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Under medieval Islamic law, a man could marry up to four women. However, if accounts from 15th century Egypt are indicative, it would be rare for such an arrangement to work out for all parties.
Aliya Saidi, Assistant Director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut, discussed this issue in her recent article ‘Marriage and Mental Illness in the Mamluk Period’. She was able to make use of a 15th century biographical dictionary by Shams al-Din al-Sakhawi, a scholar living in Cairo. He compiled biographies of 13,000 of his contemporaries, including over a thousand women. His works often included much about their private lives – so much so that Saidi notes it “reads almost like a gossip column of Mamluk society.”
Saidi finds that polygamous marriages were very rare among the women listed in the biographical dictionary, occurring in only fifteen cases. Moreover, al-Sakhawi notes that in nearly all the cases if a man tried to take a second wife, he would soon face strong opposition from his first wife. Usually, they either forced their husbands to divorce the new wife immediately or got a divorce themselves. If this did not happen, the result could be that the woman would suffer from mental illness.
Even the mere suspicion of having a second wife could lead to troubles. Saidi explains how one couple in Cairo, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Abnasi had been in a stable and uneventful marriage for many years, until “she began to imagine and to have delusions that he had married another woman without her knowledge. Sakhawi expressed his own conviction that ‘Abd al-Rahman was innocent of his wife’s accusations. But because she had become delusional, she was unable to believe ‘Abd al-Rahman’s innocence. As a result of her fears, her behaviour towards ‘Abd al-Rahman changed completely. Her conduct became extremely vulgar, something which caused ‘Abd al-Rahman a lot of harm. As a result, the rest of their married life was full of turmoil. Because ‘Abd al-Rahman was apparently unable to put his wife’s suspicions to rest, the couple divorced and remarried each other several times. The pattern of divorce and remarriage continued until her death.”
Even being the second woman involved in these situations could lead to mental breakdowns. Al-Sakhawi points to another case in Cairo where a man named Muhammad took advantage of the fact that his first wife had left the city for a few days and secretly married another woman named Aisha. Saidi explains what happened next:
But Aisha was unable to cope with her secretly polygamous marriage. After her brief marriage to Muhammad ended, presumably in divorce, Aisha remained unmarried. But eventually, she became melancholic, and as a result, she was placed in a mental hospital for a few days…Whether she was guilty about marrying Muhammad behind his wife’s back, or she had hoped her marriage to Muhammad would last longer, or even she had expected that Muhammad would divorce his other wife for her sake is not clear. In any case, the circumstances of Aisha’s marriage to Muhammad and their subsequent divorce seem to have sent her into a deep depression. After her stay in hospital was over, Aisha returned to her family: her maternal aunt took her home, where she died shortly afterwards.
Saidi notes that while divorce and remarriage were common and normal practice in Mamluk society, polygamous marriages were not. “The fact that Sakhawi clearly linked mental illness with polygamy shows that polygamy was considered scandalous,” she concludes. “Women therefore did their best to ensure that their husbands remained monogamous. However, when their efforts failed, some of them suffered from a mental breakdown as a result.”
The article ‘Marriage and Mental Illness in the Mamluk Period’ appears in Toward a Cultural History of the Mamluk Era, which was published in 2010 by the Orient-Institut Beirut. It contains 18 articles in English and Arabic that cover a wide range of topics related to Mamluk society, including religious and cultural interactions, as well as artistic and scientific efforts that were taking place in Egypt and Syria between the 13th and 16th centuries.