Al-Azhar grand imam sparks polygamy rethink

Judging from Tayeb’s comments, al-Azhar appears to be leaning on the side of supporting stronger regulations.
Sunday 10/03/2019
A step towards opening societal debate. Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb at the  headquarters of  al-Azhar in Cairo.           (AFP)
A step towards opening societal debate. Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb at the headquarters of al-Azhar in Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - Polygamy has been taken for granted in Egypt for centuries but a rethink is apparently under way in the predominantly Muslim country after its top religious authority spoke out against the practice.

In a televised interview March 3, al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb said justice was essential to religious practice. Islam allows men to marry up to four wives, on condition the wives are treated equally. Some Muslim countries have banned polygamy, however.

Tayeb warned that polygamy can often be “an injustice for women and children” and said husbands “must obey conditions of fairness and if there is not fairness, it is forbidden to have multiple wives.”

This was the first time the grand imam of al-Azhar openly criticised polygamy, which is common in Egypt.

Tayeb’s statement was seized on by Egypt’s National Council for Women as an example of the renewal of religious discourse. “Tayeb’s comments are extremely important and they include a message that has been delayed for too long,” activist Azza Kamel told privately owned CBC TV.

Al-Azhar has come under fire in recent years for failing to lead religious reform in Egypt. It seems that Tayeb decided it was time for a broad societal discussion on the subject.

Tunisia is the only Arab country to explicitly ban polygamy and many activists have called for Cairo to take a similar stance or institute stricter regulations making it more difficult for men to marry more than one woman.

Judging from Tayeb’s comments, al-Azhar appears to be leaning on the side of supporting stronger regulations.

“Is the Muslim really free to marry a second, third and fourth wife or is this freedom restricted by certain conditions? This means that polygamy is a restricted right or we can say it is conditionally allowed and needs a reason. If the reason is not there, the permission is withdrawn,” Tayeb said.

Those seeking actions against polygamy say the practice harms the rights of women and threatens the family unit.

“The lack of regulations does just this,” said MP Hala Abul Saad, a leading campaigner against polygamy. “Polygamy is the prime reason for family disintegration.”

Divorces are at record levels in Egypt. In 2017, there were 198,800 divorce cases, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics stated. It is unclear, however, to what extent polygamy is tied to rising divorce rates, although many women are known to divorce their husbands if they marry again.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in January 2017, suggested the introduction of regulations, including preventing men from divorcing their wives through the traditional Muslim way of telling her “I divorce you” three times. Egyptian authorities urged that husbands and wives must meet with a legal official and have the divorce formally documented before they could be divorced, a plan al-Azhar opposed.

There is little official data about polygamy rates in Egypt, although analysts say the practice is far more apparent in Egypt’s rural areas. Given the issue of over-population in Egypt, analysts also said that curtailing polygamy could limit population growth.

While Tayeb indicated a willingness to change al-Azhar policy on polygamy, many religious scholars have expressed opposition to the move.

“This licence is given only in limited cases,” said Mohga Ghaleb, the former dean of the School of Islamic Studies at al-Azhar University. “A husband is allowed to marry a second wife only if his first wife is ill or disobedient.”

Even some women said they oppose a move to restrict polygamy. “Polygamy offers a radical solution to all social problems,” Egyptian media figure Mona Abu Shanab said in a video on Facebook. “It will end the problems of spinsterhood and divorce.”

Egypt has already sought to regulate polygamy, including seeking to penalise husbands who marry a second wife without approval from their first wife. “This act must be criminalised,” said MP Dina Abdel Aziz.

Law No. 100/1985, which regulates marriage and divorce in Egypt, makes it necessary for men getting married to identify whether they are already married. In most cases, however, husbands getting married multiple times either lie about their marital status or give incorrect information about previous marriages.

“Some men misuse the licence given them to marry more than one wife,” Abul Saad said, “but not regulating this licensing process only feeds the patriarchal culture of society that looks down on women.”