Betrayal, deceit, and a secret life hidden in the shadows — these are the elements that lurk behind the story of a man who married another woman without his first wife’s knowledge, and whose carefully crafted world of lies came crashing down when 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 a familiar scenario for some Muslim families living in the United States. Linked together by a common predicament and regardless of their background, country of origin, or economic status, some women have been coerced into, or at least involuntarily found themselves in, a polygamous relationship unexpectedly and unethically. In what they deem the ultimate betrayal, wives are left with few choices. Either they remain in the marriage and face the intricacies of life as a co-wife sharing one man or divorce and relinquish their husband to his new family, redefining their lives as divorcees and single mothers. In the Islamic community, there exists a significant social stigma attached to divorce, which can prove particularly harsh for women who have been divorced or are single mothers, as they often face challenges when attempting to remarry. Moreover, a few unfortunate women find themselves separated from their families and left in a perpetual state of uncertainty, neither divorced nor unmarried with little to no support.
At the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) convention in 2018, held in Istanbul, Turkey, the AMJA formulated their “Resolutions on Contemporary Dawah Issues in non-Muslim Lands.” One of the resolutions concerns polygyny. The resolution states 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, scholarly differences of opinion offer a somewhat flexible interpretation and application of its practice. Some worshippers prefer to look towards the East, not just for their prayers, but for guidance on Muslim family matters like marriage. Polygyny is recognized as legal and acceptable in some Muslim-majority countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, with certain conditions. Since it is generally an Islamic and prophetic practice, sometimes regarded as a “Sunnah” act, Muslims consider it an inherent right.
The Islamic specifications for how to practice plural marriage are outlined in the Qur’an and Sunnah. The maximum number of wives is limited to four. There should be fair and equal treatment imparted to wives as far as housing and financial obligations are concerned. The verse in the Qur’an that specifically mentions polygyny states: “And if you fear that you will not deal fairly with the orphans [in marriage], marry of the women who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if you fear that you cannot do justice, then [marry] one or [from among] those that your right hands possess. That is more likely that you will not do injustice” (Qur’an 4:3).
This verse establishes certain limitations when it comes to marriage with orphan girls and women to prevent abuse and exploitation of their wealth. Allah laid the ground rules for how believers should approach marriage, and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, exemplified the character of the righteous husband. Islamic teachings place an emphasis on justice. In the Qur’an, men are addressed directly in the following verse, “You will never be able to deal justly between your wives — even if you desired it. So do not totally incline towards one leaving the other in suspense. And if you do what is right and fear [Allah], surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (4:129).
The question of secret marriages, thus, is not whether men are allowed to marry a second, third, or even fourth wife if they can maintain them and be just. Rather it is discouraging a culture of deceit and abuse that enables men to start secret families without any regard for the conditions set forth by the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The issue is that there are men abusing the privilege granted to them to take multiple wives, to exploit women, marry them without the knowledge of their families and communities, and deny them their basic rights. The advice and practice of the Prophet Muhammad (s) was to announce and publicize marriages. He was reported to have said, “Proclaim marriages” (Ahmad).
Shaykh Ibn Taymiyah, may Allah have mercy on him, said: “With regard to secret marriage, (in which the couple) agrees to conceal and for which they do not bring any witnesses, it is invalid according to all the scholars and it comes under the heading of immorality. Allah, may He be exalted, says (interpretation of the meaning): “All others are lawful, provided you seek (them in marriage) with mahr (bridal-money given by the husband to his wife at the time of marriage) from your property, desiring chastity, not committing illegal sexual intercourse” (Qur’an, 4:24), (Majmoo’ al-Fataawa (33/158).
He also said: “If they get married without a wali or witnesses, and conceal the marriage, this is an invalid marriage according to the consensus of the imams. Rather the view of the scholars is that ‘there is no marriage without a wali’ and ‘any woman who gets married without the permission of her wali, her marriage is invalid, her marriage is invalid, her marriage is invalid’. Both phrases are narrated in al-Sunan from the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him). More than one of the early generations said: There is no marriage except with two witnesses. This is the view of Abu Hanifah, Shafi, and Ahmad, and Malik regarded it as obligatory to announce the marriage. Secret marriage is akin to a relationship with a prostitute.” (Majmoo’ al-Fataawa (32/102, 103).
Where’s the Harm If It’s Not Haram?
Most cases of secret marriages involve a man and multiple women. Despite the Islamic framework laid out in the Qur’an and the Sunnah on plural marriage, scholars argue that it may not apply contextually to Muslims living in Western countries in which polygyny is not legal. 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 whose 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 unlawful serves to protect the interest of individuals as well as Muslim communities living as minorities. Here in the U.S. is a great example. Muslims are already under heavy threat by the fearmongering of an Islamophobic media, as well the many pending legislations seeking to criminalize the Sharia, practicing polygyny could potentially trigger further scrutiny. 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.” Religious authorities in the West such as AMJA have posited that limiting polygyny is necessary to ward off the damage it can cause.
Part two of this article will address additional issues related to secret marriages.