Polygamy: Redefining faith and fidelity in fiction

THE RUINS OF US by Keija Parssinen (Faber and Faber)
LESSONS IN HUSBANDRY by Shaid Kazie Ali (Umuzi)

As a Muslim woman I’ve always been interested by the concept of polygamy, especially within Islam. At an early age, we were taught about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and that he had married 12 women, mostly war widows. As Muslims, we follow the wisdom of the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet’s life to guide us in how to live.

New fiction based on polygamous scenarios includes Lessons in Husbandry, the second novel by South African author Shaida Kazie Ali, and The Ruins of Us, the debut novel by Keija Parssinen.

Lessons in Husbandry offers a unique perspective on polygamy as it is not the man who takes a second wife, but the female protagonist, Malak, who exploits the loophole between religious and civil marriage to take a second husband.

The Ruins of Us focuses on the breakdown of a marriage in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. American-born Rosalie and Abdullah, a wealthy Saudi, have been married for 27 years and have two grown-up children when Abdullah takes a second wife. Although Abdullah has not always been faithful, Rosalie discovers his second wife only by accident, triggering a crisis in their relationship.

The novel draws on Parssinen’s experience of growing up as an expatriate in Saudi Arabia.

Bending the rules

Lessons in Husbandry sheds light on men distorting interpretations of the Qur’an to suit themselves. Precious, who is both family and neighbour to the couple, makes clear that Muslims are ignorant about the rationale for polygamy.

The Prophet lived in a time of war, when there were many destitute widows and orphans, and so polygamy was considered an act of charity. These days a second marriage is about lust.

In The Ruins of Us, Abdullah and his son Faisal justify his second marriage by saying it is the way of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), it is his culture and it is common practice in Saudi Arabia.

What Muslim men fail to acknow-ledge is that they have to seek the permission of the first wife in order to marry another. There should also be legitimate reasons for taking another wife.

If a man chooses to have more than one wife, the wives have to be treated equally.

Kazie Ali makes a valid point when she says, through Precious, that despite all his virtues even the Prophet had a favourite wife. So how do mere men expect to treat their wives fairly?

In Lessons in Husbandry, Malak’s first marriage comes about after the disappearance of her sister Amal. Malak is forced to step into her place and enter a loveless marriage to Taj.

She spends her life running a bakery with her business partner, friend and neighbour Rakel. Malak has never loved Taj. Taj doesn’t love her and is frequently unfaithful, but Malak’s love for the vanished Amal and her sense of duty keep them together.

When Malak meets Darya in the clichéd setting of a lift breaking down, she realises that she has never felt the kind of love that Amal and Taj shared. Precious gives Malak an alternative view of the Muslim world as well as the impetus to make her dramatic choice to take two husbands.

The novel is presented as an extension of the writing classes that Rakel drags Malak to. Using this kind of immature storyteller introduces hackneyed phrases such as “the whiff of sea air” and “warm fat droplets of water, like baby’s tears”.

Although this is understandable given the nature of the “fictional” author it is grinding at times.

Marginalised status

For fans of family drama, Lessons in Husbandry has much to recommend it, but it fails to convey the interconnectedness of the Cape Muslim community that would probably have prevented Malak from keeping her husbands a secret from each other.

There is no such furtiveness in The Ruins of Us. Abdullah moves his “new” wife, Isra, into the neighbourhood, but Rosalie remains unaware of her rival’s presence.

The relationship between first wife Rosalie and her son Faisal also suffers when he starts associating with a more radical crowd for whom his mother’s American origins are a source of antagonism.

The attitude of Rosalie’s husband and, increasingly, her son highlights the marginalised status of women in Saudi Arabia. Rosalie’s embracing of the cultural norms of the country isolates her further. 

In passing, Parssinen touches on reasons for the Arab Spring, the fuelling of hatred of the West, and the dichotomy that Muslims seem forced to obey money-hungry kings and leaders when Islam says that they are obliged to obey only God.

From both these books, it is interesting to see the circumstances that lead people to look for love outside marriage. It seems that either love fades or was never there to begin with.

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