CWA: Two interesting perspectives on Islam and polygamy

CWA is the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Now in it's 63rd year, the conference brings together scientists, politicians, activists, journalists, artists, and more for a week of fascinating conversations. It's free, and open to the public. Think of CWA as the democratic version of TEDtalks. I'm at the conference all this week and will be posting and tweeting about some of the interesting things that I learn.


On Tuesday at the Conference on World Affairs, I watched a panel about Sharia Law. I'm indulging my inner cultural anthropologist and trying to attend panels outside my areas of work. (Also, I keep ending up speaking on panels during the same time slot as the science-centric panels I'd like to watch.)

The three speakers—Tricia DeGennaro, a political scientist and mid-east expert with the World Policy Institute; Pakistani geopolitics researcher Azmat Hassan; and Oberlin College Islamic studies professor Mohammad Mahallati—all focused on the aspects of Sharia Law that aren't well-understood or talked about in the West.

Namely, the fact that Sharia Law isn't really one monolithic thing. What the concept of "Sharia" means, what the laws are, who practices it, even whether it's enshrined in civil law at all, or simply followed on a personal household-by-household basis—the speakers said it all varies from place to place and from time period to time period.

In modern Iran, women are stoned to death in the name of Sharia Law. But the same law was responsible for granting women rights that were, in historic times, unprecedented—such as the right to own property. In one place, Sharia Law are government-mandated policies that restrict personal freedom. In another place, Sharia has nothing to with the government, and is about how individuals choose to define their relationship with their god. There's a lot of irony here. And a lot of contradictory beliefs about what Sharia Law is, which, primarily, boil down to differences in local culture and context.

One part of Sharia Law that you're probably familiar with—it allows a Muslim man to have up to four wives. Azmat Hassan and Mohammad Mahallati offered two different ideas of what this law really means. The differences between their interpretations—and between the way most Westerners understand it—are a great example of how diverse Sharia really is.

According to Azmat Hassan, the provision for polygamy is really more of an ethical lesson—almost a non-narrative fable—than a law. Sharia Law says a Muslim man can have four wives, but it comes with conditions. You can have four wives IF you love, care for, and treat them all equally. Up to, and including, having houses for each of them.

The Koran is trying to make a point here, Hassan says, and it's not that having four wives is awesome. Instead, you're to understand that it's impossible to be that fair to multiple spouses at once, and thus, understand why you should only have one. This interpretation is common, he says. In fact, he claims it's a big part of why polygamy isn't particularly popular in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Mahallati came at the polygamy law from a different angle. He talked about the historical context—why the law was written to begin with, and what it probably meant to the people who first read it.

When the Koran gives thumbs up to polygamy, he says, it's in the context of talking about how the community should care for widows and orphans. In a world where it was difficult for a woman to provide for herself—and where there were no formal social programs to fall back on—encouraging financially stable men to protect widows and orphans through marriage made sense.