POLYGYNY IS THE pink elephant in the room for so many Muslims – a topic both titillating and embarrassing, one that comes up in questions from non-Muslims and in debate in Muslim gatherings, a subject that elicits strong emotional reactions from almost everyone.
There are books about coping with polygyny; there are arguments made as to whether it’s even Islamically acceptable in this day and age. Yet, fiqh rulings aside, there is very little discussion on how polygyny exists as a practical reality in the lives of many Muslims in the West.
Debra Majeed, a professor of religious studies at Beloit College, wrote the book “Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands” in order to better understand (and explain) the phenomenon of polygyny from the perspectives of African American Muslim women based on their lived experiences.
In her preface, she describes her motivations for exploring the topic, and the lens through which she has framed her work. She makes it clear that her primary focus is on African American Muslim women. She emphasizes that she is operating from within the paradigm of Muslim womanism, which she defines as “a ‘philosophical perspective’ that draws attention to the varied conditions of black womanhood as experienced by African American Muslims, and the values of Islam they articulate.”
Majeed’s book is divided into 6 chapters, not including the Introduction and Afterword, both of which are worthy of spending time on reading.
Despite the fact that the book’s main purpose is to be used as a textbook, Majeed’s writing style is refreshingly clear and easy to read, unburdened by the convoluted terminology one generally expects from academia. The context of the book is equally refreshing: an honest, realistic, practical, and most importantly, non-judgmental look and discussion at the many ways polygyny is lived in North America.
Though it is repeated many times that these stories are of African American Muslims, much of what the book discusses is applicable to the vast majority of Muslims in North America who practice polygyny. Sprinkled with anecdotes and quotes from individuals whom Majeed interviewed on the topic, Polygyny does not skew in favor of polygyny or against it – it is merely frank, and provides a very balanced view at polygyny across the spectrum of both positive and negative experiences.
Chapter 1 is titled ‘The Road to Understanding Polygyny,’ and lays out a clear and well-organized introduction to key ideas and concepts that Majeed proceeds to cover. She is transparent about how she has gathered all her information and references those whom she has drawn useful contributions. As part of ‘the road to understanding polygyny,’ she introduces to us some of the individuals whom she spoke to – women who have either lived in polygyny in the past, or are living in it currently. There are those who found themselves, unexpectedly, not the first wives they believed themselves to be—due to the fact their husbands went behind their backs, and then there are those who had more positive experiences.
Additionally, she goes to some length to explain why polygynous marriage is considered a viable option by some women in the African American Muslim community. She further explains the importance of womanism in her work, and ties the various threads being introduced into a comprehensive foundation upon which to proceed reading.
Chapter 2, ‘Agency and Authority in Polygyny,’ talks about the agency, power, and authority that Muslim women wield in polygynous marriages, and how those choices are acted upon in different ways. This chapter also includes a section that I thought was particularly intriguing and enjoyable: a ‘dialogical performance as ethnography.’ That is, she took a semi-fictional approach by imagining that she had gathered together her various interviewees and put together their responses on various topics related to polygyny, in order to provide a compare-and-contrast discussion-based platform. Through this medium, she provides readers with the opportunity to better identify and relate to the variety of perspectives of individuals who have lived through polygyny.
Majeed broadly divides polygyny into three types: polygyny of liberation, polygyny of choice, and polygyny of coercion. These three categories roughly describe polygyny as it is experienced by the women within these relationships – the first being an extremely positive experience wherein women find joy and empowerment; the second being that of acceptance but not necessarily enthusiasm or preference; and the third being that in which the women felt pressured – due to various factors – to remain within the polygynous relationship despite their own displeasure with the situation.
From personal experience and observation of others, I strongly agree with Majeed’s categorization of polygynous experiences for Muslim women. I especially appreciated the nuance and thoughtfulness that went into describing these categories and validating them with the lived experiences of women in those situations.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 “Religious and Experiential Prescriptions”, “Legalities and Emotional Well-Being,” and “Imam Mohammed’s Commentary on Polygyny,” respectively, were a little denser in terms of content. The topics covered mostly revolve around explanations of, and discussions on, polygyny in the Muslim community, and specifically within the Nation of Islam community. There is some detail given to the history of polygyny within the NoI movement and how it affected its leadership, which to some non-NoI Muslims would be considered largely irrelevant – although I personally thought that there were various insights definitely worth considering and applicable to the Muslim community at large.
Of particular note were the observations of steps taken by men that made polygyny easier and more successful—or more difficult and burdensome—for the women involved. It is clear that those men who were respectful and considerate of their first wives’ physical, emotional, and psychological situations and well-being were those men with far more positive polygynous marriages. On the other hand, those who neglected the well-being of both wives, whether spiritual, financial, legal or otherwise, were of those who often ended up going through a divorce with one of them.
It is also interesting to note that in almost every successful example of polygyny, the women involved were aware, educated, and involved in how their husbands chose to marry other wives. Among my own favorite stories, the co-wives had friendships and close relationships of their own that were not dependent upon their shared husband.
Chapter 6, “Mental Health and Living Polygyny” was, to me, the most enlightening chapter by far. One aspect of polygyny that is almost completely neglected by Muslims is that of how polygyny affects the psychology of children raised within this family structure. Again, Majeed brings forth a balanced view of how polygyny can positively affect children, and how it can also be a source of anguish and negativity for them as well.
Describing the positive experience that one child of a polygynous family had underscored the importance of the father’s role: to be present in his children’s lives, to communicate with them about changes in their lives due to the introduction of another adult to the family, and to model healthy relationships with both his wives.
Unfortunately, such an example of lived polygyny is extremely rare not just amongst African American polygynous Muslims, but polygynous Muslims at large. All too often, men going into polygyny rarely deign to think about how their marital choices will affect their children, especially if it means creating two (or more) separate households and reducing the amount of quality time spent with each child.
In her conclusion, Majeed lists several key notes which she thinks are of utmost importance for polygynous Muslims to be aware of and to practice in order to ensure the safety and security of all parties involved.
Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands is a book that I consider a must-read for all those interested in, or involved in, a polygynous marriage. It provides candid glimpses into real-life examples of polygyny, indirectly making it obvious what the common denominators of positive poly marriages are – and equally obvious how to guarantee the failure of a poly relationship.
By discussing not only the religious aspect of polygyny in Islam, but also by going into detail about legal concerns, financial caretaking of spouses, the relationship between co-wives, and the mental health of women and children in polygyny, Debra Majeed highlighted a wide spectrum of necessary issues that Muslims are faced with when undertaking polygyny.
It is my hope that we see a great deal more literature – as well as speeches and workshops by qualified Imams and other community leaders – provided on these topics. Unfortunately, existing narratives about polygyny in the Muslim community are overwhelmingly negative, unhealthy, and stale, with very little practicality. Majeed’s book is revitalizing , and hopefully the beginning of a more realistic and healthy approach to polygyny amongst Muslims not only in African American communities, but all Muslim communities, both in the East and the West.
 “Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands (2015) University Press of Florida, Introduction, page 3