Polygamy, or polygyny if we want to be more precise, is the situation where a man can marry more than one woman. This has been an age-old Western polemic against Islam.
It’s argued that this practice highlights both:
- Islam’s penchant for “sensuality” (when they’re not feeling brave enough to openly say “sexual perversity”); and
- Islam’s supposed inherent misogyny, or “oppression of women.”
It was obvious that there’d be systemic responses from Muslims, including on MuslimSkeptic website. And many English-language books have been written too. One such book that we’d warmly recommend is From Monogamy to Polygyny by authors Umm AbdurRahman Hirschfelder and Umm Yasmeen Rahmaan.
What makes this book particularly interesting is that it’s written by two female authors who have an “insider’s view.” They present arguments rooted in the Qur’an, the Sunnah, the family life of the Prophet ﷺ and female psychology as well.
But in this article we’ll be taking a look to see if polygyny can be defended from outside a religious paradigm. And if some secular ideologies and worldviews can somehow “justify” it for the average Westerner.
What is Evolutionary Psychology?
Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach in the social sciences which looks at the human mind and behavior, and their adaptations through evolutionary biology and natural selection.
Obviously it is grounded in Darwinism as its name implies. Charles Darwin would lay down the foundations of the field in his 1871-book The Descent of Man, revolving around sexuality and mating, with discussions in fields such as aesthetics. These ideas were then championed and developed further by Geoffrey Miller in his 2003-book The Mating Mind.
It only became a sort of field of its own in 1975 with E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, where he began to apply the methodology to human traits. These are now the main talking points in evolutionary psychology literature, such as altruism. This Darwinian approach to human psychology was popularized among the masses with Robert Wright’s 1994-book Moral Animal.
The method has been critiqued, most famously by Stephen Jay Gould. His critique was generally centered around what they consider to be “genetic determinism.” Some of the most popular contemporary “intellectuals” are linked to this school of thought, such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt and many others.
RELATED: The Logical Fallacies of Evolution
These “intellectuals” often employ evolutionary psychology in order to belittle a religious understanding of faith, morality and other subjects which oppose a purely materialistic epistemology. However evolutionary psychology also has a lot to say about polygyny too, and its not exactly what many secular Western modernists would want to hear.
How Evolutionary Psychology Favors Polygyny
A.S. Amin, in his book Conflicts of Fitness (you can download the PDF on his website), tries to make sense of Islam’s positions on different topics related to sexuality and gender dynamics through evolutionary psychology. The first chapter of his book is dedicated to polygyny.
Focusing on animals that invest heavily in raising their young, different reproductive strategies between the genders are commonly observed. This difference results mainly from differing amounts of parental investment. To begin with, males’ sex cells are sperm, which can be produced in a nearly limitless supply at almost no cost. Conversely, females’ sex cells, eggs, are relatively small in number and non-replenishable, making them much more valuable. Furthermore, it is generally the female who must deal with the hardships of gestation, delivery, and oftentimes being the sole provider for her offspring. Contrast this with the male, whose investment is often limited to the sperm he uses to impregnate a female.
The reproductive patterns discussed above also have implications for human men and women. As with males of many other species, a man has a nearly limitless quantity of sperm that he could theoretically use to impregnate multiple women daily for as long as he lives. Therefore, a man’s reproductive fitness is maximized by having as many mates as possible. It is also ideal for him to offer as little in the way of commitment and resources as possible, as offering these things hampers his ability to attract other mates. Women, on the other hand, obtain no intrinsic benefit from being promiscuous. Whether a woman sleeps with one man or a hundred, she still can only get pregnant the same number of times. As with females of many other species, it behooves a woman to be choosy when selecting a mate, given the huge investment of time and energy she must make in order to raise a child.
So basically, due to their very biology and physiology, men are polygynous and women are hypergamous (“highly selective” in mating) in their reproductive strategies. It is thus literally “natural” for a man to want more than one partner.
The secularist would argue that mating doesn’t necessarily mean “marriage.” But A.S. Amin says that since the institution of marriage is universal, from an evolutionary psychology perspective it has its obvious “adaptive benefits.” Furthermore, he shows how there’s a “commitment” angle in these reproductive strategies, and how this can only occur via a form of group “recognition” or “legalization,” such as marriage. Otherwise men would never quite “settle down,” which would become dangerous for society due to other reasons.
A.S. Amin also shows how polygyny could fight poverty:
Polygyny may also bring about an economic benefit for society. Almost every society has a significant percentage of people who live in poverty. Minimizing poverty poses a particularly difficult problem for any society, regardless of its level of overall wealth. Part of this difficulty stems from the extremely limited benefit wealthy people obtain from helping people who probably will never be able to offer anything in return.
Polygyny enables a society to utilize a man’s desire to maximize his reproductive fitness to achieve a more balanced distribution of wealth. For example, a man who makes $500,000 a year can provide financially for ten women twice as well as a man making $25,000 can for just one woman. A small percentage of men have millions and even billions of dollars, enabling them to provide more for thousands of women than the average man can for just one. In a polygynous society, more women would have access to such wealth if they wanted.
Certainly secularists would love to fight poverty?
A.S. Amin also shows how polygyny is a universal practice among humans and even animals:
Islam may allow polygyny simply because humans are a polygynous species. More than 97 percent of mammals, the class of species that humans belong to, are polygynous (…) the anthropological record tells a similar tale; 85 percent of all studied cultures allow polygyny.
Secularists who love to use examples from the “animal kingdom” in order to push LGBTQ+ agendas should be coherent and favor polygyny as well then. Unless of course, they’re just your typical liberal hypocrites?
When Richard Dawkins Defended Polygyny
Earlier on, we mentioned Dawkins in passing. He’s the most famous of the “New Atheists” today. As a famous adherent of evolutionary psychology, for Dawkins human life revolves around gene transmission. What a wonderful outlook on our existence!
It seems that Dawkins actually embraces the natural conclusions of this worldview, and is thus in favor of polygyny.
In 1986 he wrote an article entitled “Wealth, polygyny, and reproductive success” for the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. We read on pp. 190-191:
Western society lives under a legally enforced system of monogamy, which seems to have its roots in Christianity. What if the mating system under which we mostly evolved was not monogamy but polygyny?
Polyandry, of course, is just as conceivable as polygyny and monogamy, but there are strong Darwinian reasons for regarding polygyny as far more likely, especially among mammals. If the sex ratio is equal the mean reproductive success of males and females must be equal, but the maximum reproductive success to which a male can aspire is far greater than the maximum to which a female can aspire (Trivers 1985). The number of off-spring a female mammal can bear is limited by the burden of gestation to something not far from the average, and in many species it is not improved by increasing the number of mates. The maximum number of children a male can hope to father is orders of magnitude higher, and under ideal conditions is proportional to the number of different females he can inseminate. It is therefore expected that, where there are adaptations for increasing the number of mates, these are most likely to be found in males.
How can we know whether our species evolved under conditions of monogamy or polygyny (or even polyandry)? Lacking a time machine, we must use clues from contemporary biology. First, we are mammals, and mammals, unlike birds, are nearly always polygynous. Second, of the human societies listed in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, fewer than 1/6 are monogamous by custom, and fewer than 1/200 are polyandrous (Daly & Wilson 1983). The majority are either normally polygynous or sometimes polygynous: The “aspiration” to polygyny, in the sense used above, is there. Third, we know from comparative surveys of mammals that certain morphological traits are correlated with degree of polygyny. For example, there is a good correlation among mammal species between degree of polygyny and degree of sexual dimorphism. Our own species’s sexual dimorphism falls on the graph in a position suggesting a moderate degree of polygyny (Alexander, Hoogland, Howard, Noonan & Sherman 1979).
Thank you Dawkins, for your arguments from the perspective of a Darwinian imam!
So Why Isn’t the West Polygynous?
The question that naturally arises after all of this is:
If polygyny is in fact a kind of universal human norm, then why isn’t the West promoting it as such?
Jack Goody is the late British anthropologist whose work against Eurocentrism is recommended reading. He said that in medieval Europe the Church banned cousin marriages for its own benefits. In a society where life expectancy was particularly low, having no heir meant that the property of the deceased would go to the dominant authority on the continent. And since the demise of Rome, this dominant authority was the Church. Through such schemes, the Church would end up controlling most of Europe’s arable land.
The Church didn’t only target cousin marriages though. It also made sure to destroy other interpersonal mechanisms that posed a direct economic threat to its potential monopolization project. This included adoption, remarriage and also polygyny.
In the fifth chapter of his 2020-book, The WEIRDest People in the World – an essential read – Harvard professor Joseph Henrich writes:
The Church, as noted above, undermined polygynous marriage as an heirship strategy not only by flatly banning additional wives of any kind but also by promoting the notion of illegitimacy. In pre-Christian Europe, various forms of polygynous unions were widespread, if we judge by the stream of concerns expressed by the bishops and missionaries who were working to stamp out the practice. Wealthy men could often take one primary wife and then add secondary wives.
The Church’s constraints on adoption, polygamy, and remarriage meant that lineages would eventually find themselves without heirs and die out. Under these constraints, many European dynasties died out for the lack of an heir. As with the MFP’s incest prohibitions, these extinctions benefited the Church by freeing people from the constraints of intensive kinship and generating a flow of wealth into Church coffers.
The Church has done a lot of damage to Europeans over the centuries for purely worldly benefits. This seems to be yet another such case. It destroyed the traditional European family unit for financial reasons.
As if imposing Shirk and launching Crusades wasn’t enough…
But the way, Europeans had actually resisted the Shirk belief in the Trinity due to their fitrah (primordial nature), and the societal élite often adopted Unitarianism (think of Isaac Newton).
Similarly, Europeans resisted the Church’s imposition of monogamy, and the élite of society often returned to polygyny. This was shown by Jan Rüdiger in his substantial 2020-study All the King’s Women.
As Muslims, we are under no requirement to follow the Church. Perhaps we should prefer the practice of the “Biblical prophets” that the Church supposedly respects.
Many of them had more than one wife.
Since evolutionary psychology and Darwinism has become a sort of religion for them, the contemporary Westerner – modernist and secularist – shouldn’t oppose polygyny either. Otherwise they’d only be exposing their inconsistency and their unprincipled approach towards their own fundamental dogmas.