Polygyny

What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Debra Majeed
  • Gainesville, FL: 
    University Press of Florida
    , June
     2015.
     192 pages.
     $74.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780813060774.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Some would ask, strictly given the title of this book, if polygyny is now on the road toward being added to the lists of various kinds of sexuality claims of liberation and identity present today. A man moving between two households was even the central feature of several Perry Mason episodes in the 1950s. Discussions around polygyny have been in religious literature since scholars began to write on the Mormons in the early 20th century, and before that in the 1970s in anthropological writings on West Africa. That women would voluntarily enter into this marital and sexual arrangement is also not new. Certainly the practice of polygyny is not new to the discussion of women in Muslim societies. What is new in this book? In six chapters, Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands contextualizes this practice in the African-American community and history along with its place in the African American Muslim community. Through interviews with women and their families, Debra Majeed is introducing a Muslim womanist perspective along with an African American historical perspective to the topic of polygyny. Her primary objective is to document the phenomenon of polygyny in Imam Warith Deen Muhammad’s communities, to encourage further dialogue along with dispelling some myths about polygyny, and to promote “authority of experience as a form of Qur’ānically approved liberation” (p. 9) that must be utilized if healthy family and community are to be sustained.

After compiling the results of ten years of research, and fighting off attempts to persuade her not to write about this controversial and very sensitive topic, Majeed has given us a compelling narrative. Interviewees were put into three categories: polygyny by choice, polygyny of liberation, and polygyny of coercion. Given that Muslim communities in association with Imam Warith Deen Muhammad’s teachings are largely closed communities, readers might want to further interrogate where there could be actual liberation associated with polygyny when choices are limited for unmarried women, especially those who are new or second generation. Nevertheless, as Majeed asserts, it is the experience of the women which precludes these discussions. Also, Professor Majeed details a fascinating review of Warith Deen Muhammad’s advocating of polygyny in his communities and his participation in the reinterpretation.

As an Islamic studies scholar, I have difficulty seeing this marital arrangement as other than what the Qur’ān gives permission for in the circumstances of orphans (defined broadly). This innovation regarding the Qur’ānic mandate is intriguing. Circumstances cannot change the text but certainly can change interpretations and extensions of meanings to serve communal desires. Flyers and conferences in these communities, which promote polygyny as a healthy lifestyle, are concerning and clearly promote male privilege in religious guise. But the emphasis on “experience” in the lives of women must give one pause.

What I found most intriguing was the assertion of a Muslim womanist perspective, since this perspective has had a difficult time finding its place in what most would claim as a subcategory of feminism. Since it's coining by Alice Walker, a few African American women scholars have attempted to define it, or at least to put more “meat on its bones.” Clearly for Majeed, a womanist perspective seeks to make a link between “intellectual explorations” and “practical application that can benefit the communities and subjects I study” (p. 133) She sees this as a way to “give back” to the families that have shared their intimate lives with her as a researcher. I applaud this more definitive definition of womanist perspectives, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the results of Majeed’s labors, getting an inside view into the lives of the women chronicled in her book. I think students will benefit tremendously as Majeed’s text does indeed dispel myths and at the same time provokes thought and questions. This is a well-conceived and written text that hopefully will, as Majeed desires, open dialogue.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aminah (McCloud) Al-Deen is Professor of Religious Studies and Islamic World Studies at DePaul University.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Debra Majeed is professor of religious studies at Beloit College.

Keywords: 

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments