The topic of polygamy generates strong opinions: It is the resource we’ve yet to utilize in our response to the marriage crisis. It is a vestige of Islam’s checkered patriarchal past. It is expressive of the priority Islam affords family and community. It is a fig leaf used by undisciplined men to justify their philandering ways. It is the litmus test whose acceptance proves a woman’s embrace of the Prophetic way (Sunnah). It is an outmoded form of marriage which might work in other contexts but is doomed to fail in our own. It uplifts men by forcing them to spiritually and materially prepare for greater responsibility. It degrades women by exposing them to emotional harm. Attend a dinner party among Muslims and you’re likely to encounter all of these views. In my estimation, plural marriage is a unique aspect of the Sunnah. It was practiced by the Prophet (upon him be peace) and thus must have the potential for moral excellence. However, the Prophet (upon him be peace) was discerning in the manner in which he engaged the practice and thus it must be seen as potentially dangerous. This is an opinion-editorial; just another seat around the dinner table but (hopefully) with the added clarity offered by writing. This isn’t a sociological or anthropological treatment—I don’t have the resources or training for either. Nor is this, strictly speaking, a fiqhi treatment of the issue. Put simply, many American Muslim communities are witnessing an alarming trend: Single, religiously-adherent, adult women are having a hard time finding partners for marriage and polygamy is increasingly being discussed as an alternative. To be sure, polygamy is no silver bullet. The only long-term solution is resuscitating our communal commitment to marriage and growing our young men in focus and capacity. Nonetheless, for people who don’t have the luxury of waiting for the paradigm to shift, plural marriage may represent a source of hope.
The prospect of polygamy in our community presents numerous questions. For starters, it’s illegal. Well-reasoned arguments that Muslims are religiously obliged to obey the ‘law of the land’ notwithstanding, there are those who deem marriage a personal, religious matter and regard government sanction therein as irrelevant. However, the monogamous ideal is still part and parcel of our society. In the Qur’an, God describes marriage as a mithāq ghalīdh (contract of grave importance). Contracts of this level of gravity are rarely without guarantors. Many of us would scoff at the prospect of purchasing an automobile much less a parcel of land with a simple handshake and gentleman’s agreement. With regard to marriage, the provisions of Islamic law and those of American civil law are not perfectly complementary. However, they do share some provisions such as health care power of attorney and inheritance. In the case of a single marriage, some version of these rights can be guaranteed for each party if the union is registered in civil court. A second Islamic marriage, by comparison, couldn’t enjoy the same protections. To my mind, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of plural marriage among Muslims in the US. However, it does mean that securing even a modicum of the rights Islamic law guarantees the second wife would require potentially costly, intentional engagement with the legal system.
Other considerations such as insurance (health/auto/life), tax filing, etc also presume a monogamous ideal. These are secondary concerns but they highlight an important point. Comedian Azhar Usman once joked, “Only two kinds of Muslims actually practice polygamy…rich Arabs and poor African Americans.” This old bit hasn’t aged well. The racial/ethnic stereotypes which carry it are distasteful. Nonetheless, if we excuse that part of the joke on account of its age, it reveals an important aspect of this conversation. When one factors all the costs entailed by an additional marriage in terms of housing, education, child-care, health-care, food, auto, recreation, etc. you’ve narrowed down the pool of those eligible considerably. It’s easy to imagine a wealthy family absorbing those costs. And likewise, it’s hard to imagine a middle-class family—for whom generational upward mobility is priority—absorbing those costs. Though counterintuitive and even objectionable to some, much of our community’s current engagement with polygamy exists within working-class and struggling communities. The idea being that for some people marriage is primarily about chastity, companionship and fulfilling the rights of their partners to a religiously acceptable degree. The prospect of not being able realize such goals as home ownership, private school enrollment, diverse capital investment, annual vacations, college tuition payment, etc. are not things that would dissuade them from marriage—whether monogamous or polygamous. Any serious consideration of polygamy within our community would entail the same implication. Families would either need to raise their earning profile so as to comfortably absorb the costs of an additional marriage or adjust their expectations with regard to lifestyle. What this adjustment would mean to some segments of our community, in light of its mission to confront social ills like chronic, generational, poverty and economic injustice, is something to be considered.
True to the saying, “No romance before finance,” I began with a few reflections on the financial implications of plural marriage. Of much greater concern, I presume, to most people, are the romantic/interpersonal implications of polygamy. In a culture as deeply monogamous as our own, it’s difficult to point to morally inspiring examples of men in plural relationships. For many men, this means the archetype they most readily associate with polygamy is not the Prophet (upon him be peace) or the tireless family man pulling double duty. Rather, it’s the ladies’ man, the player, the pimp, etc. Similarly, for many women, it’s the cheater, the adulterer, the philanderer, the Lothario. This makes it nearly impossible for men or women to view polygamy with integrity. Quite the reverse, given the lack of morally inspiring examples, almost by default, second marriages are rarely seen through the same family-affirming, responsibility-assuming, pleasure of God-seeking lens through which we generally view marriage. Many of us are either married or know people that have gotten married. And although there is always recognition that marriage will make (mutually desired) intimacy between the couple permissible, it usually isn’t treated as a singular focus. There’s an acknowledgement—especially for married people—that the newlyweds are voluntarily committing to a relationship that will demand their absolute moral best: devotion, patience, dedication, sacrifice, service, a willingness to forgive, and a readiness to rear children. The two Muslims committing to marriage have taken their natural affinity for one another to the moral summit of romantic relationships, and for that we admire and commend them. However, when a family decides that the time is right for the husband to make that commitment a second time, that subsequent union is scarcely treated with the same respect and integrity. It’s from the Prophetic way, why not? Is it the overwhelming prevalence of bad examples of men who, in actual fact, have engaged such partnerships with little integrity or responsibility? Do we assume that within a culture of monogamy a woman whose husband marries a second time will inevitably feel betrayal, embarrassment and humiliation? Is it because the stereotypes of families engaged in plural marriage are things some of us don’t respect: poor, Black, urban, and Salafi in religious orientation? Or is it because we fear lending credence to Western depictions of Islam as a religion of sensuality and unbridled carnality? I don’t know the answer to this question. However, I do feel it is the barometer which measures the maturity and seriousness of our community concerning the topic. Any marriage that can’t be regarded with integrity and viewed as an expression of a Prophetic, morally inspiring ideal—and not that of players or cheaters—will have little success among Muslims.