.

    It is the duty of the society not to place any obstacles in the way of the enjoyment of this right. On the other hand, it should provide all possible facilities for this purpose.

    In our opinion it is a big drawback of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that it has not paid any attention to this right. It has recognised the right of liberty and security, the right of approaching competent national tribunals, the right of having a nationality and changing it, the right to marry without any limitation of race or religion, the right to own property, the right to form an assembly, and the right of rest and leisure, but it does not mention the right of leading a legal family life.

    For a woman this right is of utmost importance, for she needs a family life more than a man. As we have already said, to a man the material aspect of marriage is more important and to a woman its spiritual and sentimental aspect. If man has no family, he can at least partially fulfil his needs by indulging in free love and debauchery. But to a woman a family has a greater importance. Debauchery cannot even partially fulfil her material and sentimental needs.

    To a man the right of having a family means the right to satisfy his lust, the right to have a partner in life and the right to have legal children. But to a woman it also means the right to have a protector and patron and the one from whom she may draw moral support.

    After the establishment of the two premises, viz. the number of women eligible for marriage is larger than the number of men and it is a natural human right to have a family life, it is easy to draw the conclusion that if monogamy is regarded as the only legal form of marriage, a large number of women are bound to be deprived of their natural right, and it is only polygamy, which of course with specific conditions, can restore it.

    It is the duty of liberal-minded Muslim women that they, in the name of defending the just rights of women at large, in the name of protecting morality and in the name of protecting the human race, call upon the U.N. Commission for Human Rights to recognise officially the Islamic system of plurality of wives as a human right, and thus render a great service to the fair sex and to morality. The fact that a formula has come from the East and the West has to follow it, should not be regarded as a sin.