He married another woman without his wife’s knowledge. Everything seemed to be going well until the secret of his double life was finally exposed.
It sounds like the storyline of a new Netflix series, a Lifetime movie, or a foreign soap opera, but this is an all-too-familiar scenario for some Muslim women living in the United States. Linked together by a common predicament; regardless of their background, country of origin, or economic status, these women have been forced into a polygamous relationship unexpectedly and unethically. Their only options are to remain in the marriage and face the intricacies of life as a co-wife sharing one man, or divorce, relinquishing their husband to his new family and redefining their lives as divorcees and/or single mothers.
According to the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA)’s 11th Convention – 2018 – Istanbul Contemporary Dawah Issues in non-Muslim Lands, the bottom line concerning polygyny is that “in a society in which polygyny is illegal, a Muslim should avoid it in order to avoid community and personal harm.”
It seems that the conversation should end here, however, like in other juristic matters, an individual will find loopholes to substantiate his/her own beliefs or ideas. While scholarly differences of opinion offer a somewhat flexible interpretation and application of certain practices, the layman must exercise caution when reaching conclusions about what is acceptable or not, given the specific situation.
Some worshippers prefer to look towards the East, not just for their prayers, but for guidance on Muslim family matters like marriage. After all, the Arabian Peninsula, specifically what is now known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the birthplace of the final messenger of God and the home of Islam’s two holiest sites.
Geographically and symbolically, many regard Saudi Arabia as the center of the Islamic world. It is also one of a handful of countries which purportedly practice classical Sharia/Islamic Law. Polygamy is recognized as legal and acceptable in Saudi Arabia, and the conditions outlined in the Qur’an and Sunnah are a maximum number of four, equal treatment of wives and financial obligations. However, this context may not apply to Muslims living in Western countries where polygamy is an illegal practice.
Ironically, Saudi Arabia has the second-highest rate of divorce in the Islamic world. A poll taken in 2008 showed that in the past 20 years, the divorce rate in Saudi Arabia rose from 25 to 60 percent2. According to Abdullah Al-Fawzan, a professor and sociologist at King Saud University in Riyadh, polygamy was responsible for up to 55 percent of divorces.
He added that the loss of trust, sincerity, compassion and cooperation were also factors in the failure of marriages1. Trust, sincerity, compassion, and cooperation are important components to a successful marriage, and these same components become undermined when the presence of a secret plural marriage is in place.
So, Where’s the Harm if it’s not Haram?
Researcher for Yaqeen Institute and translator for AMJA, Mohammad Elshinawy, said, “By entering this country, we are agreeing to follow the laws of this land; this is a social contract that we explicitly or implicitly agreed to uphold, and Allah says in the first verse of Surah al-Ma’idah, ‘O you who believe! Fulfill (your) contracts…’ (5:1)” In other words, this would deem it a breach of contract to practice plural marriage in a place where local laws have deemed it illegal.
Elshinawy further explained, “You abide by the laws of the land as long as they are not Islamically unlawful, and even sometimes when they are unlawful but violating them will result in greater harm for the Muslim individual or community. When it comes to polygyny, since it is not mandatory in the Sharia, refraining from it is not unlawful and therefore a law that requires our observance.”
The AMJA resolution which calls for Muslims to abstain from polygyny in societies that consider it illegal serves to protect the Muslim communities living as minorities. Here in the U.S. is a great example; when Muslims are already under heavy threat by the fearmongering of Islamophobic media, as well the many pending legislation seeking to criminalize the Shariah, practicing polygyny could trigger further ramifications.
Elshinawy added, “It is important for us to establish that it is no one’s right to make haram (unlawful) what Allah deemed halal (lawful) and vice versa. However, there is a built-in flexibility mechanism in Islamic law that legitimizes a degree of adaptation to changing contexts and pressing circumstances. Restricting the halal for the public interest of society is an example of a legal maxim that falls under that scope in Islamic law.” During the reign of Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him), he forbade the people from marrying chaste Jewish and Christian women (which is lawful according to the Quran) for a period out of fear of Muslim women remaining unmarried3. Religious authorities in the West (such as AMJA) have similarly posited that this limitation is necessary to ward off the damage polygyny can cause, and it is incumbent upon the Muslims to adhere to it in the interest of the general body.
Polygyny from a Social Perspective
Abdul-Malik Merchant is the Associate Imam at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, or ISBCC, and a graduate student in Theology and Social Work. He offers pastoral care and counseling (including premarital counseling, post marital counseling and mediation to couples) at ISBCC, and is intimately familiar with the complexities of polygyny from a social perspective.
Imam Merchant believes that there is more to consider than the permissibility of plural marriage in Islam. He stated, “The style of our lives today where you have to work a 9-5 (job) and juggle other responsibilities restricts your time as it is. It makes (polygyny) difficult, if not impractical.” For most people, it is challenging enough to sustain a family financially, even if it is a two-income arrangement. Effectively balancing care for two or more families, with or without children, is nearly impossible.
In a society already plagued with narcissistic individualism and broken families, Imam Merchant also questions the success rates of plural marriages. “We lack the cultural, emotional, and spiritual history to navigate these scenarios with wisdom,” He explained, “The ignorance adds to further the complexity and difficulty of an already difficult situation. Most of us do not have the emotional intelligence and awareness to take on this endeavor and it becomes further complicated when people are trying to do this without the cultural/familial familiarity.”
If either spouse, or only one, come into the relationship from a dysfunctional family, a single-parent household, from an environment lacking mutual respect and cooperation, or have never witnessed a healthy example of marriage, it will be even more difficult for them to model the correct behavior on their own. Add a secret marriage to the equation and there is bound to be friction.
Just what leads a person into such a secret plural marriage? Imam Merchant outlined some of the reasons below:
- To fulfill one’s desires – to have an abundance or something new. From a sexual perspective, a desire to satisfy the appetite for more intimacy.
- Trauma – insecurity (in both men and women), fear of being alone (if you don’t get married by a certain age, there is a stigma), worries about marital status, lack of children, peer pressure
- Ingratitude –Not being grateful for what you have, always wanting more.
- Traces of Jahiliyyah – promiscuity (in a halal loophole), seeking multiple relationships.
It is easy to argue that taking on another marriage in a “halal way” is better than committing adultery. However, the question is, are these valid reasons, or only excuses to follow one’s inclinations? Is the underlying reason to get away from pre-existing problems in the first marriage?
Will these problems be solved by introducing another person to the relationship? The Sunnah teaches that the objective of marriage is not simply to fulfill desires, but to establish a family. When a person seeks out a secret polygamous marriage to get away from the issues that exist in their first marriage, this may further complicate the situation. If the first family is unstable, there is no guarantee that the second marriage will work.
A Secret Injustice
“…but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one” (The Qur’an, 4:3)
Some Muslims in the U.S. still choose to approach second marriage secretly. It is debatable if the reason the man wishes to keep his marriage private is due to a fear of his first wife and/or her family finding out, this may fall under the category of inability to deal with justice and fairness.
Similarly, the very effort of keeping his other marriage under wraps requires that the new wife surrender her time and right to physical gratification and emotional and financial support. American laws do not recognize a second, third, or fourth wife legally, thus, the new wife is also waiving her rights under the legal system. This includes the right to inherit from her spouse upon death or to receive her spouse’s social security, pension, or other work-related benefits.
She is also unable to open a joint bank account with her husband, file joint tax returns, receive lower rates on insurance, and has no share in marital property, meaning that if the two divorce, she has no legal rights to the wealth or properties acquired during the marriage.
Even if the secret wife disregards these drawbacks, citing adherence only to the religious aspect of the marriage contract, in Islam she is equally protected by certain rights and responsibilities set in place for the spouses. The wife is entitled to financial support, adequate shelter and maintenance, and fair treatment. Furthermore, the marriage should be publicized so she gains the status and protection afforded a married woman. While the first wife may feel betrayed and as if she is losing a husband, the new wife is also being manipulated into a situation in which she will sacrifice a lot to gain very little. A legal marriage ensures commitment and seriousness on the part of the couple, and to waive these protective measures leaves women in a vulnerable position.
Do Secret Marriages Stay Secret?
Imam Merchant says, “Why are secret marriages morally wrong? In our times, for many, it is considered betrayal. Many women would be more willing to forgive a man who cheats once than a man who takes a second wife and wants to keep her (for good). In an age of social connectivity, 9 out of 10 times the (first) wife will find out.”
In many cases, these secretive agreements approach marriage in a superficial sense. A man feels his desires are not being met, so he decides to look elsewhere; a woman cannot find a suitable single man, so she sets her eyes on one who is married and seemingly stable. As Imam Merchant mentions, “As Muslims, how we act and how we process our emotions must be dictated by Shariah, by Quran and Sunnah, and ultimately by what Allah wants from us. The fact that attraction or infatuation exists does not mean that we can or should act upon it. Because, based on that framework (i.e., of acting upon desires unrestrictedly), it would create chaos.” Sometimes, the two wives know each other or belong to the same community, while not being aware they are co-wives. Once this is discovered, it can have devastating consequences.
Imam Merchant recommends that those who are thinking about engaging in a secret polygamous marriage to first question their intentions. Is the action based purely on emotions? Can it be accomplished with justice, with excellence? Will Allah be pleased with the method and outcome? What is the goal? Sometimes, rectifying the underlying discord in the first marriage will deter the husband from seeking another wife. Both couples should consider counseling and mediation with a qualified imam prior to making decisions about plural marriage. Likewise, community efforts should be made to assist single women in finding a spouse.
Polygamy is not only permissible in Islam, in some societies, it is a human need due to an increase in the ratio of women to men and the prohibition of illicit relationships between men and women. However, it is certainly not for everyone and not an obligatory Sunnah. The practice of secret plural marriages further complicates this fact.
When it comes to matters of religious devotion, to follow the mandates in the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is crucial. On the other hand, basing marital practices on foreign judicial rulings that are founded upon a specific set of cultural and societal norms is problematic. The fact of the matter is that the Prophet, peace be upon him, recommended making marriages public, and he, himself, also announced his marriages.
The Prophet, peace be upon him, used to tell his followers to announce their marriages. (Tirmidhi) Even for a marriage to be considered valid it requires witnesses; this is because marriages are not meant to be secret. Although plural marriage may be permissible, the clandestine approach results in harm for the wives, children, and other family members.
 Somayya Jabarti, “Alarming Divorce Rate ‘Must Be Addressed Urgently’” – Arab News, October 24, 2003
 Laura Bashraheel, “Divorce on the rise in the Kingdom”, Arab News, February 7, 2010
 Ali Muhammad as-Sallabi, Umar Ibn Al-khattab : His Life and Times (Volume 1), (English version) IIPH
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