Excerpted with permission from the Salt Lake Tribune.

Polygamy may be abhorrent to most Americans, but in many parts of the global community it is common, normal, and accepted.

Although the percentage of men in the world who have more than one wife is relatively small, as much as a third of the world's population belongs to a community that allows it, says Israeli anthropologist Joseph Ginat.

There are many plural marriages in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, said Ginat, professor of social and culture anthropology at the University of Haifa.

Many American Indian tribes allow polygamy; several experimental Christian groups practice it. And, of course, there are those famous offshoots of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Polygamy is the most prevalent in Muslim countries, and in communities that are more traditional and agrarian. For example, it is common and growing among the 180,000 Bedouin of Israel. It is also frequent among some Mediterranean Jews living in Yemen.

But having multiple wives and families requires money, so in each society that permits polygamy, only 10% to 25% of men actually practice it, and most have only two wives, Ginat said. The men most likely to be involved are those with the most economic resources and most status in the community.

Today, as many Muslims are leaving the village for the city and adopting urban lifestyles, plural marriage is declining. When money becomes the basis of an economy, or when nuclear families replace an extended family network, the practice declines.

"When I was growing up in Bangladesh, my grandfather had two wives," said Iqbal Hossain, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake City. "But now it is fast becoming a thing of the past."

History: Polygamy was an accepted practice among early Hebrews, including several revered biblical figures, such as Abraham, David, and Solomon.

Because the Bible never condemns the practice, no Jewish theologian opposed it publicly, Ginat said. Finally, in the 10th century, a rabbi named Gershom outlawed polygamy for 1,000 years, saying that Jews were persecuted by so many nations that allowing polygamy only made it worse.

Gershom probably thought of 1,000 years as an eternity, but that millennium ended in 1987, Ginat said.

However, Gershom was speaking only to Eastern European Jews (Ashkanazi). The Mediterranean (Sephardic) Jews continued to practice polygamy.

In Islam, a maximum of four wives is allowed by the Koran, the sacred writing of Islam's prophet Mohammed, under strict conditions.

"If you fear that you will not act justly towards the orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, three, four," says the Koran, "but if you fear you will not be equitable, then only one."

Mohammed had 10 wives and two concubines, according to Cyril Glasse in the Encyclopedia of Islam. He was married monogamously to his first wife, Khadijah, for 20 years, and she was the only one to bear him children. But after her death, he wed several widows and other women for the purpose of creating political alliances.

The Catholic Church frowned on the practice, but occasionally sanctioned second marriages of political leaders, said Ginat.

There was some experimentation with polygamy during the Middle Ages, Ginat wrote in his book, "Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society."

In the 1500s, Martin Luther tolerated polygamy in certain instances as a political necessity to "ensure the success of the Reformation," Ginat wrote. But he did not want it passed on to the Protestant masses.

Modern Israel: When Israel was established in 1948, the government prohibited polygamy. Those who already had several wives could bring them, but no new polygamous marriages could be formed.

However, in cases where a wife cannot bear children or is mentally ill, the rabbis can give a husband the right to marry a second woman without divorcing his first wife, Ginat said.

Despite the legal prohibitions, Israeli Bedouin, who are Muslims, continue to practice polygamy.

For the Bedouin, polygamy is "not a religious issue, it is power," said Ginat, who is studying the group's marital patterns. "The more children you have, the more power--and the more honor."

Muslim Nations: Polygamy is practiced openly in Jordan, Israel, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran, as well as some of the Muslim nations of North Africa--including Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, and Algeria.

These countries are made of mostly agricultural communities, where women are responsible for working the fields, while men work with the cattle.

The number of wives is "related to the amount of agricultural production a man can oversee," said the Rev. Patrick Gaffney, an Islamicist at the University of Notre Dame. "The more wives you have, the more productive the farm is."

Though their numbers are small, not all polygamists are premodern illiterate people. Some are teachers, doctors, or other professional men, Ginat said.

Some Muslim nations have tried to modernize their marital laws.

In the late 1970s, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat pushed through a law requiring a man to notify his wife before initiating divorce. Previously, many men wed second wives without telling their first wives, Gaffney said.

The law caused such a furor that when Hosni Mubarak became president, he rescinded it.

In Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, the founding president, issued a decree outlawing polygamy and based it on the Koran, Gaffney said. Bourguiba argued that because a man has to treat all his wives equally and no one can do that, the scripture "was really saying that everyone should have only one wife."

In some places, polygamy is a generational issue.

Until 1973, when oil prices quadrupled, the older patriarchs in the Gulf States were all polygamous. But their children--catapulted into modernism by new wealth--rejected the marriage patterns of their fathers, Gaffney said.

Polygamy vs. Christianity: Most Christian churches, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, require a convert to have only one wife before he can be baptized.

For Catholics, the "rule is clear," said Gaffney, "but the way it is applied ends up with a lot of exceptions.... The finessing of reality in the name of ideology was a fairly common way of getting around intractable problems."

The Anglicans have been debating the issue of African polygamy since 1888, when Anglican bishops meeting in London for their once-a-decade Lambeth Conference passed a resolution saying that polygamous men should not be baptized but "kept under Christian tutelage until such time as they shall be in position to accept the law of Christ."

Eighty years later, the bishops were still debating.

In 1968, one African bishop hoped for more practical advice to the problem of polygamy. One asked why Western society forbids "simultaneous polygamy," while permitting "consecutive polygamy." At the meeting they discussed the fact that requiring men to leave polygamous marriages "caused great suffering and great disruption to many."

A couple years ago, an African Anglican archbishop from Cape Town raised the issue again, saying that "polygamy in parts of Africa genuinely has features of both faithfulness and righteousness."

American Indians: Polygamy was widespread among American Indian tribes, said Patricia Albers, chairman of American Indian studies at the University of Minneapolis.

In many American Indian tribes, polygamy "was not a sign of subordinate position," Albers said. "It occurred where women stood on fairly equal footing with the men in their communities."

Many tribes expected women to have responsibility, not only for her own children, but for those of her sisters as well.

That could be one reason why the most common type of polygamy practiced by American Indians was sororal polygamy, or two sisters married to the same man.

If a woman's husband died, it was not uncommon for her to then marry her sister's husband, Albers said. It was a way of "melding family units."

Marrying a set of sisters also was fairly frequent among 19th-century Mormon polygamists. But it is the only aspect of polygamy expressly forbidden in the Bible and Islamic law. Although early patriarchs such as Jacob married sisters, it was outlawed after the Mosaic law was established.

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