A Thought Experiment on Polygamy

Imagine five people tied to a train track and a train fast approaching such that there is no time to reach the people and free them. On a separate train track to the side of those five people, there is one person similarly tied. In front of you is a button which if pressed, would divert the moving train from the path of five people to the path of the one person. Death is inevitable, time is running out! Would you press the button?

Alternatively imagine a similar situation however this time, there is no button and no track with one tied person. Instead the one person is standing beside you, far from the five about to die. But the train has to pass you to reach those helpless five. The person beside you is fat enough that if they were to happen to be hit by the train from your position, the train would slow down to a stop and not hit the five people ahead. Of course the fat person would die as a result. All it takes if for you to push the fat person. Would you?

This is a rendition of a classic thought experiment in (western) philosophy under morality. People vary in their answers, even though there are just about two options, because their reasons for selecting the same answer may be vary considerably. Thought Experiment is a tool of Philosophy which science cannot afford; even though psychology borrows often.

Some days ago, while discussing the issue of polygamy among Muslims, I came up with a thought experiment which I thought I should share. I had my motif for designing that experiment. I would like to present the experiment as simple as possible, however the issue of polygamy in Islam has deep ideological and cultural sentiments attached to it. Therefore I shall try to create a fair ground (objectivity) in the experiment by providing neutralizing information to the simple experiment. Here is the experiment, simply:

A Muslim man who is married to a woman meets another woman and is overcome by passion for this new woman. This passion can be anything; sexual, intellectual or spiritual. He would do anything to get married to her. It turns out she is available for him to marry, and even inclined to marry him as well. He is certain his life (spiritual and otherwise) would be greatly enhanced if with this woman. Should he marry this woman? Keep in mind one thing: that Shari’ah allows for men to marry up to four wives at a time.

Now the second question

A Muslim woman who is married to a man meets another man and is overcome by passion for this new man. The same passion applies in this situations and she would do anything to marry this man. It also turns out that the man is inclined to marry her were she not bounded by marriage. She is certain her life (spiritual and otherwise) would be greatly enhanced if with this man. Should the woman marry this man?

The following are what to keep in mind (The neutralizing information):

  • The Shari’ah does not allow for a woman to have more than one husband at a time.
  • The Shari’ah allows for a woman to initiate a divorce, and effect it with the approval of the court or the husband.
  • Men and Women are considered equal in Islam because they are essentially souls that will be judged not based on the bodies they were given but based on how they related with the bodies they were given(e.g. how did they respond to their passions; which love falls under)
  • For this experiment, disregard the societal unfairness weighed on women where men can effect a divorce even by slip-of-the-tongue, whereas women would have to go through societal hurdles, juristic restrictions decided by males, and even stigma before succeeding in their plead for divorce. Disregard this in our fair world of thought-experiment.
  • The verses in the Qur’an (Q2:229, Q4:128) that talk about a woman’s right to divorce can be interpreted to empower women much more than it is often presented, while remaining faithful to the spirit of the Qur’an (actually I think it would be more faithful)
  • It is on record that The Prophet (acting as the Islamic Court/Judge) granted the request of a woman who wanted divorce from her husband, not because he lacked in character or his religious duties but because she feared she would continue to “behave in an un-Islamic manner” if she remains with him (Bukhari 63:197). I’d like to think that covers all situations where dislike of the husband festers the mind of the woman to an extent that she wishes evil on him for nothing wrong he has done.
  • A woman who has been married to a man for some time should be able to bring up so many cases to buttress her point of making her “behave in an un-Islamic manner”. Just as we cannot ascertain the sincerity of the man who says he is adding a wife because she is well behaved; not simply out of passion.

It is interesting to note that what men give as reasons for having another wife varies depending on their community and what is considered as acceptable. Some proudly boast that they marry more wives because they like more women and find pleasure in that; that is because their community accepts such statements. Others however would give other reasons. The point is that reasons given are likely no more than justifications, culturally variable, rather than the sincere reason that prompted them to marry extra. Similarly a woman only needs to justify herself properly in the court of the thought-experiment.

I reiterate the situation of the woman:

A Muslim woman who is married to a man meets another man and is overcome by passion for this new man. This passion can be anything; sexual, intellectual or spiritual. She would do anything to get married to him. It also turns out that the man is inclined to marry her were she not bounded by marriage. She is certain her life (spiritual and otherwise) would be greatly enhanced if with this man. Should the woman marry this man even if it means orchestrating her divorce with the current husband?

Whatever your answer, how is that different from your answer for the situation of the man. Remember, in this world of thought-experiment, women and men are essentially equal in Islam because they are essentially souls that will be judged not based on the bodies they were given but based on how they related with the bodies they were given. Should the woman seek divorce in order to marry the other man?

If you haven’t guessed by now, my motif for this thought experiment is that I think simply wanting a different/variety of spouses is not a good enough reason for men to marry more than one wives. Reason here is referring to the sincere reason that may be only known to the person and God, not what the person claims.

 

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “A Thought Experiment on Polygamy

  1. Saj

    Should the woman seek divorce in order to marry the man? So its not a question of whether she can or can’t, its if she SHOULD. She likes this new man and she wants to marry him, but is it right (or wrong) for her do that? If the decision was one that would affect her, and her alone, then maybe she should. Not marrying this new guy could affect her emotionally, spiritually etc and it could reach a point where there is no point in her remaining with the husband and leaving to marry the new guy would make her life (at least in her head) better. It could make her a better person which could in turn have its positive effects not just to herself, but others too. (Key word – COULD – its not certain) And even if her improved self, helps others, then it’s not because she was really bothered about that anyway, since she was only thinking of herself to begin with, it would just be one of those positive repercussions. However, we all know a decision like that won’t affect her, and only her. There are others involved, other lives at stake. Maybe they have children (which would make a decision like that more complicated) maybe they don’t. Lets assume they don’t have kids. If she decides to leave her husband for a new guy, then its gonna affect him too. And ideally, how it will affect him should be her concern because they’re married. But the fact is, he is there and he is her husband. This new guy obviously has something her husband doesn’t have, is that her husbands fault? Could she help fix that without opting for a divorce? Is it a fault at all? If this guy never came along, she wouldn’t think about leaving, but he has come along, so the question is, is he worth all the trouble that a decision like that would cause? And say she believes that he is worth it, then I think she’s still thinking about herself. Selfish no? Anyway, bottom line is, why did she marry her husband to begin with? What does ‘marriage’ mean to her. If she feels she can leave her husband just because she’s found a man who she THINKS is better for HER (lets not even get into how she met this man lol), then my opinion is that, her perception of marriage is a petty one. So for me, she can if she wants to, but should she? I don’t think so.
    As for the first scenario, the man who wants to marry and can marry because he’s allowed four, I think that’s a little more complicated. But I’m gonna stick to my gut and say the same thing, he can if he wants to, but really, he shouldn’t. But khayr innit, Allah knows best! .

  2. Like saj said there may be children to consider and so on, but I believe if she fears that staying with her husband will cause her to behave in an “unislamic manner” then she may opt for divorce.

  3. In my opinion, I think it depends on her situation. If there are more benefits to divorcing her current husband and remarrying then yes. I’m not saying this is what should happen, because I don’t know what’s the law on that.
    Also, I heard once a person saying that if the woman was allowed to have 4 husbands then the family structure will be really complex. Imagine a man with 2-4 wives and his wives have 2-4 husbands and their husbands have 2-4 wives and so on..! The family tree would be a mess. Another thing is that when she gets pregnant, who’s the father? Yes, nowadays we can get blood tests done and all that but still, it’s strange.

  4. Thank you Bilal for this post. If you allow me to go further than the retrospective interpretation of Islam (essentially the Quran), Design of Experiments under a given a dogmatic belief is rather troubling and will (most of the time) lead to a false argument.

    Among the Shari’ah laws, you spoke of polygamy as a right to men, and at the same time you allegedly stated that men and women are both equal under Shari’ah law (which is a lie if you read the Qura’n as a whole with no selective mode activated). These two givens set the ground for a logical fallacy, to begin with.

    Hence, I find it very deceitful to talk about polygamy and monogamy under a gender role based religion. This debate must be argued outside any dogmatic sphere (that is to say, something is simply given and can’t be questioned).

    • Salaam Ya Giyath

      If what you say in your second paragraph is right, then I can understand why you find it “deceitful”. However I did not say men and women are equal under Shariah Law. And I quote what I said:

      The Shari’ah does not allow for a woman to have more than one husband at a time.
      The Shari’ah allows for a woman to initiate a divorce, and effect it with the approval of the court or the husband.

      But I said:

      Men and Women are considered equal in Islam because they are essentially souls that will be judged not based on the bodies they were given but based on how they related with the bodies they were given(e.g. how did they respond to their passions; which love falls under)

      My point is that at the level of souls who have to answer to God for the challenges they are tried with, they are EQUAL. On the other hand, on the social realm, they are DIFFERENT; which means does not mean they are not EQUAL. My argument is that they are equal as souls but as humans (who have been given different gender) they play different roles and are faced with different challenges.

      Now if that is established, then we can proceed with the argument. If you do not agree with that argument then no need to proceed with the argument (which can actually be deduced from the post if this point is now clear)

      • I might have rushed into a conclusion in my previous comment, apologies for that. I re-read your post, and before proceeding with the argument, I would ask you to please elaborate on the following:

        1- How did you conclude from (Q2:229, Q4:128) that it’s talking about women’s right to initiate divorce? (let alone empowering them). Frankly I’m a native Arabic speaker and clearly see not even a hint about it.

        2- When you speak of Shari’ah, what are you specifically referring to? Qur’an,Hadith, both? or the interpretation of the previous two by Islamic scholars?

      • No worries… I think I must answer the second question before the first.

        2 – By Shariah, what I mean is the framework from which principles, rules and recommendations that guide Muslims is derived. Naturally this consists of the Qur’an, Hadith and other sources of Shariah (which differ among some). The underlying aspect of the Shariah I am referring to is interpretation. So basically the Shariah we use in practice is the product of Usul al Fiqh.

        1 – My Arabic is modest, and I am not a native speaker. However this is what makes it necessary for me to consult different translations in addition to the Arabic. I came across those verses in reference (or as proofs) to the right of women to initiate divorce (Khul), so I am not the one who concluded that, I was merely referencing and insinuating that they could be interpreted to empower women even more. Of course other proofs for Khul come from Ahadith, these verses merely add to the details of Khul. But since you are asking about how I came to that conclusion, at this point I could simply say I didn’t and refer you to some of the references (if I can remember). But before I provide some references (which you have now made me have to go back and search… what a pain!) I shall attempt to explain their interpretation:
        Q2:229. Since this verse talks about the need for a woman to “ransom herself” from her marriage for fear of “scandals”. This provides a basis for women to return their dowry in case of Khul; in addition to a hadith where the Prophet instructed such.
        Q4:128 This verse also talks about the woman to negotiate her possible exit from a marriage “if a woman has reason to fear ill treatment from her husband”

        You see in both verses, the woman is empowered to initiate the separation, and to be generous given an un-amicable situation.
        For references:

          Please see the wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khula
          Muhammad Asad gives these references from Islamic Jurisprudence: Nayl al-Awtar VII, pp. 34-41; Bidayat al-Mujtahid II, pp. 54-57

        If that is cleared then we can go back to the earlier argument. I hope it is clear enough, you don’t have to agree with it though

  5. That’s great Bilal. Now that we’ve a common ground of understanding, let’s get back to the point (sort of). Bear with me, because what follows might come a bit unexpected.

    I don’t have any issue with polygamy, not a moral one of course. This is merely an option any human from any gender can choose to adopt. My main issue with Islam (and other monotheistic religions ) is misogyny.

    Ethically good Muslims always try to find a better, more appealing interpretation of Quran and Hadith to adhere to the norms of a morally developing world as soon as they find themselves troubled by their current understanding, and they never seem to catch up (ironic for such a divine scripture). It’s a less complicated and challenging escape, to justify your beliefs instead of questioning it, and so the trend has been going on for over a thousand years now: Slavery, Sectarianism, Human Trafficking, Cruel criminal punishments, where no where prohibited in Quran and Hadith. Humans seemed to develop some level of empathy that ‘Allah’ never managed to reveal.

    To refute any generalization on gender equality of Islam in particular, I would like you to look up the following:

    * (Quran 65:4): divorce rule for girls who have not menstruated yet.
    * (Quran 4:34) Encouraging husbands to hit (based on your level of judgment you can seek another meaning for the word) their wives if they refused to sleep with them.
    * Countless erotic verses promising Muslims (men of course) to have – fully breasted virgins (literal translation of Quran) – in heaven, with a bit of neglect for what’s in it for a woman? [seems like sexism doesn’t end on earth]
    * (Bukhari): ” a prayer is interrupted by a woman, a black dog, and a donkey”
    * (Bukhari): ” Muhammed marrying a 6 year old, and having sex with her at nine”
    * (Bukhari): ” a woman comes in an image of a devil, and leaves in an image of a devil”
    * (Bukhari): ” most of those in hell are women”
    * (Bukhari): “If I were to order anyone to kneel for someone other than Allah, I would order a woman to kneel for her husband”

    Ample examples are there, but with a need to justify a deeply inhabited belief, and an ambiguous, non collective scripture, anyone can fall for a biased selectivity.

    I would argue, that in a 100 years to come, Muslims would find themselves in a place where they’re the only homophobic creatures out there, and despite the obvious hatred against homosexuals in Quran, Muslim would still try to figure out a way to escape the dilemma and regulate their outdated understanding of an already outdated book.

    To conclude, a debate on polygamy and monogamy would seem very interesting if argued from an anthropological and philosophical point of a view, with no regard for a misogynistic masculine based religion.

    • Ahhh… Now I understand what you meant by “dogmatic” in your first comment. Well since you don’t have issues with polygamy for all genders, and you think Islam is misogynistic, then I guess I would be right to conclude that you think Islam’s exclusive permission for men to practice polygamy is the doing of that misogynistic elements. We have a common ground on fairness when it comes to treating different gender, but I believe that Islam is not misogynistic. However we could say people (including Musilms can be misogynistic). Naturally people would justify their position of misogyny by recourse to some framework e.g. religion, science, tradition etc. (I hope I don’t need to mention examples here; under religion you find many other than Islam) But does that necessarily entail that those frameworks are misogynistic? What is the fabric of these framework; how much of these framework is absolute (i.e. dogmatic) and how much of it is the result of interpretation (by humans)?… So many questions, but it suffice to say that the only equivalent of dogmatics (which is sourced from Christianity) in Islam are the articles of faith; only these are absolute and every other thing can change with the right justification (yes, justification. I shall talk more about this later). When a justification becomes so popular it becomes orthodoxy, then either the justification is strong and valid or it has not been questioned… more on that soon.

      Frankly you have touched a lot of things in your comment and weekdays are not very convenient so I shall approach this mainly as a response to those of your claims I disagree with, after quoting you. As you read my comments keep in mind that Islam is essentially a socially transformative religion; so reading it’s scriptures properly demands familiarity with the socio-economic realities of the time the Prophet lived. Keep that in mind

      “Ethically good Muslims always try to find a better, more appealing interpretation of Quran and Hadith to adhere to the norms of a morally developing world as soon as they find themselves troubled by their current understanding, and they never seem to catch up (ironic for such a divine scripture). It’s a less complicated and challenging escape, to justify your beliefs instead of questioning it, and so the trend has been going on for over a thousand years now: Slavery, Sectarianism, Human Trafficking, Cruel criminal punishments, where no where prohibited in Quran and Hadith. Humans seemed to develop some level of empathy that ‘Allah’ never managed to reveal.”

      I agree it is less challenging to justify “beliefs” than questioning them. By beliefs here you don’t mean the dogmatics which are absolute, what you mean are those beliefs that come about as a result of a justification. By justification here I mean argument, in the logical sense. And I think there has been deficit on this task of questioning among Muslims, but note that questioning doesn’t mean change/triumph, it means a comparison of the existing justification with the proposed alternative. I have heard many voices questioning existing justifications, but most of the arguments are weak/invalid. By all means let there be more questioning, but let it not be mistaken that simply starting a revolution/insurrection (which is what we get excited about) doesn’t mean the revolution is a better alternative. That is what I see as the main point in your comment. But I digress further…

      Now “Ethically Good Muslims” and “morally developing world” from your comment. First thing to note is that Ethics for Muslims is defined from within Islam and its ontology/epistemology (not a morally developing world) which has a rich ethical framework. Naturally the two would have many converging points, but their origins should not be conflated due to their common destinations. After all “morally developing world” refers to the reigning moral framework; of the West. Many evidences show the sophistication of Islam’s ethical framework is more sophisticated than the reigning Western is areas like War Ethics, Human Rights (I shall talk about slavery), and even Women Rights. This was certainly true say 300 years ago, and may sparsely apply. However I must admit that in the area of Women Rights, much of the work has been theoretical and putting into practice has been difficult; note that polygamy should not be mistaken with misogyny.

      Now “Slavery” and “Cruel Human Punishment”. Until recent history, slavery has not been a moral issue in the West, it was always an economic issue. Similarly in pre-Islamic Arabia. There is an argument for how Islam aims to abolish slavery FYI but now I shall focus on the Human Rights aspect of it. Islam, even at the time of its Prophet, protected the well being of slaves that they be treated justly; thus their human rights. As for cruelty in punishment, that has always been relative to times. If your point of reference are those publicized “cruel” punishments carried out under Shari’ah, there are many Muslims who have different (better) justification for why it should not be so today given the acceptable aspects of the reigning ethical framework (for instance keep in mind there were no state prisons at the time of Prophet)

      You made a bold assertion that certain things were nowhere prohibited in the Qur’an and Hadith. That is certainly not true! I shall try and provide you with references given the time:
      • On Cruel Criminal Punishments, see Q5:8 where Muslims are ordered to act justly even to one’s enemies. Cruelty is unjust. Justice (which encompasses Human Rights) is of utmost importance in Islam, many of us see it as the central theme of Islam after belief.
      • On Equality of Actions, Q6:132 where Muslims are reminded that their actions (how they deal with the situations they have been dealt) is what matters, not their situations (e.g. gender).
      • On Slavery in the Qur’an, this should be approached from the background of pre Islamic Slavery practices in Arabia. Islam is after all a socially transformative religion and so embedded in it are not quick fixes but gradual changes in some instances. Wikipedia offers a good account in case you would like to refer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_views_on_slavery#Slavery_in_pre-Islamic_Arabia
      • As for the rest, I hope someone with more time on their hands can explain further

      “To refute any generalization on gender equality of Islam in particular, I would like you to look up the following:

      * (Quran 65:4): divorce rule for girls who have not menstruated yet.
      * (Quran 4:34) Encouraging husbands to hit (based on your level of judgment you can seek another meaning for the word) their wives if they refused to sleep with them.
      * Countless erotic verses promising Muslims (men of course) to have – fully breasted virgins (literal translation of Quran) – in heaven, with a bit of neglect for what’s in it for a woman? [seems like sexism doesn’t end on earth]
      * (Bukhari): ” a prayer is interrupted by a woman, a black dog, and a donkey”
      * (Bukhari): ” Muhammed marrying a 6 year old, and having sex with her at nine”
      * (Bukhari): ” a woman comes in an image of a devil, and leaves in an image of a devil”
      * (Bukhari): ” most of those in hell are women”
      * (Bukhari): “If I were to order anyone to kneel for someone other than Allah, I would order a woman to kneel for her husband””

      Concerning your evidences to refute gender equality in Islam. I shall provide alternative interpretations and explanations to them; one by one, as much as time permits. However before that, remember I wrote in the post that equality in Islam in the sense that you mean is effective at the level of souls. At the level of physical body, where gender is evident, that equality persists (because they are primarily souls) but the genders are different. Being different means they are have different challenges that are defined by their gender-specific “earthly” restrictions e.g. physical bodies, social circumstances etc. How that relates to their souls is: how do they respond to these challenges and what have they done to make things better. So you see the difference in gender is apparent, not real (unless you are a materialist!). It also follows that those who take advantage of their situations (physical, social or economic) are harming their souls.
      Back to the evidences you provided. Note that it takes more than basic formal Arabic to appreciate the richness of the Qur’an. Therefore, I suggest you read different interpretations of the Qur’an perhaps in English from the likes of Muhammad Asad, Muhammad Abdelhalim, Tarif Khalidi, Aisha Bewley. As for the Hadiths, let us say these have been dealt with; however note that discussing hadiths is easily confusing because the area of Hadith Science is one of the most rich/difficult to get your head around. As for both Qur’an and Hadith, note that interpretation plays a major part in what is presented about them.
      As to your evidences, here are some clarifications:
      • Q65:4. This verse is actually protecting women in cases of divorce who are exploited in many societies. The issue of menstruation is in reference to checking the status of pregnancy, so that they are not divorced while carrying a baby and the father freed from responsibilities… which would have been the case in pre-Islam Arabia. Please read the previous verses to understand the context
      • Q4:34. This is one of those controversial verses even among Muslims. Some have interpreted it as you do, others have interpreted it to mean beating with so many caveats that it is merely symbolic, others have interpreted it to mean something more like “train” (as an Arabic native you should appreciate the use of the word Daraba, which is the verb used). It is important to note that these variations in interpretations are not the function of influence of a “morally developing world” only, it is a dynamism inherent in the scripture which allows for various interpretations.
      • On “fully breasted virgins”, it might interest you to know that this is largely an issue of interpretation as well. Many Muslims subscribe to this interpretation, and many others don’t. The thing is that since it is in the realm of eschatology, either of the interpretations is inconsequential to our social situations. It is simply dramatic and provides for interesting headlines to show how “primitive” Muslims are.
      • On the Hadiths. Like I mentioned, this is a complex are. It suffice to say, and I hope you can understand I am tired of typing now, that those hadiths have either been discredited by a more authoritative hadith (which is a common occurrence in hadiths) or they have been presented out of context.

      Finally, even if you didn’t follow much of what I just wrote, perhaps the arguments are not clear enough, watch this video and perhaps read this author’s books for a less one-sided view of Islam.

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