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The Muslim Link

Polygamy: Tis The Season? PDF Print E-mail
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Community News - Community News
Written by Wafa Unus Muslim Link Staff Reporter   
Thursday, 27 October 2011 10:33

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.
Comments (12)
  • Rashid  - Why would a muslim want to Decriminalizing Polygam
    If you want to DECRIMINALIZING it should be POLYGYNY instead of polygamy because they understand what you are saying to mean something else.
  • Noreen  - Requesting Survey Details
    This article refers to a survey but does not link to the survey or give any details of the survey. How many people were surveyed? How was the survey conducted - by telephone? With anonymous answers? Was the survey multiple choice answers or true and false answers? Were only men surveyed? How biased were the survey questions worded? Who conducted the survey and who paid for it?
  • abdul-malik Al musaafir  - The True Point of the article
    Lets be clear in understanding what this article is truly about. It is bringing into focus the pure discrimination and hypocrisy that is epic in western/Christian countries. Gay relationships are permissable but not multiple marriages. Casual sex and adultery are the norms but marrying an extra spouse for the sake of Allah, the community, and society; oh this is just despicable. See it for what it is; a joke.
  • Anonymous  - Needed
    I enjoyed this article very much. Al Humdulillah. Polygamy is a sensative, important, but needed topic. We must not deny what Allah has permitted, but we should and must understand completely it's rules set by Allah SWT.
  • Anonymous
    One of the saddest things I have seen with multiple marriages is that the women who were on welfare before they "marry" as a second wife, are still on welfare afterwards because their marriage isn't legal and their new husband takes advantage of this and basically, you and I and all the other tax paying people are taking care of HIS responsibility. IF these men really want to "follow the sunnah" they need to really do it right...that is, take care of all of their wives equally...but Allah tells them, Ye will not be able to deal equally between (your) wives, however much ye wish (to do so). I actually think if polygamy was leagal and these men actually had to take on the full responsibility of multiple families (and the women would have the courts behind them if needed), we would see a huge decrease in numbers of polygamous marriages.
  • J  - Proper citation of Qur'an
    Assalaamu Alaikum, Please provide a citation for the ayah you "quoted": (ye will not be able to deal equally between (your) wives, however much ye wish (to do so).) I do not believe this is an ayah in the Qur'an unless you can prove to us otherwise. JazakAllahu Khair.
  • Dennis  - Gender ratios
    The article is silent on one of the major problems with polygamy, namely, that the numbers of each gender in each population cohort are roughly equal throughout most of life. Women do not outnumber men until the waning years of life--and few men seeking multiple mates would choose from those ranks. This is a serious problem in societies with widespread polygamy because few young women are available to young men of marriageable age. The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints communities in the American Southwest and British Columbia address this problem by expelling excess young men from their communities and dumping them on society at large--hardly an ideal solution for either society or the unfortunate young men.
  • Anonymous
    In the muslim marriage market we have the opposite problem; too many women and too few good men. The good men can be highly selective in their choices, and if anything wrong in the marriage can move on with little to no penalty. The marriage market is driving a higher and higher premium on young, highly educated, physically beautiful, unmarried, virgin girls and leaving most other women out of the market. The fact that many consider a girl of 25 over the hill is absolutely ridiculous. These premium brides however do not have the strength in the situation, because the man knows he can dump her and get another premium bride fairly easily. That is what drives high mahrs in the first place. With increased global mobility though, many men can now escape too high mahrs, and get the bride they want elsewhere. Plus, they can choose from non-Muslim brides as well. Though something we don't really talk about, porn has become a readily available release valve for men which makes them much much lazier in terms of shaping up (not only financially, but emotionally, psychologically) for marriage. In short, brides have become a cheap and plentiful commodity. Or at least the market perceives them to be. With polygamy as a vibrant option (note: option, not must) in the marriage marketplace, females will become scarcer (more precious) and this will gradually force single men to become the best they can be to attract a good spouse. If women work cooperatively, the best husbands will get more wives as they will have proven their track record of being good husbands. There will be much more competition for men to secure mates and the value of muslim women will go up. Males in turn will value their brides much, much more when they have them. Male psychology will benefit from this much much more as well. Women should work cooperatively though, this would be the smartest for them overall and into the future for their daughters and granddaughters. Bi'dhnillah.
  • S Albarmawi  - Polygamy is HARAM
    If legalizing polygamy will mean legalize polygamy: Many spouse: wives or husbands, then it is haram. If legalizing polygyny will legalize polygamy, I am against it. Plygyny, many wives is the term we are looking for. But if confusing both terms will encourge polygamy, then let keep both detested by society for now. They already have many diseases. We are already subject to scrutiny by the others. Why should we focus on less important issues: Did we finish our dawah duties? Solved all the illness that were transferred to the Muslim community: drugs, homelessness, and.., and unemployment so we worry about POLYGYNY. Did we get our youth easy access to islamic schools? learn and know tawhid and about the Porphet. Did we find first wife for our youth? Made suggestions for making marriage possible for Muslims in the US so that the brothers do not have to seek marriage from overseas and the sisters stay waiting for the Decriminalizing Polygamy in order to get first husband.
  • Anonymous
    All the topics you mentioned are important. But we are millions in this country and over the world; there is not only one set of issues and priorities that everyone is is going to follow. We all have different issues and priorities we are facing. As muslims we need to know how to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have to be able to handle and think creatively about ALL these issues, at the same time. Different people will be dealing with different aspects. We need to come up with more options, not less options. Finding spouses is a central problem in our communities. It is not the only problem, or perhaps the biggest problem, nor does it have to be. By itself it is worthy of discussion. One problem of many. One potential solution, of many potential solutions, is to open up the marriage market and loosening the options. My comment above about opening up polygamy (polygyny) is one aspect of opening this up. But it is only one aspect. Families need to be more open-minded, and consider having their children marry outside of their ethnic group, racial group, education/class/social status. Single men need to seriously consider marrying previously married, older women, and single women consider marrying men who have more modest careers,men younger than them, etc. About your argument that decriminalizing polygamy would lead to women having multiple husbands, then it is like any other human behavior. There will be a certain percentage that will do the haram. We will not outlaw having children because a certain percentage of people abuse their kids. But anyway, by nature and socialization it is extremely rare for a woman to want multiple partners at the same time, or for men to tolerate this. So the percentage would be extremely small. Besides, why don't we view it from another perspective? That by making polygamy a viable, legal option it will increase the likelihood that men will have an alternative to adultery (so-called "cheating") and multiple sex partners outside of marriage, which are currently rampant in society. That it will establish a norm for women of insisting that if men wish to "cheat" on their spouse, that they can't do that: they need to commit to a partner within a marriage situation. Why can't we see that it would bring more and more people into thinking about the halal option of marriage?
  • Anonymous
    Wanted to add that in terms of being subject to scrutiny by others -- I realize that this is a sensitive concern, because we do not like to feel even more on the defensive than we already are. But recently at a talk, Tariq Ramadan made the fresh suggestion in response to being asked about the sharia scare here in US, that instead of shying away from this word "sharia", we should use it even more, in order to normalize it and defuse the irrational fear around the word. This is an excellent point. Just like kids bullied at school for being different, we will never get respect or build confidence by cowering and cringing and being afraid of what other people think of us, or by changing who we are to please other people. As a whole, we are good people, we are following a good religion that teaches good things. Enough said. We do not have to pretend to be good, because we do strive to be good and follow a deen we know to be good. We do not have to apologize or hide who we are. And if we need a slogan about polygyny let it be "we are lovers, not fighters". Maybe in the long run that will do more to humanize us as people who love other people, who love marriage and who love family. Everyone in america, except a tiny few, can respect that. Oprah did a very positive show on polygamy (and polygamy is the famous word used), and her positivity demonstrates the possibilities for long term acceptance and respect of this family lifestyle. While polygyny remains criminalized, the focus ends up being on the bad examples who abuse the welfare system, abuse their wives, etc. The best husbands for the polygyny lifestyle - who have strong iman, can afford it and who will deal kindly and fairly with their wives - do not have the chance to do this and be visible role models for others. The absence of positive examples only adds to the stigma. To take the stigma away, it needs to be decriminalized, and more people of iman, leadership, willingness, and ability - men and women - need to step forward to practice this in an exemplary manner. I do strongly believe polygyny is a good, very rational institution that will highly benefit our community into the future inshallah. At the moment, the marriage situation could be severe: Already we hear discussions of allowing muslim women to marry non-muslim men in order to solve the situation of lacking muslim men who will marry them. This is one small example. One of the drivers in marriage nowadays is the narrowness of the market and the high level of anxiety to pick the one perfect spouse for life. This needs to be opened up by multiple means. Polygyny is an institution of choice, not imposition. It may not suit particular individuals - and they should have full and free choice not to participate in it - but overall and in the long run it is healthy for the marriage market to have polygyny as an option. And it could also be very good for non-muslims as well if they choose it. As I said before, I do not advocate this as the only solution, or the only important issue facing our community. Other commentator stated many pressing issues. But marriage is one important aspect. Thank you for this article and forum.
  • Cameron  - No Joke
    Welcome to Western Civilization. Your English is excellant. I understand that this society is very alien to many of you. I am reading some very good points made by many of you. Polygamy will not be accepted in civilized Western societies period. How many of you muslim men want to share one wife with other men? because that is what you would get. It would not be one sided. So this article is written for lustful purposes only and should be condemed. IT would on lead to civil choas. Love and honor your one wife as you honor and love God. Be content to be a member of civil society and be as example to everyone.
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