Gay marriage but no polygamy?

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

If we can have gay and interfaith marriages in the West, then why not polygamous ones?

Monday 13 May 2013

Marriage is such an ancient tradition that most people take it for granted. Yet, as the impassioned and polarised debate over gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere clearly reflects, when it comes to matrimony, not all humans are created equal.

In some countries, the restrictions go far further, and limit the rights of heterosexuals too. An Israeli NGO which promotes religious equality has created a global league map of countries based on the liberalness of their marriage laws.

As you’d expect Europe, the United States and much of the Americas top the chart, but so do many Asian countries. Propping up the bottom are conservative Muslim countries, as well as North Korea which, in a communist sort of caste system, prohibits marriage between people of differing class backgrounds.

According to Hiddush, the organisation behind the ranking, Israel, despite its proud self-image as bastion of secularism and freedom, is in the company of the likes of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the restrictiveness of its marriage laws. Not only does Israel forbid interfaith marriages, the tight control the Orthodox rabbinate enjoys over personal status issues means that many Jews or nominal Jews cannot even marry fellow Jews – at least not in Israel.

Rather than reform the system and provoke the wrath of the religious establishment, Israel has opted for the path of least resistance and recognises any civil marriages brokered abroad, including gay ones. Although this provides people with a way out of the religious straitjacket and makes the system more inclusive than it appears at first sight, it comes at significant extra expense and hassle – and, by definition, is not an option open to people of limited means, placing a class divide in the access to marriage.

The Middle East as a whole fares pretty badly, as it does in so many other areas related to freedom, such as the media. Across the region, people are generally not allowed to marry out of their sect or religious community.

In my own native Egypt, Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women, but Muslim women may only marry from within their own faith community. Despite plenty of evidence to suggest that Islamic jurisprudence does not actually prohibit this, the only way for non-Muslim men to marry Muslim women is through conversion.

That said, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tunisia, Turkey and Albania, allow full freedom of marriage.

So why is the Middle East so averse to interfaith unions? Part of the reason is wanting to keep religion in the family, so to speak. Another factor is that much of the region fell under the control of the Ottoman Turks who established a system known as millet, which Turkey itself abandoned under the reforms introduced by Ataturk.

Although the millet system gave a high degree of autonomy for recognised religious communities and was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This needs urgent reform, though with other pressing issues facing a region in revolutionary flux and the current ascendancy of Islamist forces, this seems unlikely for some time to come. However, change is slowly gaining traction.

Lebanon, like neighbouring Israel, only permitted the registration of civil marriages performed abroad, now Lebanese are free to carry out such nuptials on Lebanese soil, with the first ceremony taking place recently.

This opens the door for unions between the countries various sects. It also raises the interesting prospect that, while the parliament remains divided along sectarian lines, Lebanese families are likely to become increasingly mixed in the future. And this is no bad thing – perhaps mixing up the population through civil marriages can help prevent Lebanon from erupting into another civil war.

The West has a reputation for having complete freedom of marriage, especially those countries that allow same-sex couples to wed too. But are Western countries as free as they seem?

Well, yes and no. Of course, people of different faiths and none can marry each other freely, and gay marriage is becoming an increasingly accepted norm, both of which are great signs of tolerance and freedom. However, polygamy remains a crime – and I can see no rational reason for this prohibition.

While the Christian concept of wedlock as a lifelong, unbreakable bond has given way to divorce becoming an accepted component of the modern landscape, the Christian aversion to multiple spouses remains firmly in place.

Polygamy in most Westerners’ minds is a symbol of an outdated patriarchal order and a clear sign of gender inequality and is mostly associated with a benighted model of Islam, even though polygamous relationships are not exclusively Muslim, and many in Muslim societies reject or frown upon polygyny. Moreover, some lone voices have started demanding that women be allowed to enter into polyandrous marriages.

Traditional models of polygyny (and polyandry, in a minority of matriarchal societies) do, indeed, tend to reflect social inequalities, between genders, generations and classes. The alpha male sits on top of the social pyramid. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships receive a small fraction of a man, but also some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.

But modern, secular society is about personal liberty – even the freedom to live less freely – not moral judgment. People’s rights should not be limited because they offend mainstream society’s sensibilities, as long as their actions do not harm others. So if, for instance, a Muslim woman in the West wishes to become the second, third or fourth wife of another man, who are others to stop her, even if they disagree with her actions?

Besides, a show featuring an aged patriarch with one foot in the grave and his harem was a massive reality TV hit in the United States. Girls of the Playboy Mansion (The Girls Next Door), featuring the Sultan of Porn, Hugh Hefner, and his trophy girlfriends.

While many are likely to find off-putting the sight of an octogenarian living with women young enough to be his grandchildren, including teenagers, there is no law to stop them for cohabiting and broadcasting it on television. But if Hefner were to decide he wanted to marry his girlfriends, he’d probably have the police knocking at his door. Yet what exactly is the essential difference between the two situations, aside from a contract?

Moving away from the world’s various high-powered patriarchs, more equitable modern models of polygyny and polyandry are emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family.

As the controversy over same-sex marriages clearly reveals, religion and tradition still cast a long shadow over human relationships in these secular times. But in this age of expressed equality and liberty, marriage, like friendship and love, should be open to all.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Muhammad: separating the man from the myth

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 2 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 6.8/10 (5 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

As a clash of idiocies erupts over the depiction of Muhammad in an obscure Islamophobic film, it’s time for a sober look at the man behind the prophet.

Friday 14 September 2012

A cask by losing centre-piece or cant
Was never shattered so, as I saw one
Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind.

Between his legs were hanging down his entrails;
His heart was visible, and the dismal sack
That maketh excrement of what is eaten.

Who is this poor man who has just been chopped in half and is literally wearing his guts for garters? And what precisely has he done to deserve such a gruesome fate?

Well, this is not a scene out of the latest slasher film but describes the eternal punishment dreamt up for Muhammad by Dante in his Divine Comedy. The Muslim prophet was condemned by this Italian poet to the ninth bolgia (ditch) of the eighth circle of hell, reserved for “disseminators of scandal and of schism”.

Compare Dante’s words with those of the Sufi scholar Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai:

Oh Moon, never mind if
I tell you the truth
Sometimes you are dim
Sometimes you are bright
Still, your brightness is not equal
To an atom of the dust
From the foot of Muhammad

Traditionally, Muhammad has represented two polar extremes. Even today, for bigoted Christians,  the Islamic prophet is a symbol of unadulterated evil, as reflected in the crass, vulgar and lurid way in which Muhammad was depicted in a low-budget, low-brow film The Innocence of Muslims. Meanwhile, for too many Muslims, despite Islam’s prohibition of deification, he is the embodiment of unimpeachable good for devout Muslims, which partly explains the rage sparked across the Arab and Muslim world – though it’s also about distrust of the West and its aggressive hegemony, poor education and poverty, the rise of bullying religious extremism and fundamentalism, the need to deflect domestic discontent towards an external targets, and other complex factors.

Nearly a millennium and a half after Muhammad’s death, so many Muslims find it hard to step back and take a clearer-eyed and more critical view of him. After all, even if you do believe in the divinity of Islam, one of its main messages was that Muhammad was a messenger and it was the message, not the man, that counted. He was fond of saying: “I am a man like you. I eat food like you and I also sit down when I am tired like you.”

So, between this demonisation and exaltation, where exactly does the historical Muhammad lie? Who precisely was he? What made him tick and how exactly did he rise to global and timeless prominence?

Muhammad, whose name means “Praiseworthy”, was born in Mecca, the financial and spiritual centre of Arabia, in 570 AD. Although times were booming for Mecca and other Arabian city-states, Muhammad was born in volatile circumstances. In addition to incessant warfare between the Arab tribes, Arabia was surrounded by three mighty empires – Persia, Byzantium and Abyssinia – who, unable to dominate the vast expanses of Arabia directly, tended to prop up local client rulers. In Mecca, the mighty Quraysh tribe, of whom Muhammad was a member, brought peace and stability to the city but at the price of stark socio-economic inequalities.

Despite the wealth of the Quraysh, Muhammad grew up in relative want and loneliness after being orphaned at a very young age. He was to suffer further heartbreak when his beautiful cousin, Fakhita, with whom he was passionately in love, married another man before the shy and sensitive prophet-to-be could pluck up the courage to ask for her hand.

Realising how important wealth was in Mecca, his broken heart prompted him to begin a career as a merchant and he became a caravan agent. His business dealings earned him the epithets al-Sadiq (honest) and al-Amin (trustworthy). Travel is said to broaden the mind and what Muhammad saw on his trade missions heightened his awareness of both the breadth and commonality of humanity.

His growing reputation brought him to the attention of Khadijah, “Ameerit Quraysh” (the Princess of Quraysh), Mecca’s wealthiest and most powerful woman, who hired him as her agent on trade caravans. Muhammad turned her a handsome profit and repaid Khadijah’s trust by doubling her earnings, but she gradually grew more interested in the handsome future prophet himself.

There was more to Muhammad than his money-spinning acumen and Khadijah was so impressed by his honesty, humility and modesty that she bucked convention and her own determination not to remarry a third time and proposed marriage to the 25-year-old who was 14 years her junior.

Bucking convention himself, Muhammad agreed to the match. His undying love for Khadija, his refusal to marry any other woman until her death despite the conventions of the age, his willingness all his life to carry out domestic chores (conveniently ignored by generations of scholars!) and her pivotal role in the early development of Islam (she was the world’s first Muslim) are used by Muslim feminists to argue that Islam is woman-friendly and that, if Muhammad were here today, he would be an advocate of women’s rights.

However, detractors compare the status of women and slaves in Islam with modern standards, forgetting that Islam seriously improved their situation, and made men and women equal in many respects. Also, such comparisons are unfair, since it would also, for example, compel us to condemn America’s founding fathers, despite their visions of equality. A millennium after Muhammad, Thomas Jefferson was opposed to slavery but was a slave owner and declared that “all men are created equal”, effectively brushing over half of humanity.

Life is said to begin at 40, and it certainly did for Muhammad. But rather than invest in a Porsche or even a 16-cylinder camel, Muhammad set about to found a new world religion. Disaffected by the socio-economic injustices and conflict around him and the hollowness of Mecca’s materialistic cults, Muhammad began to meditate but was so distressed by his first “revelation” that it required the rock of Khadija, who believed implicitly in her man and became the world’s first Muslim, for him to build up the confidence to begin preaching the new faith.

In retrospect, there were early signs in his behaviour of what was to come. For instance, in his 20s, Muhammad was instrumental in forming a short-lived chivalric association called the “Lovers of Justice” which was established to help a foreign merchant cheated out of his money by a dishonest member of the Quraysh. This pan-clan brotherhood demonstrated to the young Muhammad the benefits of moving beyond tribal loyalties and focusing on common humanity.

I personally don’t believe Muhammad’s revelations were divine, nor those of any other prophet or religion for that matter. But that’s not to say he didn’t believe it himself, seized as he was by mysterious fits. There is a case to be made for the idea that successful prophets could only make it through the unwavering conviction that their unconscious is actually a channel to God. To my mind, this lack of divine intervention makes his achievements all the more remarkable, but also makes him open to the same critical approach applied to any other historical figure.

Modern western historians largely agree that Muhammad “was absolutely sincere and acted in complete good faith“. Would someone who did not truly believe in his message expose himself to the total ridicule and mortal danger which his mission attracted in its early years?

With the odds stacked against his nascent community of believers, Muhammad was dealt a near-mortal blow by the loss of his beloved Khadija in what became known as the Year of Sorrow. Some historians have suggested this may have partly motivated his decision to flee Mecca and set up base in Yathrib (later Medina), where his fortunes as a prophet took a major turn for the better.

And I wonder whether the status of Muslim women might not have been very different if Khadija had outlived her husband? Perhaps if he’d lived to a ripe old monogamous age, he would have exerted more effort to end male-only polygyny rather than limiting it or, at the very least, future generations might have followed his example as they do on other issues.

After a quarter century of faithful monogamy, he embraced polygamy with passion, mainly as a political tool but perhaps also in a futile quest to find another Khadija or to find solace for his lonely heart. Interestingly, the Quran conveniently gave him licence to take as many wives and concubines as he liked.

Some of Muhammad’s post-Khadija relationships have elicited the greatest controversy among non-Muslims, such as his marriage to underage Aisha, and been the most difficult to rationalise by Muslims who prefer to ignore those aspects of his behaviour which conflict with their modern standards. This is one of the biggest issues facing Muslims today, since so much of Islamic jurisprudence is based on Muhammad’s sayings and actions. The question is which of those actions should be interpreted as guidance for all time, and which relate specifically to circumstances in Arabia during his lifetime.

Muhammad’s time in Medina started well and he was selected as an impartial arbiter between the oasis’s warring factions. In a demonstration of his preference for diplomacy over war, he drafted the Constitution of Medina to resolve the century-old tribal conflict and, in its place, he established an alliance among Yathrib’s eight tribes.

However, it is also in this post-Khadija, post-Mecca era that much of the controversy surrounding his life is focused. It is in Medina that the philosopher, poet, rebel and social reformer also became a warrior and a statesman. Under attack from the mighty Quraysh of Medina and their allies and with his followers suffering from poverty, he became less tolerant of dissent and came down heavily on the city’s Jewish tribes for their opposition to him.

Accused of outright treachery by Muhammad, the Banu Qurayza were to suffer the most of all the Jewish tribes. One of the prophet’s biographers states that Muhammad approved the beheading of up to 900 members of the tribe, while the women and children were sold into slavery. In the contemporary West, this has elicited some accusations of anti-Semitism.

John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies at Gerogetown University, argues that Muhammad’s motivation was political – the Jewish tribes were rich, influential and well-armed – rather than racial, since they were all Arabic-speaking Semites, or theological. In addition, Norman Stillman, chair of Judaic History at Oklahoma University, argues that the slaughter of adult males and the enslavement of women and children cannot be judged, in this context, by modern standards, since it was common practice throughout the ancient world.

Moreover, in his treatment of the Jews of Medina, Muhammad broke his own principles and brought himself into conflict with the Quran’s exaltation of the “People of the Book”. And thanks to this high regard, the treatment of Jews and Christians in the Muslim world was generally better than Europe’s treatment of Jews (not to mention Iberian Muslims) until recent times.

Upon his triumphant return to Mecca, Muhammad went back to being a diplomat and philosopher, and pardoned all his enemies. He even pardoned Abdullah Ibn Saad, who had been so trusted by the prophet that he was assigned the important task of copying down some of the verses of the Quran. This man abandoned the Muslims in Medina and returned to Mecca to denounce Muhammad’s entire revelation as a hoax.

Muhammad died after unifying Arabia and his lifelong declared love of learning protected and added to classical knowledge and carried on the tradition of Persian scholarship during the dark ages of Christendom.

For centuries, Muhammad inspired the Muslim world to thrive economically, scientifically, culturally and artistically. However, nearly 1,400 years on, the presumed divine providence of his philosophy, among myriad other socio-economic and political factors, is acting as an anchor slowing the development of many Muslim countries.

 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 13 March 2008.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 6.8/10 (5 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 2 votes)

Related posts

Polygamy for all

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

A Saudi journalist is demanding that women be given the right to four husbands. Should equality mean monogamy or polygamy for all?

6 January 2010

They say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. But it does: the roaring rage of injured male pride. This was amply demonstrated in Egypt when a female Saudi journalist had the audacity to apply logic and consistency to challenge an area of traditional male privilege.

In an article provocatively entitled My four husbands and I, Nadine al-Bedair quite sensibly posed the logical question: if Muslim men are entitled to marry up to four wives, why can’t women, in the spirit of equality between believers, have four husbands?

“I have long questioned why it is men have a monopoly on this right. No one has been able to explain to me convincingly why it is I’m deprived of the right to polyandry,” she complains.

The outspoken Saudi then goes on to deconstruct and question the traditional justifications for polygamy, including that, in a traditional patriarchal society, it is a shelter for widows, divorcees and women who can’t find a spouse; that men have greater sexual appetites than women and get easily bored; that women can’t handle more than one man; and that, if women could have multiple husbands, determining paternity would not be possible (an excuse made obsolete by modern science).

“They tell me that I, as a woman, can’t handle more than one man physically. I say that women who cheat on their husbands and the ‘sellers of love’ [ie prostitutes] do much more,” she counters.

Unsurprisingly, the article’s honest tone and irreverence has triggered a furious response from the traditional male establishment. Some Islamic clerics have denounced the article and promised the “blaspheming” author divine retribution, while an Egyptian MP has decided not to wait that long and has already brought a lawsuit against her.

While few have openly voiced support for al-Bedair’s call for this kind of equality in the Islamic marriage stakes, some Islamic authorities have defended her by saying that her true purpose was to highlight how badly some women are treated by their husbands, especially those who take on second or third wives, despite Islam’s demand that a man treats all his wives equally.

For her part, al-Bedair ends her article with a call that society either allows polyandry for women or comes up with a new “map of marriage”. One Cairo imam, Sheikh Amr Zaki, believes the way to go is to confine polygamy to the scrapheap of history. “In our world today, polygamy should be unacceptable. There is no need for it and, besides, no man can truly love more than one woman and vice versa,” he opined.

And his view corresponds with that of the Egyptian mainstream. Although Islam permits polygamy, most Egyptians are jealously monogamous, with men who take on more than one wife often mocked or marginalised by the community and the first wife often so full of shame that she requests a divorce. Nevertheless, the question remains: which is fairer and more equitable – monogamy or polygamy for all?

Even in monogamous societies, informal polygamy is a reality. In Europe, for instance, though most people, myself included, are serial monogamists, many men and women have multiple partners or lovers simultaneously, and there is a growing tendency to be open about this. However, the law has not kept up.

“A man can live with two women in Britain perfectly legally, but if he marries them both it’s a crime punishable by up to seven years in jail,” Brian Whitaker observed on CiF. “If a man wants to have more than one wife, or a woman to have more than one husband, and everyone enters into the arrangement openly and voluntarily, what exactly is wrong with that?” he asks.

Of course, traditional models of polygny (and polyandry, in a minority of societies) tend to reflect social inequalities, both between genders, generations and classes. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships not only receive a small fraction of a man, but that some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.

But there are perhaps more equitable modern models of polygamy and polyandry emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family through which they hope better to fulfil their emotional and physical needs.

Of course, as my wife points out, marriage is becoming, in many ways, obsolete, as fewer and fewer people choose to take that path, and European largely have the freedom to choose the living arrangement that best suits them. But to my mind, it’s a question of principle. For example, gay people don’t need to marry to share a life together, but that should not mean they have no right to.

In my view, if the institution of marriage is to survive, it should not be so limiting and be made flexible enough to enable people to customise it to their unique needs.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 2 January 2010. Read the related discussion.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts