Islamic Arabia and Multiple Wives


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The following description of the Islamic custom of polygamy in the Arabian peninsula is from Wendell Phillips, Qataban and Sheba, pp. 149-151:

“An Arabian girl’s wishes are not often consulted as to the man she marries. Her father’s choice is law, though in some cases a mother may have a strong influence on her husband’s decision. There is no courtship between a girl and her husband-to-be, and she may know nothing about his character or feelings until after she is married. Often she knows little even then, for an Arab does not look upon his wife as an equal nor consider marriage a fifty-fifty partnership. He seldom discusses affairs with his wife--business, politics, feelings, or aspirations--and rarely consults her even when an important decision concerning the entire family is to be made. The husband is complete boss. What he says is law in his family, not to be questioned. ...

Since the father arranges marriages it is not uncommon for an eighty-year-old man to marry a sixteen-year-old girl, and quite usual for an Arab man to marry a girl half his age. Sometimes a girl may be only ten years old when she marries, though theoretically her husband is not supposed to have intimate relations with her until she has matured, at about fourteen years. ...

According to the Moslem religion, a man may have as many as four wives at a time. Divorce is easy for the husband: he need have no complaint or grounds of any kind. All he must do is to say aloud three times, in the name of Allah, that he divorces his wife, giving her name. Then he tells a judge or other official that he has done so and receives a document the equivalent of our divorce papers. A wife in most instances can only get a divorce from her husband on grounds of nonsupport.


If a man has four wives, he provides for them according to his financial resources. If he has plenty of money, he establishes each wife in a separate home, and he spends a night or two in each home in rotation. ...

If a man hasn’t enough money, all the wives live in the same house, each wife having her own room, sometimes rather small. The wives share the housework, cooking, and other duties, and each wife looks after her own children. There is bound to be friction in such cases, especially if the husband favors one wife more than the others, which often happens. There is always a ‘number-one wife,’ usually the one he married first, who has more influence and power than the others. But if the first wife does not bear a son, the wife who does so may become dominant. Sometimes a man gives the number-one position to another wife for other reasons, maybe because she is more beautiful, fun to be with, or more appealing sexually. The husband’s decision is law, it is true, but he cannot eliminate friction when wives all live together. ...

If one wife dies, then the other wives take care of her children, and this is another source of friction--a wife will be inclined to favor her own children over those of even a dead rival.


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