I do, I do, I do ...

Sitting in the sunlit dining room of her friend’s house, 55-year-old Fazila* removes her spectacles, wiping a tear from her left cheek. “I’m sorry,” she says, apologising for her break in composure, “it’s hard to talk about this.”

Fazila, a Muslim mother and first wife of her husband Aziz*, has lived in a polygamous marriage for almost 30 years.

At the beginning of their relationship, Fazila and Aziz dated for two years, fell in love, and decided to marry.
Fazila, who was Christian, converted to Islam, which she still follows today.

Some 10 years later she heard rumours about her husband in the close-knit Muslim community in which they lived. Recalling the way she found out about his second wife, she says: “One day after I heard about it from other people, he came to me and just said ‘I married her’.”

“But until today, I haven’t seen any proof of [their] Nikah,” she says, referring to the Muslim marriage certificate from her husband’s second wedding.

Polygamy, or more specifically polygyny, the practice of a man having more than one wife, is sanctioned under Islamic law.

And in the traditional view of Islam, which suggests that a man does not have to ask or even inform his first wife if he intends marrying again, Aziz has done nothing wrong.

“Traditional sources will say that [it] is not a compulsion [to confer with your first wife before making a decision to marry again],” says Moulana Ebrahim Bham of the Jamiatul Ulema, the country’s council of Muslim theologians.

But those holding more contemporary, context-based views disagree. Na’eem Jeenah, an academic and member of the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM), says that the traditional view is not a unanimous one. “I don’t agree with that view, I think that view is incorrect from an Islamic perspective,” he says.

The Qur’an is the primary Islamic text; revelation of Qur’anic ayah (verses) took place more than 1 400 years ago, and were revealed according to specific situations of concern that arose during that time.

Mustafa Mheta, who is doing his master’s thesis on Islam and polygamy at the University of Johannesburg, says that polygyny is only mentioned in two ayah of the Qur’an.

The first ayah, which sanctions polygyny, was revealed at a time of war when the numbers of men were severely depleted. The contextual academic interpretation suggests that there was a need to “replenish” the population, and form a support base for the remaining women and children; therefore limited polygyny was endorsed, on condition that all the wives were treated equally.

The first ayah states that if a man is unable to treat all his wives equally, he may not marry more than one. And in the second ayah, this condition is developed with the words, “Do not allow yourselves to incline towards one to the exclusion of the other, leaving her in a state of, as it were, having and not having a husband,” Mheta says.

Mohamed*, a polygamous man for over 20 years, says it is not easy to fulfil the requirements for equality between your wives, saying that he only gets it right between 80% and 90% of the time.

Mariam*, Mohamed’s second wife, says that in terms of love it is impossible to be equal, and in terms of “measurable” things “any man who tells you that he treats all his wives equally is lying”.

Mariam is content in her marriage because her husband treats her fairly, she says. But she went into the marriage “open-eyed” about the situation. Mariam and Mohamed married because they fell in love, but they also did so without informing Mohamed’s first wife. Although Mohamed spends time with both his wives, he admits that he is with his first wife less than he is with Mariam.

According to the academic view the Qur’an recognises the difficulty of treating each wife equally, and stipulates such strict conditions to deter men from taking more wives. The words used at the start of the second verse—“And it will not be within your power to treat your wives with equal fairness, however much you may deserve it”—indicate this, Mheta says.

In an academic paper on polygamy and Islam, Fatima Seedat, a doctoral candidate in Islamic law at McGill University in Canada, writes that “the first [Qur’anic] verse is cited in support of polygamy while the second as a means of restricting the practice … [quoting the two verses together] establishes a moral tension between what is permissible (‘marry women, two three or four’) and what is possible (‘you will never be able to be fair’)”.

Jeenah says, “What Islam attempted to do was move the social norm towards monogamy, and away from the polygamy of ancient Arabia, where the scripture was revealed.”

Arguing that the Qur’an’s approach is a gradualist one, Jeenah says that to outlaw polygyny entirely would have been too radical for the time. In this way the Qur’an allows it under certain circumstances, but makes it very difficult to see it through.

Bham says that although polygyny is neither compulsory under Islam nor popular among modern Muslims today, this does not take away from the fact that it is a Qur’anic decree. He calls traditional views “recognised interpretations which have always been understood” to be correct, adding that interpretations that deny the permissibility of polygyny stretch the conditions “very, very far”.

However, Mheta feels that polygyny is only a provision in case of certain situations, such as war. “Modern ones [polygamists], those marrying just for the sake of it, they have lost [the point],” he says.

And Fazila agrees; “Islam has been manhandled by men … you can’t play with your own religion,” she says.

*Names have been changed

... I won’t

The Mail & Guardian asked a few young, single, Muslim women their opinions on polygamous marriage:

Zaheera Aboo (28), Durban

It’s not that I don’t accept it as part of my religion. I do. It does have reasons for being allowed in Islam. Personally, however, I don’t agree with it. I think today many men use it as legalised adultery. Polygamy comes with the condition of fair and equal treatment (my understanding of it) for all the wives, but I don’t really see how it works—how do you ensure fairness? What happens when the first wife is not told, or asked for her permission? I’ve seen the emotional after-effects of second marriages and it isn’t good. I wouldn’t want my husband to do it, nor would I consider being a second wife.

Saaleha Bamjee (23), Johannesburg

Accepting a second wife would be difficult for me, as I would be inclined to feel inadequate and betrayed in a sense. The only time I would be more open to giving a union like that my blessing would be if I was unable to have children. I would not deny my husband natural fatherhood and I’d rather have the child brought up in a stable, loving family unit, with myself playing some role in that child’s development.

Yumna Moosa (25), Pretoria

I appreciate the idea of polygamy in the circumstances of the time the ruling was sent down. Now the fact that Muslim women have elevated their status by independent thought lends hope to extinguishing cultural and traditional submission. Entering into or being a part of a polygamous relationship should be governed by free will and reason. I feel strongly against it, given that social conditions have changed.

Taahira Aswat (22), Johannesburg

Although there has to be some thought given to the reasoning behind the Shariah law passed on this topic I think polygamy in today’s time seems like a primitive form of living. I don’t discredit those that choose this way of life, as it is accepted under our religious laws.

Personally I don’t think I will be able to live with a man that chooses to have more than one wife. Besides the obvious reason of jealousy, we live in the modern world, and a country not governed by Shariah law, where we are brought up in a way that makes us believe polygamy will be socially unacceptable. I also think that when children are put into the equation it becomes a matter of how they will be treated and will they bear the brunt of their parents’/father’s decisions.

Maryam Patel (25), Durban

In order for a male to be part of a polygamous relationship he has to be able to treat each wife and family with the same fairness. How many people are capable of that with one family, let alone more than one?

I understand the implications of a polygamous relationship. It is something that our Creator has made lawful and not something that can be changed. I admire people that are in a just and fair polygamous relationship, however, personally speaking, it is not a relationship that I would want to be in. It’s a personal preference and I plan to add a clause to my marriage contract that gives me the option to opt out of the marriage should my husband choose another wife.

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