Secret Plural Marriages: Between the Halal and the Harm, Part Two

Published June 7, 2023

By Wendy Diaz

Part one of this article ended with a quote from Mohammad Elshinary, researcher for Yaqeen Institute and translator for Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA). He stated, “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.”

Secret Plural Marriages 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 secret polygamous marriages 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 [polygamy] difficult, if not impractical.” For most people, effectively balancing care for two or more families, with or without children, is challenging.

Imam Merchant also questions the success rates of such marriages in a society already plagued with narcissistic individualism and broken families. “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.” Arguably, the practicing Muslim needs to understand the intricacies of spousal rights and responsibilities and how to properly navigate a plural marriage before even considering such an arrangement.

Reasons for Secret Plural Marriages

What leads a person into a secret plural marriage? Imam Merchant outlined some of the reasons:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Ingratitude – not being grateful for what you have, always wanting more.
4. Traces of jahiliyyah – promiscuity (by way of 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 whether these are valid reasons or only excuses to justify following one’s inclinations without fulfilling the Islamic requirements as outlined by the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Is the underlying reason to get away from problems in the first marriage? 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 be any more stable and fulfilling.

A Secret Injustice

“…but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one” (Qur’an 4:3).
Perhaps due to the reasons mentioned, coupled with the disapproval of the first wife, some Muslims in the U.S. still choose to approach marriage secretly. It is debatable that if the reason the man wishes to keep his marriage private is due to a fear of his first wife, family, or community 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 concealed requires that the new wife surrender her time and right to physical, emotional, and financial support.

Polygamy, or being married to more than one person, is illegal in all 50 states. So, a polygamous marriage can only be performed in a religious framework. Thus, the new wife is waiving her rights under the American legal system. This includes the right to inherit from her spouse upon death or to receive her spouse’s insurance, 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, or have a share in marital property, meaning that if the two divorce, she has no legal rights to the wealth or properties acquired during the marriage under the laws of the land in which the couple resides.

It is true that the secret wife is equally protected by certain rights and responsibilities set in place by Islam for the spouses. The wife is entitled to financial support, adequate shelter and maintenance, and fair treatment. Nonetheless, by the marriage being secret, the second wife is waiving the protective measures of U.S. law. And the fact that the marriage is being kept secret means that even consulting with an imam, if issues arise in this secret relationship, is not something that is available. This leaves the woman without options if she is subject to neglect or abuse.

Do Secret Marriages Stay Secret?

Prophet Muhammad (s) told his followers to announce their marriages (Tirmidhi). For a marriage to even 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 involved. Imam Merchant said, “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 life]. In an age of social connectivity, nine out of ten times the [first] wife will find out.”

In many cases, secretive agreements are superficial in nature. A man may feel his desires are not being met, so he decides to look elsewhere. Or a woman cannot find a suitable single man, so she may set her eyes on one who is married and seemingly stable. As Imam Merchant has mentioned, “As Muslims, how we act and how we process our emotions must be dictated by shariah, by Qur’an 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, it would create chaos.” Indeed, situations have occurred in which two wives know each other or belong to the same community, while not being aware they are co-wives. Children attend gatherings and play together without knowing they are among brothers and sisters. Imagine the devastating consequences of such discoveries in the long run.

Imam Merchant recommends that those who are thinking about engaging in a secret marriage should 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 an existing marriage will deter the husband from seeking another wife. Both couples and singles should consider counseling and mediation with a qualified imam or Muslim counselor prior to making decisions about marriage. Likewise, community efforts should be made to assist singles in finding a spouse.

The practice of secret marriage further complicates the significantly complex and demanding dynamic that is marriage in general. When it comes to matters of religious devotion, to follow the mandates in the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is crucial. It is also wise to take into consideration the implications of marriage, societal norms, the laws of the country in which Muslims reside, and the wellbeing of the family unit in making decisions about best marital practices. The bottom line is that the Prophet (s) recommended making marriages public, just as he, himself, announced his marriages. Whether or not a Muslim chooses to marry, divorce, or remarry is not the question; rather it is whether he or she is following the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah in how they go about it.

Wendy DiazAuthor Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, translator, and poet. She is the Spanish content coordinator for WhyIslam and co-founder of Hablamos Islam, an education-based outreach project that produces resources about the Islamic religion and culture in the Spanish language. She is also the author of several bilingual children's books about Islam.

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