What Role Does Polygamy Play in Islam? Part 1

We’ve already seen, from William Tucker, in his book Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human, how polygamy breeds violence. The largest religion in the world that endorses polygamy is Islam. Tucker takes a look at how polygamy and Islam have interacted.

Through the Koran and the Hadith (thousands of pages of commentary by people who knew Mohammed), Islam regulates the daily life of the believer as few religions have ever done. Among these rules are rules governing polygamy. Mohammed sanctioned the practice, but tried to limit it by prescribing that a man could take only four wives and had to support all equally.

He did not, however, abide by this rule himself. All told, Mohammed had an estimated thirteen wives, with perhaps eleven at one time. His inner circle also took numerous wives.

Tucker then asks the key question: “What happens in a society, like Islamic society, where men at the top can accumulate multiple wives and men at the bottom are left with nothing?”

The answer:

Well, holy war, jihad, was part of Islam from the beginning. After conquering the Middle East and North Africa, Muslim armies pushed into sub-Saharan Africa and the Caucasus in search of slaves. In the West, slavery was about work. When Western merchants shipped slaves to the New World, male slaves outnumbered females two to one. In Islamic countries, female slaves outnumbered male slaves by the same ratio. These “slaves” were in fact extra wives and concubines.

Even the steady supply of women slaves from conquered lands did not solve the problem. Tucker continues:

Despite the supply of women from conquered provinces, there was always a shortage, and the most common reaction of lower-caste Islamic men deprived of women became the desert retreat where dissident sects plotted the overthrow of the regime.

Of these perhaps the most extraordinary was the “Assassins,” a Shia sect founded in Egypt in the eleventh century that became the scourge of rulers all over the Islamic world. The Assassins established themselves in the Castle of Alamut, a mountain redoubt in northern Persia that is still difficult to reach today. There they set up an early version of al Qaeda, training young recruits to plant “sleeper cells” around the Middle East and insinuate themselves into the circles of the prominent officials they wanted to assassinate.

The famous traveler and explorer, Marco Polo, in 1273, described what he saw when he passed through this same area:

The Old Man kept at his court such boys of twelve years old as seemed to him destined to become courageous men. When the Old Man sent them into the garden in groups of four, ten or twenty, he gave them hashish to drink. They slept for three days, then they were carried sleeping into the garden where he had them awakened.

When these young men woke, and found themselves in the garden with all these marvelous things, they truly believed themselves to be in paradise. And these damsels were always with them in songs and great entertainments; they received everything they asked for, so that they would never have left that garden of their own will.

And when the Old Man wished to kill someone, he would take him and say: “Go and do this thing. I do this because I want to make you return to paradise.” And the assassins go and perform the deed willingly.

Tucker puts this into perspective:

So began the familiar Islamic pattern: young men with very little hope of rising in society are offered enlistment in a dissident sect that sanctifies violence, promises revolution, and offers martyrs a prize of seventy-two virgins. This is how polygamous societies end up at war with their neighbors.

A shortage of women means a volatile male population. Lower-status males are either turned into eunuchs or formed into slave armies (the Mamluks of Egyptian history) or molded into assassins and terrorists and sent off to holy war. Seventy-two virgins await in heaven— a reward it should be noted, that does not have any particular appeal to the female half of the population.

More on Islam and polygamy in part 2 of this post.