Bangsa Moro, Newspaper article, socio-cultural

Of Sheikhs and Harems: Polygamy in Islam

On February 12, 2000, my article on harems and polygamy in Islam was published at The Philippine Post. I wrote it for the Valentine season. The year after, I was informed that two of my articles Of Sheikhs and Harems: Polygamy in Islam and Once Upon A Time: Sarangany Island were two of the 7 (Seven) Finalists in the Manila Rotary Club’s Gawad Kalinangan Journalism Awards 2001. Eventually, the Sarangany article was declared one of the three winners.

I uploaded this article in my various websites. In 2007, I uploaded this in my blog Reflections on the Bangsa Moro. A few years later, that blog was lost because the host,, closed shop. I thought it was a solid small Irish tech enterprise. I suppose it was bought out, as most small successful tech companies were.

I thought I had uploaded it to one of my other blogs. But I couldn’t find it now. So I’m re-blogging it. The article is timeless.

Here it is:

The Orientalists’ (so-called experts in Middle Eastern/Asian Affairs) description of sultans and sheikhs having a roomful of women as their wives has been inculcated in the minds of non-Muslims the world over. This room or house sheltering the women-wives is supposed to be called “harem”. Actually, “harem” is a corrupted form of “haram”, which means forbidden. A room or house full of Muslim women is naturally secluded from strangers. Strangers are forbidden to enter such a place.

This “Arabian Nights” concept of a harem is the reason that I have an Ilocano great-grandfather. After the surrender of Aguinaldo, Mariano Peralta left the Katipunan to join the US Army as a volunteer. He joined the group of Lt. Bolton, who was on his way to “pacify” Davao and assume the governorship of the province. On the way to Davao, they passed by the Sultanate of Buayan. And in the principality of Koronadal, they were the guests of the local royalty. The young soldiers were intrigued by a big house that did not admit any male guests. They all concluded that it must be the harem. And of course, the Ilocano wanted to show off to his American friends. At nightfall, he made his way up to the roof. And as fate would have it, part of the roof caved in and down came Mariano. The house belonged to my great-grandmother, a Buayanen princess who happened to be a young widow.

That almost started a new war front for the Americans. Lt. Edward Bolton vouched for Mariano. By Moro customary law, there were only two possible alternatives — death or marriage. The Buayenen datus demanded immediate death for the brazen stranger. But my great-grandfather must have been handsome because my great-grandmother decided to spare his life and marry him instead. And so Mariano converted to Islam and found out that the harem and Islamic polygamy are found mostly in books.

Strictly speaking, Islam espouses monogamy and not polygamy. The Qur’an says: “If you fear lest you may not be perfectly equitable in treating more than one wife, then you shall be content with one.” (4:3) It also says that “You cannot be equitable in a polygamous relationship, no matter how hard you try.” (4:129)

During the early years of Islam, many Muslims died in the war against the pagans thus leaving quite a number of widows and orphans. Moreover, there were quite a number of women prisoners. Because of this, marrying more than one wife was allowed so that these women would not become destitute. Instead, they would be given respectability.

Contrary to popular opinion, the prophet Muhammad was not a womanizer. He was married at the age of 25 to Khadijah and remained married only to her until her death 25 years later. It was only three years after her death that he remarried — for humanitarian and political reasons. Most of his wives were widows and old maids left by his followers who died fighting for the Islamic Cause.

In Mindanao, as everywhere else in the Muslim world, polygamy has always been practiced although not by the majority. My father, who was married in 1936, was monogamous. And so was his father and uncles. In my family circle, a great majority is monogamous.

Muslim women have so many civil rights that it is inconceivable for them to choose to remain married to a polygamous man if they do not want to. There is always the option of divorce. A woman’s property remains with her even after marriage. There is also a dowry which is supposed to insure that in case of divorce, she has something to fall back on. And a man cannot simply take a second wife for reasons of lust. There must be grounds for it such as the barrenness of the wife. And especially in Moro culture, the first wife must agree to it.

Petitions for divorce must also be based on valid grounds. The Orientalist myth that a Muslim man would simply have to say “I divorce thee” three times for a divorce to be valid is nothing but a myth. But in a sense it could be true because a Muslim woman, especially with wealth and stature, would not even wait for the second “I divorce thee”. She would ask for the divorce proceedings herself. If she were blameless, most if not all of the husband’s properties would be given to her.

Abandonment by the husband, a crime quite rampant in Manila and the West, carries very heavy punishment in Moro customary law. It is punishable by death.

Nowadays, I notice a rather strange phenomenon in Filipino Muslim-Christian relationship. I have met quite a number of Moros who have 2 or more wives. Surprisingly, these wives are Christians who converted to Islam. It is quite easy to spot them. They are usually covered from head to foot, are rather timid and walk a few paces behind their husbands. Moro wives are anything but timid and usually walk in front of their husbands. I wonder what mumbo jumbo these Moro guys tell these Christian lasses for them to be such submissive wives.

On the other hand, married Christian men are converting to Islam in order to marry their mistresses, without divorcing their wives. Again, I wonder what mumbo jumbo these guys tell their wives. This practice is sanctioned neither by Islamic nor civil law. I asked my relatives who are lawyers and they told me that the lawful wives could sue for bigamy, adultery and concubinage.

So for Christian-turned-Muslim guys currently enjoying the best of both worlds (the wife’s and the mistress’s), beware. Your Christian wives might just meet a friendly neighborhood Moro lawyer and decide to bring you to court.


Published in The Philippine Post. 12 February 2000.  One of the 7 (Seven) Finalists in the Manila Rotary Club’s Gawad Kalinangan Journalism Awards 2001.

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