As Legal Marriage Is Redefined, Some Muslim Call for Decriminalizing Polygamy
The legalization of gay marriage in six states and the continued efforts toward legalizing it in the rest of the country has opened the flood gates that have, for hundreds of years defined legal marriage in the United States as the union between one man and one woman.
As more proponents of gay marriage push bills through Congress and rally votes that support marriage as a constitutional right for all citizens regardless of sexual orientation another group that remains decidedly outside the legal confines of marriage is slowly entering the limelight.
Over 130 years ago a decision was made that criminalized the practice of polygamy in the United States.
Despite the redefinition of legal marriage to include homosexual couples, the country still grapples at the idea of polygamy, a commonly misunderstood primarily religiously based practice.
With an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people living in polygamous situations in the U.S. today, few have seen their actions reprimanded in court. This is likely because many live in secrecy out of fear that exposure of their practices will result in loss of jobs, break apart their families, or land them in jail. However, even in cases where polygamy is known, few states move to actually prosecute the individuals involved.
While some choose to quietly live their lives as they please, married legally only to one woman but to others only through religious ceremonies, there are murmurs among the polygamist community as the country moves toward the legalization of gay marriage.
Just as the gay community has fought for equal treatment under the law, polygamists argue the same. As citizens of the United States, they argue, they should have the right to legally marry whoever they please, or however many they please.
In the same regard that the gay community faced stark opposition from religious organizations that diligently fought, and continue to fight the idea of gay marriage on religious grounds, polygamists communities face similar religious stigmas.
While the U.S. Constitution boasts a separation of church and state, which ultimately helped the gay community overcome the opposition, it also guarantees the free exercise of religion which has somewhat ironically been the biggest obstacle for the polygamist community.
Because polygamy is considered a derivative of certain religious beliefs it would logically seem as though the practice of polygamy would then be protected under constitutional law. However, this is not the case, and has not been since Reynolds vs. United States in 1978 in which the court refused to recognize polygamy as a legitimate religious practice. Instead, it was deemed it as “almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and African people.” Later decisions showed no progress in accepting polygamy as a legitimate religious practice despite its longstanding historic presence in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Instead the court declared it to be “contrary to the spirit of Christianity and of the civilization which Christianity has produced in the Western World,” equating it to a type of barbarism.
Many argue that polygamy is an exception to the free exercise of religion because known cases of polygamous marriages of young girls. This cast a shadow on the practice and many ignorantly equated it with pedophilia. Recent attacks on the Prophet Muhammad also equated his marriage to Aisha, who was nine at the time, as an act of pedophilia. In cases where religious practices are deemed harmful to individuals or to the public, the free exercise of religion no longer applies.
While Islam itself does not condone acts of homosexuality and though the mainstream Muslim community remains largely uninvolved with polygamy in the United States, there are a minority who still engage in the practice though largely in secrecy for fear of retribution. While some masajids require legal proof of marriage prior to granting an Islamic marriage, some Imams’ like Baltimore city’s Hassan Amin believe polygamy to be a god-given right that cannot be denied to those who are willing and able despite the potential legal ramifications.
“I don’t have any problem with that because it’s Deen. I’m doing it for religion,” said Amin who admits to performing polygamous marriages.
Amin, a sociology instructor at Sojourner-Douglass College of Baltimore regularly discusses polygamy in his classroom. Not only does he note its religious significance but the benefits it can have in American society, particularly in areas like Baltimore city where the poverty rate is high and many women find themselves on the welfare roll.
“We have in the world more women than men and if a man has the ability to take care of more than one women he should be able to do that,” said Amin. “As far as legalization, I think they should...We should strive to have it legalized because Allah has already legalized it.”
While Amin feels strongly about the good polygamy can do for the community, others feel as though the issue of polygamy is one that should remain in a historical context.
“The family institution in the U.S, whether it is Muslim or non-Muslim, is very delicate. The idea of having many partners and many, many children who are neglected or whose needs will not be met fully or even who will compete for gains is not a healthy one in this society. This society is full of much corruption without the addition of internal corruption. It is allowed in Islam, I do not argue this fact. Our Prophet allowed this but in today’s time we do not have the pure intentions and love for one another as they did in the past,” said one individual in a recent survey on polygamy conducted by The Muslim Link.
Approximately 42 percent of those surveyed said they were either in, or knew others in polygamous marriages within the local Muslim community. Thirty nine percent said they would engage in a polygamous marriage if it were legal in the United States.
One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, having been part of a polygamous relationship for fourteen years expressed her support for the institution arguing its ability to solve many moral ailments that plague today’s society.
“I believe the government should legalize polygyny because it is lawful in Islaam. It would enable all the wives to have the same legal status...As a matter of fact, I have discussed the issue with many non-Muslim women as well. The majority of them say that if polygyny was conducted the way that it is supposed to be according to the Qur’aan and Sunnah, they would have no problem with it. It is much better than committing adultery, fornication and having illegitimate children,” she wrote in response to the survey.
Born and raised in Christian family, she married a non-Muslim man at the age of twenty-two. One year later both her and her husband converted to Islam. They lived in a mongomous marriage for nine years before her husband approached her about marrying a second wife.
“When my husband told me that he wanted to marry another woman we discussed the issue and the three of us met and had discussions as well. There was a public nikah and waleemah at our masjid, and the whole community, including our children and [I], attended,” she said.
Though the second marriage ended in divorce after fourteen years, it ended on good terms.
Although those who said they would engage in polygamy if it were legal are the minority, nearly 70 percent said they believe that the U.S. should legalize polygamy now that it is beginning to legalize gay marriage.
As for opinions on whether or not Imams, like Amin should be allowed to conduct polygamous marriages despite polygamy being illegal in the United States, the results were almost split right down the middle with approximately 54 percent against the idea.
Polygamy is arguably not the most popular practice in the United States and even within religious communities where polygamy had an undeniable historical significance. However, the First Amendment was meant to protect even the least popular of practices on the basis that though they may not appeal to the general public, their existence and the rights therein should and will always be protected under constitutional law.
Still, some feel as though the Muslim community should be focused on fighting to protect the rights that they do have rather than rallying behind ones that could send the wrong message.
“We also need to consider that legalizing an issue makes it “okay” in a lot of people’s minds. If polygamy were okay, people who don’t understand it’s conditions may enter into such relationships that could prove very unhealthy, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. The issue of polygamy is not fully understood by our own Muslim community for it to be taken to the U.S. government. I really think we should focus on fighting for the rights we currently are guaranteed under law but are not always granted,” wrote one young woman.
While anti-sodomy laws outlined in Lawrence vs. Texas were brought down and with them the ability to criminalize the acts of homosexuals in the United States, polygamists must still face the reality that their marriages cannot be made legal so long as the decision of Reynold vs. United States stands.
As states move toward legalizing gay marriage, the criminalization of polygamy is a seemingly striking inconsistency in constitutional law.
As for the American Muslim community and the practice of polygamy, Amin believes it is the responsibility of the Muslim leadership to represent its benefits both religiously and socially.
“As an Imam I have a responsibility to put Islam out there in all its beauty and glory. Even if I stand alone in doing this, Islam has be be out there and more imams have to stand up for Islam,” he said.
Though he doesn’t believe it is a necessary practice for everyone and notes that only those able to practice polygamy within the rules laid out in Islamic teaching should consider engaging in it, Amin feels its a reality that the American Muslim community should not hide or feel embarrassed by.
For those who disagree with him he simply quoted a passage from the Qur’an, “Lakum deenukum waliyadin,” For you your way, for me mine.”
The argument remains, be it gay marriage or polygamous marriage, the rights of the people should not be based on their popularity but rather on the constitutional laws that are meant to protect them.