Not Just a (Fundamentalist) Mormon Thing
May 29, 2008 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Plural marriage, less publicized, in other faiths: polygamy among Black Muslims in Philadelphia; Rastafarianism; Judaism. Polyandry in Tibetan Buddhism.

Polyandry, of course, is the practice of a wife having multiple husbands.
posted by msalt (30 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure that it's altogether fair to try and generalize this practice as you have. While I completely agree that polygamy, broadly defined, is present in many different faith traditions, I think saying it's "not just a fundamentalist mormon thing" sounds like some wide editorializing to me. The "fundamentalist mormon thing" also included forcing young girls to marry much older men against their will.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 5:16 PM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

The "fundamentalist mormon thing" also included forcing young girls to marry much older men against their will.

I would believe that this is also an extremely common cultural practice. This isn't editorializing; it's exploring one way that the concept of the family unit varies around the world.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:21 PM on May 29, 2008

Yes, I believe NAMBLA explores that too. . .
posted by flotson at 5:27 PM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, I didn't know that Rastas or modern American Muslims practiced polygamy, so this was informative. I say "American" because "Black Muslims", as I understand it, generally refers to the NOI, Nation of Gods and Earths, etc., and these people sound like traditional Sunni Muslims who weren't necessarily raised in the faith and aren't from a predominately Islamic culture, and are also black.
posted by DecemberBoy at 5:33 PM on May 29, 2008

Yeah, gotta say, your choice of a post title is unfortunate. Just about anyone and everyone knows it's far from "Just a (Fundamentalist) Mormon Thing". Very common in various African societies, for example. My drum teacher in Nigeria (I was there for some months in 1981) had five wives. They all sang in his group, and many of his children sang and/or drummed in the group as well.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:39 PM on May 29, 2008

Pedantry: You seem to imply that polygamy is having multiple wives, polyandry multiple husbands. Polygyny is the precise name for one man having multiple female partners. Polygamy refers to any mix of multiple partners, not just one-man-many-women.
posted by agentofselection at 5:42 PM on May 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

What the robot said. In case anyone wonders, I find the FLDS polygamy abhorrent, was surprised myself to find out that it's current in Philadelphia (NPR story today), and researched for other links before posting. I knew about the Tibetan polyandry from travels in Ladakh.
posted by msalt at 5:45 PM on May 29, 2008

Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, also practiced polyandry.
posted by Brian B. at 5:58 PM on May 29, 2008

I'm open to a better title, and I'm pretty sure a mod would accommodate that, but I'm drawing a blank. "Not just a (fundamentalist) Mormon or (traditional) Muslim Thing" seems worse.
posted by msalt at 6:00 PM on May 29, 2008

The Black Hebrews are a distinct religious community only tangentially related to Judaism.
posted by kickingtheground at 6:03 PM on May 29, 2008

"Not just a (fundamentalist) Mormon or (traditional) Muslim Thing" seems worse.

Heh heh, yeah, there's just too many categories you'd have to include there, msalt! The Africans I mentioned upthread, for example, aren't Muslim, their beliefs are what are generally termed "animist", that is, practitioners of traditional African religion.

Maybe you could go for a jokier angle in your post title, like, (think Rodney Dangerfield here):

Take my wives, please!"
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:10 PM on May 29, 2008

It's very difficult to say how widespread problems like polygamy and domestic violence are in Philadelphia's black Muslim community because those communities are so isolated, I mean there's a thirty plus year separatist cultural heritage there that unfortunately just like other isolated fundamentalist religious sects has bred some aberrant customs. But it's really important to try to stick to what is known, which is very little, and stereotypes that are really common in the black community here regarding the backwardness of black Muslim culture aren't productive, nor are they likely very accurate.

I posted a project a while back about a rare sit down discussion with some of these dudes about politics. I think they only went forward with the story because I wore down their suspicion about my motives by explaining that I spent a lot of time in their community as a social worker and even helped one of their Masjid members find housing when she was about to wind up in the streets. What I found, which is at odds with the headline of the NPR story that claims black Muslims are increasingly turning to polygamy (there's no way they have any numbers on this, they just don't exist) is that these group are actually trending towards moderation in their messages because the socioeconomic benefits of engaging in the larger community are overwhelming at this point. This Masjid NPR went to, from which they formulated their claim that there is a trend at work here, is not a major Philadelphia Masjid. The Germantown Masjid that I worked with is a major, major black Masjid and they are really trying to increase their civic engagement. Increasing your groups participation in polygamy is a way to guarantee that you will never reap the economic benefits of mainstream religious groups. I can't imagine that the larger Masjids which are in the midst of major community development projects are actually encouraging it with a hope of seeing an increase in polygamy in their community.

I also did a pretty lengthy editorial that sums up a lot of the aforementioned stereotypes that prevail about black Muslims within the black community. I wrote this after two black Muslim men were involved in a recent cop killing, after which the allegations of black Masjids being organized crime fronts and whatnot was kind of reaching a fever pitch.

The Masjid I worked with is producing a documentary about their cultural heritage and history, they told me they would get back at me when it was finished to do a story on it and I hope they do, I think it would make for a very interesting article.
posted by The Straightener at 6:52 PM on May 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't think the post title is so unfortunate. I may be wrong here, but I feel the title is apropos, because the most base, common stereotype (or schema) many have for "polygamist" is associated with fundamentalist mormons. Which leads right into the point of the FPP.

The opening line of the first link: "Polygamy in the U.S. is not limited to remote enclaves in the West or breakaway sects once affiliated with the Mormon Church."

From the first line of the third link: "When you think of polygamy, you tend to think: Utah. Well, think again."

I guess I don't understand what the offense is.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:59 PM on May 29, 2008

Recent article about polygamy in Canada.
posted by Krrrlson at 7:03 PM on May 29, 2008

I just don't understand the plural marriage thing at all, I suppose I'm just selfish.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:17 PM on May 29, 2008

I guess I don't understand what the offense is.

For the record, I don't think it's such a huge offense, really, but you'll note that the OP didn't confine himself to US examples in the FPP. Had it been clear that the post was only about polygamy in the United States, then the post title might've been more appropriate. But, as has been pointed out, polygamy is a worldwide phenomenon, and to indicate, as the post title did, that it ain't just the Mormons... well, just doesn't quite fly, does it? I'd respectfully say, iamkimiam, that your thinking here, and the thinking of lines from the article that you quoted, like "When you think of polygamy, you tend to think: Utah." are rather US-centric. Personally, for example, when I think of polygamy, I don't tend to think "Utah". As it happens, I tend to think "Africa".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:21 PM on May 29, 2008

As a catholic, when I hear polygamy, I think of the Old Testament first, then the practice of keeping a wife and a mistress (or several) by priests in the mid-1300s or so, then about victorian England, then about Africa, Islam and some polyenesian cultures, then lastly about those mormons in the US.

And then I think about gay marriage, and what a mess polygamy would be for the modern law setup, and isn't it sad that some people can't marry who they love, as consenting adults.
posted by ysabet at 10:15 PM on May 29, 2008

Woo hoo! I'm becoming a Tibetan Buddhist!

...oh wait. Never mind. That just means multiple men who'll forget to take out the trash. ;)
posted by at 8:50 AM on May 30, 2008

The way I heard polyandry explained in Ladakh was that the oldest son in a family inherited the land, the second son went to the army, the third became a lama, and any subsequent sons married the first son's wife too and lived with them, as a method of population control and not breaking up farms. I have no idea how accurate that was.
posted by msalt at 9:24 AM on May 30, 2008

Brian B.'s link is not entirely accurate. Regarding its form, read 'sealed' for 'seated'. Regarding its content, note that (a) although there is a form of temple marriage for time, speaking of it as 'sealing' is extremely unusual, and (b) distinction must be drawn between early Mormon marriages and sealings, and between those sealings that were intended to produce an earthly, civil marriage relationship and those that were intended to be effective solely in eternity. The second sort commonly arose when one partner in a civil marriage became convinced of the 1843 revelation that sealing was essential for one's eternal fate, and the other partner did not (may not have ever joined the church at all, and indeed may not have been around after the church's migrations). If you believed such a thing, and had poor prospects of being sealed to your spouse, it's understandable that you would be sealed to a third party without intent to cohabit, as a fallback position. And even when both spouses were church members, sometimes it was felt that a person was in line for a better afterlife by being sealed to a prophet or apostle, and the present sentiment and policy that sealing and marriage should align had not yet coalesced. (So many things had changed when Mormonism appeared, it was awfully difficult to guess what would remain the same.)

Moving into murkier waters. There were also cases where a woman already married under civil authority was married to another man under church authority, but only for time. I don't know much about family law in XIX frontier states (there was not yet federal law against polygamy), or about popular understanding of said family law, so I can't say much about many of these cases. (Even before you introduce the Mormon factor, there's a certain amount of craziness inherent in the fact that federalism was new and in the disruptive lifestyle of the frontier; if two people were married in one jurisdiction, cohabited in another, then separated and went to live in a third and fourth, and if some of those jurisdictions had laws terminating marriage by desertion and others didn't, or required a longer term to take effect, then determining their legal status could easily take time they didn't have, assuming that either party cared or had reliable information about it. It was a mess, and lots of people in simpler situations just said "Screw it, they're not around, I'm remarrying." A non-Mormon example is Seattle founder Doc Maynard.) It may be that some of the remarriages of married people were based on the understanding that the former civil marriage was no longer effective. It may be that some of them were based on disregard for various states' authority, insofar as these states had not done terribly well by the Mormons, there were prophecies of the end of civil authority in general and particularly in western Missouri, and there was an apocalyptic mood that suggested such an end was at hand. These cases deserve individual study for which I am not now equipped.

Among these, though, it's also worth noting the cases where a woman continued living with her civil spouse even though she was, in the church's eyes, also married to another man for time. I suspect that this was meant as a fallback as well; being sealed might have been a spiritual necessity, but having a spouse was also a practical near-necessity, given the specialization of labor between the sexes in XIX America (itself a reasonable response to the amount of work that needed to be done and the cost of acquiring skills). It's possible this is what they were thinking: "Well, she is married to this man under authority of the state or territory; but he has no great affiliation to the church, and supposing he won't have her, or won't let her practice her religion. Shall she be left alone to struggle? But we are going to an ungoverned place, where God's shall be the only authority"—the United States did not formally catch up to the Mormons until the Mexican Cession in 1848, and the whole Constitution not until 1850—"so let us give her a marriage that God's authority will recognize, so she can get right to business if it comes to that." Further complicating matters was the growing understanding that such church marriages needed to be performed in a consecrated space (a temple), and the increasing likelihood that the Nauvoo temple would soon fall out of their hands (it was in service for less than a year, 1845-46), and might not soon be replaced (the next temple dedicated was in 1877). So there was certainly some pressure to get while the getting was good, and sort it all out later.

All of this the above link simply lumps together under 'polyandrous marriage' (which I find irresponsible), together with cases where if you check the dates, the preceding husband was dead (which I find deceptive). It's quite the cherry-picking act: They accept the Mormon understanding of marriage by divine authority and mistakenly take sealing as an equivalent notion to marriage in order to maximize reports of simultaneous marriage; but if the authority was there, the marriage was fine, and if it was absent, much of what they report simply wasn't marriage (whether by statutory law or common). I can't say I'm impressed with that. But the dates and names look accurate, and it is an intriguing window into some dramatic lives. Just don't take it all at face value.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to read about Muslim polygamy in Philadelphia.

posted by eritain at 3:10 PM on May 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wow. That was cool enough to deserve full size type, I daresay.

Damned youngun's and yer sharp young eyes
posted by msalt at 9:03 PM on May 30, 2008

Just chiming in that "Black Muslim" isn't a very useful term because there is it could apply to both NOI and sunni blackamerican muslims, two very very different groups. Blackamerican sunni muslims way outnumber NOI in the US, but the term "Black Muslim" calls up NOI images in most people's mind.
posted by BinGregory at 3:24 AM on May 31, 2008

Polygamy amongst American muslims is a regular and hotly-debated topic in the muslim blogosphere, along with marriage and divorce issues more generally. You could browse the archives of Tariq Nelson to get a taste.
posted by BinGregory at 4:13 AM on May 31, 2008

Thanks for that link, BinGregory, I will check that out. I do understand your differentiating between NOI and black American Sunnis (the group I talked with was the latter) but I just want to say for the record that the "black Muslim" differentiation when I use it is meant to refer more broadly to black American converts who generally came to the religion later in life as opposed to black African Muslim immigrants that also live in Philadelphia. The first question I asked the Masjid leaders I talked to was what percentage of their congregation was American converts to the religion and they told me it was an overwhelming majority. They also stressed that they feel this is an important part of their identity because of the special concerns their neighborhood faces as opposed to the immigrant Muslim population in Philadelphia, which tends to be better off socioeconomically. They pretty clearly feel that Islam can solve he unique problems of the black community, hence his proclamation, "It all starts with teaching these people out here who their Lord is."

There are black American Muslim converts in Philadelphia who belong to more mainstream Masjids with a broader base of followers (Al Aqsa is probably the most prominent of these), but I feel like these are in the minority probably for reasons related to the larger Muslim community's perception of black converts. I'm not entirely certain how Philadelphia's Muslim-born immigrant population feels about Philadelphia's black Muslims. I don't know whether they fully accept the converts or not; considering that many black American Muslims in Philadelphia are still very much involved in criminal lifestyles, I would venture to say that the relationship between the two groups is probably a little guarded.

Nonetheless, you're distinction is important and I will try to remember to include that in any other articles I write about these groups.
posted by The Straightener at 5:31 AM on May 31, 2008

black American converts who generally came to the religion later in life as opposed to black African Muslim immigrants

I like Prof Sherman Jackson's term blackamerican, which he uses to differentiate between American-origin black people and immigrants from Africa. His book Islam and the Blackamerican is very good. You might appreciate the sections dealing with the relationships between blackamerican muslims and the other muslim communities in America.

considering that many black American Muslims in Philadelphia are still very much involved in criminal lifestyles

Whether or not that's true, and it's a strong statement to make, it's hardly necessary to explain why relationships with immigrant communities are strained. Every immigrant group for the last hundred and fifty years has made good in the US by keeping their distance from the blackamerican community.

Another point worth making here is that it is not really all that true anymore that blackamericans = converts. There are plenty of second- and even third-generation blackamerican muslim adults walking around already.
posted by BinGregory at 7:11 AM on May 31, 2008

Whether or not that's true, and it's a strong statement to make, it's hardly necessary to explain why relationships with immigrant communities are strained. Every immigrant group for the last hundred and fifty years has made good in the US by keeping their distance from the blackamerican community.

I don't think it's very controversial to lay out there that a lot of Philly's black Muslims are still hustlers, still getting high, still treating women in ways I wouldn't necessarily consider respectful. This is part of the black Muslim narrative right now, there's a lot of young men out there looking for some kind of direction or identity that are latching onto Islam, but at the same time aren't quite ready to give up the aspects of their pre-Muslim life that come with urban poverty. If you take a look at this other project I'm working on right now that focuses on urban homicide, you'll see a lot of Muslims up in this mix of drugs, money and guns. This installment focuses on a young Muslim man who clearly had one foot in the hustler's world and one in the Mosque. In fact, there's the "on your deen" phrase these guys use amongst themselves to qualify exactly how good a Muslim they are being at any given moment, because they go through cycles of adherence and falling away from their religion and back into street life.

A number of years back I went to rehab and was bunked up with a bunch of Muslim dudes for a whole month, so I saw how they struggled with the lure of street life; the promise of fast money, women and neighborhood status versus what they intrinsically knew was a more meaningful existence as a devout Muslim who obeys the tenets of his faith. They were very devout during the time they were in the facility, praying five times a day, passing over the pork dishes the rehab served, reading the Koran, etc.

However, they themselves would also admit to me that they had been here before; they had got on their deen in jail, in rehabs, but when they got back on the streets and had their boys hollering at them from the corner, offering packages to sell to pull a quick couple grand together, girls wanting to trade sexual favors for drugs and money, etc., they fell back. The Germantown Masjid guys I spoke with addressed all these temptations in a vacuum of social resources as sort of the crux of their unique situation compared to other Muslim immigrants.

However, there is a difference between honestly acknowledging these realities of the black Muslim struggle in poor cities like Philly and perpetuating stereotypes, which as I mentioned are largely perpetuated within the black community by non-Muslim blacks. The stereotype goes something like this, and bear with me because I know this is ugly, but this is the kind of stuff you hear on street corners:

Brother Saheed doesn't like to work because it interrupts his daily blunt smoking regimen. Since Saheed can't work, his girlfriend does. However, girlfriend only makes minimum wage and Saheed likes to wear True Religion jeans, so Saheed took another girlfriend, which he feels entitled to as a Muslim. Saheed concludes that since two girlfriends are good, four must be awesome, and now that he has four girlfriends his crib is done up real nice with a new flat screen that he can watch between runs out to the curb to sell what he doesn't smoke. Oh yeah, when Saheed's women beef with him about not working and spending all their money, he beats on them until they get back in line.

People who perpetuate these ideas think the black Muslim community is secretive because they're trying to hide this ugly underside of their backwards culture. Perhaps the black Muslim community is in part so secretive because these are the kind of judgments they face from the black community, let alone the white community. I wish people would stick to what's known, which I understand is hard because we don't know much about the black Muslim world. Some people don't understand that by perpetuating these stereotypes and constantly insinuating in the media that there's more that meet the eye, and what we don't know MUST be scandalously bad (which is almost exclusively how the Philadelphia newspapers portray them), they are reinforcing the sense among black Muslims that the larger world is dangerous, is an adversary, and should be avoided at all costs. That's really unfortunate, because I think Islam is a powerful and tremendously positive force in the black community that should be drawn towards the religious mainstream as much as possible, regardless of whether neophyte converts are able to quickly and entirely shed all of their previous negative behavior patterns.
posted by The Straightener at 9:25 AM on May 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

Forgive my ignorance, but I didn't realize the Nation of Islam was not Sunni. Are they considered Shia? Or are they just orthogonal to all that?
posted by msalt at 12:05 PM on May 31, 2008

regardless of whether neophyte converts are able to quickly and entirely shed all of their previous negative behavior patterns.

Fantastic comment, The Straightener. Yes, that goes on. Another recommendation for further reading would be The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Dawah. That's a nine-part series - the link is to the final installment.

msalt - The NOI is not sunni or shia. They arose in the US with almost zero connection to the worldwide Islamic tradition. Many blackamerican muslims don't consider them muslim at all, what to speak of immigrant communities, though I don't think it is productive to treat them that way. You might call them crypto-muslim or proto-muslim or something, I don't know. Read Prof Jackson's book!

Also, I'm not derailing: the two links I just posted talk lots about polygamy.
posted by BinGregory at 6:33 PM on May 31, 2008

No worries about derailing, whether polygamy's discussed or not. This is fascinating stuff.

Would it be a stretch to say that the NOI is to world Islam as the Mormons are to Christianity? And is there polygamy within the Nation of Islam? On rereading the NPR story I noticed they kept referring to "orthodox" Islam, which I assume means Blackamerican (Sunni) Islam. Final ignorant question: is there any significant Shia community in the U.S.? The assumption seems to be Sunni. Thanks!
posted by msalt at 1:08 AM on June 1, 2008

There aren't very good numbers on the muslim population in the US, but it is fair to assume the percentage of shia in the US is roughly their percentage in the muslim world as a whole, which is what, 10% or so? Something like that. In areas with many shia, there are shia masjids. The largest mosque in the US, which is in Dearborn, Michigan, is shia. In other parts of the country, they pray in the same mosques.

NOI is to Islam what Mormons are to Christianity? Yeah, I suppose that's reasonable, as far as it goes. What is interesting is that Elijah Muhammad, the founder of NOI, gave his son WD Muhammad a sunni islamic education. After his father's death, he announced that everybody should move to sunni islam. The majority of the Nation did so - only one junior preacher decided to keep the NOI as the NOI: that was Louis Farrakhan. So the graybeards in the blackamerican muslim community are in the main former NOI people, though that is not true of the younger generation. There was significant bad blood after that between NOI and blackamerican sunni muslims for a while after that. Relations still aren't that great, but there have been many attempts at bridging the divide, mainly in the form of NOI modifying their theology to make it more in line with traditional islam. For example, the declaration of NOI faith used to be, There is no God but Allah and Elijah Muhammad is his messenger, which is an unacceptable corruption of the Islamic testimony of faith. This has since been modified to, "No God but Allah, Elijah Muhammad is the servant of Allah" or some similarly non-prophetic title, I don't remember for sure. Most recently there was a unity prayer service with Siraj Wahhaj leading the Islamic friday prayers in front of a congregation of NOI people. Imam Siraj Wahhaj is a former NOI, now sunni muslim imam. Farrakhan continues to adjust their theology, so maybe one day the NOI will be fully in the fold and the rift will be healed. I could scrounge up links on this stuff if anybody's really interested.

I don't know what the NOI's stance is on polygamy, sorry. Yeah, the NPR story was about sunni muslims.
posted by BinGregory at 3:58 AM on June 1, 2008

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