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My father has two wives: explaining the role of polygamy in Islam

A Christian friend of mine was very intrigued when I told her my father has two wives.

I was recently asked to photograph a Ramadan etiquette session. The lecturer encouraged questions about Islam and one of the women asked about polygamy in Islam, which reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my Christian friends.

Anna was intrigued to know about my family and lifestyle. Somewhere in the middle of those chats, I told her that my father has two wives and my mother is the second one. The shock on her face was indescribable.

She paused for a few moments and asked me: “Does your mother have any rights?”

I laughed at her reaction, because she thought we were deprived of our rights and lived under subjugation, the way women and Islam are often portrayed in the media.

I explained that some men have multiple affairs, behind closed doors, outside of wedlock. But it is these same individuals who cannot accept a man having more than one wife. What have been the consequences of such illicit affairs? Too often these dalliances result in illegitimate children and the women are little more than sex objects. What happens to these children when they grow up? I know my lineage and I am not ashamed to say I have two mothers because the whole family and society know about my father’s marriage. I would be extremely ashamed of my parents if I came to this world as the result of a hidden relationship.

My friend was curious about how my father managed to share his time with both wives. I explained that he provided both his wives with a house and tries his best to fulfil all their needs, which is the primary condition of polygamy. It is a huge responsibility. She continued to bombard me with questions on the subject, but finally posed the most thoughtful question: “Who does he favour?” I was stuck, because I do not know how my father feels toward his wives; I do not know what is in his heart.

This is why Allah says in the Quran, Verse 129: “You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire.” This refers to the emotional side of polygamy – we have no control over our hearts.

I have a lot of friends and appreciate them, but I have that one special friend, with whom I share all of my secrets and sorrows. I give this friend the title “best friend”, although I do cherish all my companions.

Islam did not invent polygamy but only regulated it in favour of women. Islam puts a limit on the number of wives a Muslim man can have. It is not obligatory, only permissible, if the man can fulfil the criteria, which is to be just with his wives socially, economically and even emotionally. If not – and really, who can? – he must remain with one bride. The purpose of allowing this practice is not to support a man’s personal ego, but to solve a major social problem, such as in historical times of battle and war, when men’s deaths meant that scores of women were left widowed or orphaned.

Polygamy is not exclusive to Islam but, unfortunately, Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) is often singled out as a polygamist, which is rather surprising. The Bible and Torah speak of polygamy. Prophet Ibrahim and Jacob (Peace be upon them both) had more than one wife. And let’s not forget Prophet Solomon (Peace be upon him) who had more than 700 wives.

Asmaa Al Hameli co-writes the My Year at the National blog, where this piece was originally published. For the full entry, visit My year at The National

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