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Polygamy Explained, Part I: A Societal Need?

Written by Gracie Lawrence

Since the days that exotic tales of everyday wealthy Ottoman life began to waft onto European shores, wondering Western romantic minds have been painting up portraits of what Eastern harrams (pronounced hair-ums in some southern cities) must have looked like. Ladies lavishly washing, beautifying themselves and their long manes, and perhaps even making exquisitely succulent turkey dinners … together … just for you.

Polygamy Part 1

Equally ridiculous is how having 4 sets of in-laws, the various responsibilities of those women and resulting amount of children, and how alllll that would affect Sunday night football never quite occurs to many men.

I thought it would be interesting to talk about why anyone might want to be in a polygamous marriage in the first place (PART 1) and no, not from a male point of view … boring! Secondly, what responsibilities that would entail for a man (PART 2).

Wait, whaatt? Muslim men have duties to their wife/wives?  YUP!

Polygamy (or more specifically, Polygyny- in which a man has more than one wife) can be a difficult thing for the Western mind to imagine as anything other than an oppressive venture.

However, the disturbing–to-some fact remains that a large part of the world does practice polygamy and has practiced it for thousands of whyyourarelyseeafemalypolygamist[1]years (conjuring up stories of King Solomon here).

According to the Ethnographic Atlas, of 1,231 societies noted, only 186 were monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry (in which a woman has more than one husband- Part 3, maybe?).

However, even in countries where polygyny is practiced only 16-30% of people actually utilize it. Therefore, clearly even in polygyny friendly societies, this form of marriage is not dominant.

Moreover, there are various kinds, female choice polygyny systems seen among South American natives (see this one about a Bolivian tribe) are going to be different than a male coercion model.

There are many reasons why marriages may become polygamous. But I think it first appropriate to bring forth the appropriate backdrop.

Lifting the Western goggles

Picture it … the Earth, the date- today.

Even in this century, the majority of the world does not have the economic system or wealth of modern post- industrialized nations. 

Taking into consideration that most of human civilization has been overrun with serious poverty, men and women dying from preventable diseases, and women dying due to childbirth related complications, (Maternal Deaths Sub-Saharan Africa) life and social taboos in many places were and still are vastly different from the Western context.

Now that we have taken our Western goggles off

Let’s have a look around and think of just some examples where polygyny might occur and work … without being oppressive to women.

1. Poverty

You’re a poor girl whose father and only bread winner of the family just passed away. Unfortunately for you women don’t have the option of earning wages. And you really don’t like being poor. While there are plenty of single, young goat-herding men around- they are also poor and therefore not very interesting to you.

There is, however, an older, charming a la’ Sean Connery merchant who is actually very well off.  He already has two wives, but have you seen their homes? And you would be the youngest and favorite wife, right?

2. War

You’re a poor girl who lives in a village that has just been annihilated by a fairly rich country. Most of the men have been slaughtered, including your father the protector and only bread winner of the family.

You are stuck with the few males who were too old to be considered a threat to invaders. They all have at least one wife already. But you really want some babies, a few meals a day, and some protection in your now lawless area. Polygyny is a better than your only other option- prostitution (which sky-rockets in conflict zones).

3. You’re tired

You are a married woman with a few kids, and you have been married to your husband for a while now. He’s a nice guy- you love him- you would never think of leaving him or separating him from the kids. But the man has the sexual appetite that can be compared to a pack of starved wildebeests … every … single … night.

You on the other hand are a once a week kind of girl. You tell him he either needs a new hobby or a new wife- not that he can’t just overcome his urge, but you’re pretty practical at this point in your life–why not?

I could go on and on with these circumstances and the driving factors for women to want polygyny (your parents don’t even have to die in these scenarios and the last one isn’t even poverty dependent). 

 

Even Tim Harford at Slate recognizes the benefits of such a system in his article hilariously entitled I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do: The Economic Case for Polygamy

This probably all sounds very foreign to you, and of course it is! (Except for the marrying for money part because we all know of some gold digger who did that.) It is not part of our culture to have a lot of these problems, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been an issue or are still occurring in many parts of the world RIGHT NOW.

What Islam does is regulate these unions so that as few people get hurt as possible (no abusing women, using men purely as sperm donors, the rights of children, etc.).

And in a species such as ours where almost every characteristic (including sexual appetite) can be spread over such a vast spectrum of varying degrees of intensity- I believe such flexibility in law (religious or otherwise) actually strengthens societies.

 

Part Two here

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27 thoughts on “Polygamy Explained, Part I: A Societal Need?

  1. Thanks, Gracie this is a great post. I accidentally pinned it to a Muslimah fashion board and there was an uproar. lol oops. While I don’t see myself been down (in this phase in my life) with polygamy, I am not gonna knock it for others. As you stated, it works for some people and may even be necessary. And Islam being for all mankind of all ages. So, I can see the logic behind it being an Islamic institution.(now that I have commented, you may jump in Hyde)

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  2. U r so gross!!!!! If u truly love someone u don’t need more than one partner. Obviously u lack something in ur life and relationship if u need to look for others. Gross!!!! Thank god I have Jesus in MY life!!!! Ur rants r so gross!!!

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    1. Oh Sweet JesUs!
      Of course I can have a wonderful wife at at home, and then little honey pie on the side, and then a little cherry cake on the other side, and perhaps a couples of office romances…then that would be okay with society…but dare I say as soon as I declare “two wives”, the entire establishment comes crashing down…only in the hypocritical west a you can’t marry legally and respectfully a 16 year old girl, yet at 18 she is oh so mature to become a porn star.

      This is not a rant by the sister, but dropping knowledge. Maybe you could learn a thing or two.

      P.S. If Jesus did marry, then I could assure you it would not be with one wife.

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    2. So, Abraham, David, Solomon, the Prophet they are all gross as well, right?

      You need to understand that polygyny predates Islam in the Middle East by many centuries (try the first three names above). However, with Islam came a systematic regulation of the practice in the Arabian peninsula. That is to say, the Qur’an states fairly unambiguously that a man may marry up to four wives so long as he can treat them all equally, both materially and emotionally. Try Qur’an 4:3.

      Furthermore, early practice of polygyny had the social advantage of providing a place of refuge for unattached women who would find it virtually impossible to survive on their own. Times of war were especially perilous for the wives and children of men who had gone off to battle. (It is about the children of the dead man also) The Prophet and a number of his Companions are said to have married widows under such circumstances.

      Perhaps I will be generous and say that you meant to articulate that in complex contemporary societies a man might find it possible to manage material equality, but that he could not manage emotional and psychological equity.

      Yes, good point, but the Qur’an beat you to it by suggesting that beyond the material realm, equal treatment is very difficult in practice: “You will not be able to treat the wives with equality, however much you desire that. Do not turn away entirely, leaving her in suspense.” (Q:4:129) Muhammad Abduh, died in 1905 no less, even argued that Muslims can no longer consider polygyny an option, interpreting the Qur’an’s warning verse (4:129) as a virtual prohibition.

      Another thing to consider is that in many Muslim countries, following Qur’anic advice, polygyny is strictly regulated, so that very few men are actually able to meet the legal requirements to practice it.

      Most of all, though, “you are gross” is not an argument.

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    3. Another love trumps reality response. Lol wonder why so many people who are in love when they get married are now divorced b/c love wins, right? Lol omg. But I have lost many an argument to someone simply because their emotions dictated to them that I am gross and they have Jesus in their life. Sorry Gracie to hear about you gross diagnosis. You should have had your coodie shot.

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      1. Love wins, don’t ya know, sister? Of course, I am grateful that Islam is much more practical than that.

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  3. What if the woman has the sexual appetite of a wildebeest? What if she wants three or more different attractive, younger men to have sex with whenever she wants? What if she wants lots of men around her house, doing things for her and all pining to be the focus of her attention? And I would like to point out that your whole argument is based around the idea that women do not need to be forced or pressured into polygamous marriages. And yet each of the examples you provided involve a situation where the woman seemingly has no other acceptable options in life, leaving her with this only way out. I believe marriage should be about love, and this is not love. If a woman in the world you described is hungry and poor, she is fully capable of earning an education and making a living for herself, instead of being dependent on a man for everything. And if there are forcing working against her and she is not able to get an education (as is often the case), then that is the issue we should be focusing on. That is the true problem. It is preposterous that an entire half of the population could be restricted from getting an education. You are looking at the injustices of this situation in the wrong way — we do not need to be encouraging people to be more accepting of polygamous and unequal marriages, we need to be fixing the situation so that women can provide for themselves and are not *forced* into these marriages. (On a side note.. in the situation described, where the woman cannot keep up with her husband’s endless sexual desires, they probably were not ever compatible in the first place and should not have gotten married.)

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    1. @ Mark, actually those are some good points. I would be curious to know how many married women would be interested in that compared to men. I honestly do not know any women who would be, and I do not know what % of the population they would be. They might fall into the statistical outlier possibility unless someone can correct me on this. Those situations I mentioned are certainly not ideal- but there are far more oppressive avenues as I suggested and real word circumstance unfortunately do not change quickly and there are real world needs on the line. I can give you an example, and one of the reasons I wrote this- an extended family member of mine that does live in a Eastern country did just decide to enter into one of these marriages. She is educated, employed, and she comes from a family that can support her (there was no financial reason for her to enter into one of these- she could of just stayed at home). She does not come from a war torn country and this country actually does pretty well in the region for education/healthcare/security etc.. Now as she started getting older, she wanted a family. She consulted family members of hers who continued to wait and wait for the ideal mate and eventually never married- they regretted their choice and advised her to take this route as she was in a similar circumstance- which she did. And while some members of the family were raising eyebrows, she was happy in her choice and actually rallied to be able to make the choice she felt was best for her. This piece may be more of me trying to better understand her, in a different culture, in a different circumstance than myself. I understand in the West we are not raised to think in this way, but rather ‘lets change the world and make it a better place’ that accepts OUR VALUES, but the rest of the world has a history far older and complex than ours. Education and jobs for women will not change the societal need that SOME (not all, and not most) men would do better with more than one wife- and I believe that for married man, the number one reason of marital dissatisfaction is that they have needs that are not being met. It is nice to think that marriage is all about love, but a seasoned married person can tell you that love is an emotion. And any emotion, like anger or happiness or sadness is never constant but fluctuates. In my humble opinion, if more married people realized that and married for the right reasons- I believe there would be less divorce. Also, let me also make sure that I state that I am not advocating to bring this concept to the West, simply trying to explain to others why this takes place in other places- also to keep in mind that the Eastern man in many Islamic countries have a set of responsibilities to their wife/wives that is unknown about in the West. Western men are use to very independent women that can do practically everything herself (there are exceptions). Western men of course do not realize how that also plays into the marriage relationship, but it does. When a man in the East does decide to take on another wife, it included a list of responsibilities that would shock most Western men- which might also explain why polygamy does not occur as much as it does. Another point- I do not believe a lot of women are willing to sexually try-on potential husbands as you believe. It may seem the norm to you, but would not work in a lot of cultures- actually I am Western and it wouldn’t work for me. The idea that I have to have sexual relations with a man to see if we are a good sexual fit for him before marriage seems like an abuse of the system as well. Thanks for your comments Mark, I appreciate your thoughtful input.

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    2. Mark,

      When the Qur’an appeared in history, what were the two essential aspects of entrenched and centuries-old conditions: elementary kinship structures and control of sexuality.

      Of course, I am not trying to evade the true issue here by reasserting that the Qur’an improved the status of women, raising them to the same spiritual dignity as men, or the women in Islam are not subjected, as are their sisters in the West, to fierce social and economic competition with men. Many have made this and similar arguments before. Many Westerners, inversely, emphasize the intolerable inferiority of women in Muslim societies, citing polygamy, divorce by repudiation, the wearing of the veil, segregation of the sexes, imprisonment in household tasks, etc.

      The people who generate these images, positive or negative, have neglected to begin by considering the givens of the feminine condition common to all societies, givens that persist in our time despite numerous efforts at emancipation, especially in the modern West.

      I, for one, think a look at the status of women relevant to the new provisions introduced by the Qur’an and whether they modified the operation of elementary lineage structures rather than just certain legal provisions and the ethical-religious framework of former systems would be beneficial. The persistence even today of different socialization practices for daughters and sons reflect the mother’s internalization of an objectively unfavorable status reproduced through daughters to assure the survival of a system above and beyond the moral and religious calling of the person recognized in the Qur’an. This fact tends to prove that Qur’anic legislation acts on the dignity of the person more than on structures.

      Moreover, the biological makeup of women engages them in the reproduction of life and hence in the distribution of the most precious good in any society. Everywhere women have been the object of strategies on the part of men, who have a monopoly of control over the distribution of goods and power relationships among families, clans, and tribes. In fact, it was only with the appearance of the contraceptive pill, liberation from the biological condition, that the emancipation of the feminine condition could reach down to the level of strategies as old as human societies. But, of course, there emerged a vast continent of sexuality and all of the taboos to repress it. The historical, cultural, political, economic, and democratic circumstances in which the debates concerning this issue began to be heard in Muslim societies invite us to exercise great prudence and patience before making peremptory condemnations in the manner of legitimately indignant “feminists” or, in contrast, making self-confirming speeches to defend the status of women as being of divine origin, intangible, and superior to all that human beings have otherwise imagined.

      Considering these problems, it becomes clear, to me, at least, that it would be premature and derisory to engage in debate about Qur’anic verses that speak of polygamy, repudiation, inheritance, etc. All these verses have already been the object of juridical explication carried on by the great jurists–the exegetes and founders of schools of interpretation. I am all for re-evaluation, but I think your motivations cloud your judgement here.

      “One ought not expect of religions more than they can give,” a great man once said.

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      1. Thank you for your replies. I understand your points and even agree with some of them. Ultimately, I guess I just take issue with the fact that men can have multiple wives in some cases, while it is unheard of for a woman to have multiple husbands. I do not believe that women have inherent or ‘natural’ qualities that are different than men. I believe that every individual, regardless of sex, is capable of an endless array of characteristics. I do not think that people can be generalized based on their sex. Therefore, I believe that if polygamy is something that can improve the lives of those involved (and I am fully open to the idea that this is true!), then it should be a two-way street. Women should be allowed to live in this way, as well, with multiple husbands (and not be shunned by society). Perhaps I should have been more clear that this is my real problem with the situation. Again, thanks for your replies, much appreciated!

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      2. Mark, Thanks for stopping back by our little blog. Your perspective is welcome. It seems to me that you run with the feminist camp in your ideology: Women and men are the same. While I agree we must be viewed as equal under the eyes of the law, I disagree that men and women are the same. When we say that there is no difference between man and woman, we are agreeing with age-old misogyny. We agree that in order to be better, to be valued in society, one must be like a man. Why do women have to imitate masculinity? When imitation is the biggest form of compliment and the quickest way to get disrespect. When women say men and women are no different, women are affirming there is something wrong with femininity. I have written on the topic in the past if you care to read: https://islamwich.com/2013/05/09/womens-lib-takes-away-womens-rights/
        But more on point, no I don’t think women and men could approach polygamy in the same way. Women baring the children would have a hard time knowing who the father of the child is (barring a Jerry Springer style paternity test). And knowing your lineage and giving due respect and rights to your family is of the utmost importance in Islam. This is just one of many reasons why polyandry is more of a sticky wicket than polygyny.

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      3. I believe one of the many reasons why Polyandry is not permissible in Islam is for reasons of paternity when a child is conceived. Secondly, because the man is the one who is Islamically responsible to take care of women in all aspects in life because his main life duty is to work outside the home while the woman cares for the children.

        No matter if a woman has is very educated and has a top job surgeon career, even in the 21st century men still cannot get pregnant and carry children and give birth and breastfeed, so at some point, the wife turns to a Mom and has other responsibilities that keeps her from being the main source of income in the family.

        People seem to forget that being a wife and mother is a privilege given to women, it is the hardest job, the longest labor hours and unfortunately these days the least respected.

        Also if a woman was to have 4 husbands, and those husbands each had a right to want at least 3 children each, … you do the math 🙂

        I’m so grateful Allah did not give women that responsibility to feel like we need to care for more then one husband, since one husband is enough of a baby to keep around with the other children women have to raise 🙂

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    3. Mark,

      There are distinct biological differences between man and woman. I really don’t see how one could think otherwise. Of course, this doesn’t mean that men and women shouldn’t have equal legal rights, they should, but men and women are not identical biologically. All the data I have ever seen bears this out.

      Polyandry would not have been a stable social construct in the Arabian cultural context into which Islam was birthed. It just wouldn’t have worked for the reasons I mentioned in my last comment and for a number of other reasons.

      Mark, in Islam what one does in private is one’s own business; that’s between them and God. It is what comes into the public space that Islam cares about. So, if a woman keeps all of her husbands hid in the basement, then I have no problem.

      Moreover, a woman *CAN* marry, if legal in whatever country, how ever many men she wants, but it will not be Islamically permissible. That is the key. If, however, you want to suggest that a woman should be allowed to marry up to four men herself and that that should be made Islamically permissible, then I want to know what your motivation is here? What’s your purpose with that, if indeed that is what you are suggesting?

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      1. Goodness yes, at the most obvious and simplest level biologically we are very different- just the pregnancies and breast feeding is exhausting. @ Mark : I personally know of no woman that can handle the appetite of more than just her husband- in fact many women complain of their husband’s constant attention. But this is perhaps because these are all women with children -childless women, or those with older children perhaps may be able to attend to the needs of more than one man (I say this because both men and women should be satisfied)- but I worry it would not be a sustainable enterprise. If a woman married a man with a low sex drive relative to hers, or becomes so physically unattractive to her that she can’t physically be with him, she has the option to divorce and remarry another. Also keep in mind that in many cultures, men were more likely to care for an offspring they thought was theirs (many animals are the same), paternity tests have just recently been around and are still unavailable in many parts of the world. Not to mention there is about 10 months of pregnancy, and then at least a year or two of feeding the child and preparing for the next kid- if each man wanted a child- someone would have to wait quite a while before having his own.

        I am not even saying any of this is reason enough to outlaw women from having 4 men (there are exceptions to almost everything, and I am just thinking out loud for the fun of it), but imagine making law for the entirety of mankind, for the eternity of their existence (if one were to believe in this). How would such law be crafted, except in a way that would look at the majority and more broadly at society as a whole. I know this goes against the modern theory of individual rights. Like writing Floridian said- it is only what you bring into the public eye that is dealt with in a public matter. If every 0.1% sexual possibility were to be addressed in ‘divine’ law, that would be a tremendous piece of legislation. It needs to broad and yet flexible- and Islam does this in a way that was and continues to be comparatively unmatched. In a perfect world, people could do whatever they wanted and it would not be of any consequence to another, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Thanks so much for replying, it gives me a new perspective to think about- and I enjoy that! Please feel free to correct me if you feel I have erred.

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  4. It is interesting to note that the Quranic verse that talked about polygyny came right after the Uhud War where many Muslim men were martyred thus leaving behind many widows and orphans. From my understanding, polygyny in Islam is never about fulfilling a wildebeest sexual appetite but only to provide care and help for women in very strict circumstances ie war, poverty etc. The fact that Allah reminded men who are or thinking to practice polygyny that they must be just and fair in their treatment towards their wives shows just how much this kind of marriage is more of a responsibility and not about their sexual appetite in any way. Look at our beloved prophet as the example. He married his wives for many noble reasons EXCEPT mainly for fulfilling his sexual desires (save for Aishah, his wives were all old.) The problemI observed is that Muslim men who practice polygyny abuses their rights and responsibilities. It is almost always about sex, replacing the older wife with an 18 year old virgin who barely finished high school. Someone really needs to re educate the concept of polygyny in Islam.

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    1. Thanks, Mrs. B – a lot of people seem to be hung up on the sexual appetite issue- when it was just one of many possible reasons that a WOMAN might be okay with this kind of marriage. There are women who would rather not have a ‘full time’ husband, as strange as that may sound to us.
      Polygamy was much more unregulated before Islam stepped in – in fact people could have as many wives as they wanted and could treat them however they wanted. I do not think the sexual reason for getting another though is not valid (in fact a woman can divorce her husband on the same grounds so there is such a concept as sexual rights)- but I do very much agree that there needs to be some reeducation as people can abuse this as they do practically everything else. Your points and reminders are very valid -it is much more complicated than what most people think. Hopefully Corbin’s next piece will add to that.

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  5. Asalamu alaykum warahmatullahi wabarakatu,

    Although of course everyone has a right to their opinion I am am stunned at Misty draper bring Jesus alayhi wasallam into this, did she never hear of Mormon’s who are allowed to marry More then one wife?

    Actually I never thought I could agree to this lifestyle of polygamy especially when I first reverted to Islam until I really began to study Islam and the beauty and logically reasoning behind what Islam teaches, of course first being, it’s the truth.

    Once I really studied and realized as a divorced woman after 20 years (because living as a Christian to another Christian, well as we are taught in our western society … shhh, do it Ashley Madison style) that Islam keeps this from happening not saying adultery doesn’t happen in Islam, May Allah keep the Ummah steadfast in his commandments .. ameen, but you won’t see any atheists celebrating the sacred months of Islam, therefore adultery advertising would never become a flourishing industry as our wonderful western culture and business model of Ashley Madison and other’s have become.

    I then began to think after a once married woman how living a polygamous lifestyle may be beneficial especially for older Muslim women like myself who already has children cannot give birth anymore, (not from age but medical reasons) and now at my age I also have the time to spend with Allah more and learning about the Islamic religion and also begin a career. With a full time husband that I would feel to care for because I did enjoy this part of my marriage before, I guess my natural motherly instinct since all men are babies, another woman to give him children, cook for him, help with other wifely duties would actually be a blessings.

    I could see myself having my own place close by, probably not in the same household because I enjoy my privacy and quiet, but he just spends time with me every other night (if it’s just two wives). Fact is, he just may appreciate me more because I would have qualities that are unique maybe he enjoys and misses when away from me, and vice verse for his other wife.

    But most importantly allowing your husband to have more then one wife should not be self serving but for circumstances for sake of Allah, because there are so many Muslim Sister’s who have lost husbands in war and cannot provide for themselves or children or older divorced Muslim women who may be in the same situation. This is when Muslim Sisters need to put our selfishness aside and say Alhamdulilah, my husband in this life is only temporary, what I work for is the hereafter, if it pleases my Lord then how can I not be happy.

    Although polygamy is allowed in Islam it is also good to take note that it is a commandment in the Qur’an that if he cannot treat his wives equally then he is only allowed one wife.

    “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, three, or four, but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one”(Surah al-Nisa, 3).

    Fact is most Muslim men only want and are happy with just one wife unless there are other circumstances surrounding the marriage.

    Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala subscribes only what is best for us, Allah knows best

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    1. Thank you, Fatima, for sharing your perspective. It is interesting how our Western culture tries to sell us the glamour of adultery but vilifies polygamy (a way to avoid adultery) so much. I don’t know why I didn’t see your response until now, but wanted to thank you for dropping by and adding your insight. Salams -Corbin

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      1. That’s okay Sister, and you’re welcome. Interesting topic of discussion 🙂

        Jazaki’ Allah Kharian

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