Global Connections The Middle East
Communities Respond Educator's Resources Maps Glossary Search:
Connecting Questions Explore a Theme Timeline
U.S. Foreign Policy Religious Militancy Roles of Women Stereotypes Natural Resources Nation-States
How Many Wives?
Lesson Snapshot

Learning objectives
Students will learn that religious texts are often used to establish cultural norms and rules of behavior. These ancient texts, however, are often ambiguous and therefore open to interpretation. Students can apply this knowledge to their understanding of stereotypes of women in Islam.

Grade level



NCSS standards

Time estimate
Approximately 45 minutes

What you'll need (see Resources for links)

Lesson Plan


The written word has been subject to reinterpretation for as long as it has existed. As recently as 1755, the first modern English dictionary defined lunch as "as much food as one's hand can hold." A parasite was defined as "one who frequents rich tables and earns his welcome by flattery."

In all languages, the origins of words, phrases, and even laws are a direct reflection of the time and culture in which they were written. As cultures evolve and change, so do their languages. People use words differently; meanings shift in the translation from one language to another. For example, the original Hebrew word for sin was himarita; literally translated, it means "to miss the mark." Often, the older the word is, the harder it is to uncover its original meaning, and so the study of hermeneutics is devoted to interpreting ancient texts.

The Quran is the holy text of Islam, just as the Bible is for Christianity and the Torah for Judaism. And just as the Bible and Torah establish rules of behavior -- what is and is not acceptable in a society -- so, too, does the Quran. All of these texts were written more than 1,000 years ago, and all are the subject of ongoing interpretation by hermeneutic scholars. In the Quran, many areas are open to interpretation, such as the wearing of the veil among women and the practice of taking more than one wife. This latter practice, known as polygyny, can be used to examine how different scholars interpret the same text to mean different things.

  • Ask students to read excerpts that provide different interpretations of Quranic verses on polygamy (the practice of taking more than one spouse), and specifically polygyny (having more than one wife). They will learn how scholars interpret the same text in different ways to justify opposing views of polygyny.

  • Working alone or in small groups, students will answer a series of questions to understand the era and culture in which the Quran was written. Discussion questions may include the following:

    • How might the following factors influence interpretations of the Quran and the practice of polygyny?

      • Geographic region

      • Time period

      • Cultural traditions

      • Political circumstances

      • Social class

    • How does your knowledge of dissenting interpretations of religious texts challenge American stereotypes? How does it change the way you think about the role of women in Islam?

    • What are some examples of gender, cultural, national, or religious stereotypes in your own life or community? What factors do you think might have led to the stereotype? How would you explain the influence of those factors in an effort to dispel the stereotypes?

  • Ask each group to record their findings, summarize what they learned, and present it to the class. Through discussion of these issues, students should be able to identify some of the cultural norms and practices that influence the interpretation of religious texts and the establishment of cultural norms.


  • How well can the student explain the different ways the Quran has been interpreted to support or oppose polygyny in Islamic societies?

  • How well can the student give examples of factors that influence the interpretation of the Quran and the practice of polygyny?

  • How well can the student make the link between understanding that interpretations vary on the Quran and the negative effects of stereotyping Muslims as a monolithic culture?


Core Resources:

Internet Resources:

Print Resources:

  • Whaud, Amina. Qu'ran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective.
    New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

  • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate.
    New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Related Activities:

Extension activities

Have students research contemporary laws within countries with a predominantly Muslim population. What countries forbid polygyny (Turkey and Tunisia), and what countries permit it? With what restrictions? (Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia place restrictions on the practice.) Can these differences be attributed to factors such as different political or economic systems?

Compare the issue of polygyny where Islam is a majority (across the Middle East and Islamic world, including Nigeria) and where it is a minority (China, former Yugoslavia, and the U.S.).

NCSS standards


  • Predict how data and experiences may be interpreted by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference.

  • Apply an understanding of culture as an integrated whole that explains the functions and interactions of language, literature, the arts, traditions, beliefs and values, and behavior patterns.

Time, continuity, and change

  • Systematically employ processes of critical historical inquiry to reconstruct and reinterpret the past such as using a variety of sources and checking their credibility, validating and weighing evidence for claims, and searching for causality.

Individuals, groups, and institutions

  • Analyze group and institutional influences on people, events, and elements of culture in both historical and contemporary settings.

  • Identify and analyze examples of tensions between expressions of individuality and efforts used to promote social conformity by groups and institutions.

  • Describe and examine belief systems basic to specific traditions and laws in contemporary and historical movements.

Power, authority, and governance

  • Examine persistent issues involving the rights, roles, and status of the individual in relation to the general welfare.

  • Compare and analyze the ways nations and organizations respond to conflicts between forces of unity and forces of diversity.

For more information, see the National Standards for Social Studies Teachers, Volume I.

E-mail a Friend

Search | Site Map | Maps | Glossary | About the Site | Help | Pledge