solving the “polygamy problem”?

it’s been pointed out — right here in the hbd-o-sphere! — that polygamy isn’t necessarily all that great for guys — specifically the ones that don’t manage to obtain a wife (’cause some other guys have married them all).

but i think that, at least in the muslim world in the middle ages, they may have gotten around that problem through divorce. divorce was, apparently, waaaay more common in the middle east during the medieval period than it is today. i’m thinking that such a system of, basically, continual wife (or husband depending on your pov) swapping might solve the “polygamy problem.”

here, from “Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society” [pgs. 2 & 5]:

“The pre-modern Middle East was another traditional society that had consistently high rates of divorce over long periods of time. Despite some current misgivings over the imminent disintegration of the Muslim family as a result of frequent divorces, the fact is that divorce rates were higher in Ottoman or medieval Muslim societies than they are today….

“The incidence of divorce in Mamluk society was remarkably high. The diary of the notary Shihab al-Din Ibn Tawq gives ample testimony to the pervasiveness of divorce in late fifteenth-centry Damascus, and the work of the contemporary Egyptian scholar Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sakhawi (d. 902/1497) does the same for Cairo. In his mammoth centennial biographical dictionary, containing 12,000 entries for notable men and women, al-Sakhawi recorded information on the marital history of about 500 women. This sample, the largest we have for any period of medieval Islam … shows a pattern of repeated divorces and remarriages by Mamluk women. At least a third of all the women mentioned by al-Sakhawi married more than once, with many marrying three times or more. The reason for the high rates of remarriage was mainly the frequency of divorce; according to al-Sakhawi’s records, three out of ten marriages in fifteenth-century Cairo ended in divorce.”

and on polygamous marriages [pg. 86]:

“Among the many unstable marriages in fifteenth-century Cairo, polygamous marriages stand out as particularly so. A married man would often choose to conceal a second marriage from the public eye in order to avoid trouble with his first wife. [heh. (~_^)] But when his first wife did find out, the man would often have to choose between the two. ‘Aziza bt. ‘Ali al-Zayyadi (d. 879/1475), the daughter of a Cairene scholar, married the Meccan scholar ‘Afif al-Din al-Iji when he visited Cairo. This marriage was kept secret from his first wife and paternal cousin, Habibat Allah bt. ‘Abd al-Rahman, who remained in Mecca. But when the Cairene wife accompanied her husband to Mecca, ‘Afif al-Din was forced to divorce her after pressure from the first wife. In other cases it was the second wife who gained the upper hand. Najm al-Din Ibn Hijji preferred not to consummate his marriage with his young bride and relative, Fatima bt. ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn al-Baizi (d. 899/1494), because he had married a second and more mature woman. Al-Sakhawi tells us that his second wife ‘took hold of his heart,’ and convinced him to divorce his cousin.”

maybe, if you keep enough women circulating in the “women-you-can-marry-pool,” you can get around the problem in polygamy that some men are cheated out of getting wives. you might get stuck with a second-hand wife (or two) — and maybe you don’t get her for keeps — but maybe you do get a chance to reproduce.

or, maybe, the alpha males just kept swapping all the wives between themselves. dunno.

as an aside, here’s some info from the same book on divorce rates in other, traditional societies [pg. 2]:

“[H]istorical examples of past societies in which divorce rates have been consistently high[:] Two major examples are pre-modern Japan and Islamic Southeast Asia. In nineteenth-century Japan at least one in eight marriages ended in divorce. In West Java and the Malay Peninsula divorce rates were even higer reaching 70 percent in some villages, as late as the middle of the twentieth century…. In direct opposition to developments in the West, modernity brought with it greater stability in marriage and a sharp decline in divorce rates.”

update 06/22: see also more on solving the “polygamy problem” and side-effects of polygamy in three african societies

(note: comments do not require an email. breaking up is hard to do!)

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8 Comments

  1. Not quite on topic, but this post underscores something funny about America’s past – the use of “religion” to mean “Christianity”, as in, “people with strong religious backgrounds are usually against divorce except in cases of extreme abuse or abandonment”.

    Reply

  2. “but i think that, at least in the muslim world in the middle ages, they may have gotten around that problem through divorce”

    If polygamous men were the wealthy ones then i’d have thought their ex-wives would circulate among the wealthy?

    Another possible response to the problem was slave-raiding for extra women.

    And for non-reproductive sex a toleration for http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11217772

    Reply

  3. @g.w. – “If polygamous men were the wealthy ones then i’d have thought their ex-wives would circulate among the wealthy?”

    yes, i was thinking that, too. however, i also wondered if maybe some of the divorced women might wind up remarrying down the social ladder.

    imagine a wealthy, polygamous man in medieval cairo who decides he wants a new, young wife, but he’s already got four so he’s gotta get rid of one. if he decides to get rid of, say, his 30 year-old wife (kinda old in reproductive terms), who’s gonna remarry her? another wealthy cairene guy? meh. but, maybe her poorer second-cousin once-removed who hasn’t managed to get himself any wife at all might pick her up. do her a favor since she’s family and all — and do himself a favor, too.

    just a thought.

    Reply

  4. I was under the impression that divorce in Muslim societies was a male prerogative and that wives could not initiate it. Am I (as usual) wrong? What was the deal in the other societies mentioned?

    Reply

  5. @bob – “I was under the impression that divorce in Muslim societies was a male prerogative and that wives could not initiate it.”

    that is principally correct, i do believe.

    however, rapoport (author of book i quoted from) described some cases in the medieval middle east where women apparently went to a sharia court to sue for divorce (or maybe annulment would be a better word) in certain instances — for example if her husband hadn’t paid her family whatever monies he had promised to pay them upon their marriage (i.e. bride price). often those debts were just overlooked by everyone involved, but sometimes a woman might use this as a sort-of technicality to get out of a marriage.

    i don’t know if this is still possible today, or how frequently it may have happened in the past or today (if it does happen today).

    otherwise, yes, divorce is pretty much only a male privilege in islam.

    @bob – “What was the deal in the other societies mentioned?”

    dunno, actually! but i’d like to learn more. that was just something from the introduction of the book — a way for the author to point out that divorce has been pretty common in many societies. he didn’t dwell on it tho (since his topic was the middle east in the medieval period).

    Reply

  6. hbdchick,
    “the divorced women might wind up remarrying down the social ladder.”

    Yes, except i was thinking the same as you that they might be a lot older on average and therefore their re-marriage wouldn’t neccessarily make much of a dent in the problem at a reproductive level. (I also wonder if a lot of the divorced wives were infertile?)

    Either way it would still partly solve the problem at the companion/status level.

    “speaking of which, did you see this the other week?:”

    Yes. Obviously a very traditionally minded and conservative lady :p

    Reply

  7. @g.w. – “Yes, except i was thinking the same as you that they might be a lot older on average and therefore their re-marriage wouldn’t neccessarily make much of a dent in the problem at a reproductive level.”

    good point!

    Reply

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