After being practiced through thousands of years in most of the world's cultures, polygamy is not only here to stay but will likely grow in some communities, according to an Israeli scholar.

Joseph Ginat, a University of Haifa professor who co-authored a 1996 study of "Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society," said pockets of plural marriage -- including those in Utah -- will benefit from natural growth and new membership.He offered that assessment Sunday night in the opening lecture of the University of Utah's Middle East Week, which runs through March 26. A standing-room only crowd was on hand for Ginat's talk at the Salt Lake Jewish Community Center.

Titled, "Polygamy Past and Present in Judaism, Islam and Mormonism," Ginat's lecture focused primarily on the historical roots of plural marriage in the Middle East and Utah but also offered a modern perspective as well.

Ginat said that while plural marriage is practiced by only a small minority of the world's population, studies have found various forms of it in up to 78 percent of the world's cultures. Polygamy is mentioned very early in the Bible, and biblical law places no limit on the number of wives a man may have, he said.

In Judaism, a 1,000-year ban on polygyny expired in 1986 but, with some exceptions, is no longer practiced. Ginat said it's illegal in Israel, though the government tolerates the existing plural marriages of specific groups -- such as the Jews from Yemen -- who continued the practice into modern times.

In Islamic cultures, a man is allowed up to four wives at a time as long as he behaves equally toward them all. While plural marriage is no longer common in urban Islamic areas, it continues among the Bedouin, including those who live in cities, Ginat said. Among the Bedouin, polygyny has more to do with socio-political and economic considerations than religion, he said.

Ginat and U. psychology professor Irwin Altman conducted extensive research into polygamy in Utah for their 1996 book, which reported distinct differences in how it's practiced in rural and urban settings. For example, in rural polygamist communities, marriage partners are often assigned by the religious leaders, Ginat said. In urban areas, members usually choose their own partners with the approval of their leaders.

Although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy at the end of the last century, some fundamentalist off-shoots have continued the practice.

Ginat said that while there is a great deal of friction among co-wives in the Bedouin polygamist communities, fundamentalist Mormon sister wives generally enjoy a "good relationship" and a cooperative division of labor.

"In both societies, Bedouin and Mormon, it's not easy for the man or the wives; it is difficult," Ginat said. "People don't do it for having sex. The motivation is religion in the Mormon communities and political-economic in the Bedouin."

Ginat predicted continued growth of polygamy in Utah because of the large number of children being raised in the culture as well as increasing membership.