This article appears in conjunction with a special weeklong series on Islam published by On Faith, the Washington Post’s religion blog. To read more, visit On Faith.
So, you’re happily married to the Muslim man of your dreams when, suddenly, he drops the p-bomb: polygamy. For Aneesa Azeez, a 23-year-old Muslim convert and college graduate, her husband’s announcement of his intention to marry a second wife devastated her. “I am shocked, hurt, angry and confused, all in one,” she wrote in a letter to him.
Seems like a recipe for divorce, right? Polygamy is illegal, after all. But Azeez didn’t play that card with her husband, 15 years her senior. Under the law that mattered to her—classical Islamic law—she accepted her husband’s right to take up to four wives, as allowed by the Quran, as long as he could treat them equally.
At first, Azeez wrestled with jealousy toward her co-wife and pined for her husband on the nights and weekends he stayed with his second wife, who lived half an hour away. But eventually, a peacefulness settled in her heart and a friendship with her co-wife blossomed: “I am in polygyny because I want to be,” she wrote on her blog, Polygynous Blessings, whose initial entries are collected in a self-published book of the same title. (Polygyny is the more precise term for the type of polygamy in which a man marries more than one wife.) Azeez’s blog is just one of several in which American Muslims write thoughtful, sometimes wry, but usually positive commentary about living polygamously; other notables include Thoughts of a First Wife and Big Faith.
Azeez, who works from her home in upstate New York as a newspaper copy editor, could be a poster child in the movement to legalize polygamy—the Muslim equivalent of the poignantly normal gay and lesbian couples lining up outside San Francisco’s City Hall in 2004. But she won’t be marching in the streets, calling for the legalization of polygamy, as some Protestant and ex-Mormon polygamists have been doing. For the tiny minority of American Muslims who engage in polygamy, its illegality is close to irrelevant. And for mainstream American Muslims, who are dealing with enough negative publicity as it is, let alone the fact that polygamy gives many of them the heebie-jeebies, the legal status quo suits them just fine.
So, while the existence of Azeez’s book, which had sold 150 copies as of mid-July, won’t necessarily prompt the Department of Homeland Monogamy to raise its threat level to yellow, American Muslim polygamists are still a group to watch.
For one thing, they may be almost as numerous as the fundamentalist Mormons who make all the headlines (and score big ratings for HBO). Debra Mubashshir Majeed, a religious studies professor at Beloit College who is researching a book on American Muslim polygamy, estimates that less than 1 percent of American Muslims indulge in the practice—and these practitioners are most often African-American Muslims or recent immigrants from West Africa. That percentage may seem infinitesimal, given that the most recent estimate of the American Muslim population puts their numbers at 2.35 million, but it does mean there are perhaps as many as 20,000 American Muslim polygamists. In comparison, the current best guess about the number of fundamentalist Mormons involved in polygamy in the United States, Mexico, and Canada is only 37,500, according to Brooke Adams, who covers the polygamy beat at the Salt Lake Tribune. (Yes, polygamy has its own beat—in Utah, at least.) And while Muslim polygamists are quiet now, their political awareness may grow over time; after all, fundamentalist Mormon polygamists lived for decades in disparate and secretive communities, only recently emerging to claim their place at the civic table.
American Muslim polygamists are unafraid of prosecution, and they sometimes seem almost puzzlingly unconcerned with the illegality of their conjugal life. Azeez takes only minor steps to conceal her husband’s identity, and only then to ensure his job is not jeopardized. “It’s not like everyone is being rounded up and thrown in jail,” she says—in stark contrast to fundamentalist Mormons who recall the raid of the Short Creek, Ariz., polygamist community in 1953. Similarly, Senegalese-American hip-hop star Akon casually revealed to a New York radio host in late 2006 that he not only had four mothers growing up but also currently has several wives at home in Atlanta. (He said he would go public with his “multimonogamous” family only if he had his own reality show. Just imagine it: Big Love meets Run’s House.)
And prominent American Imam Siraj Wahhaj, who was the first Muslim cleric to ever offer the invocation at the U.S. House of Representatives, was quoted in Paul Barrett’s 2007 book American Islam *as saying that he performs polygamous unions at his Al-Taqwa mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y. “If a man can have a hundred girlfriends, and it’s legal, I don’t say you can’t have more than one wife,” he reasons. Of course, Wahhaj is in the minority on this point; most mainstream imams would not condone the open flouting of the law. Tahir Anwar, imam of a well-established San Jose, Calif., mosque, writes in an e-mail that he would discourage any Muslims seeking a polygamous marriage and would not perform the ceremony: “It is not allowed in the land that we live in, a land to whom we have promised that we will follow all of its laws.”
This idea that Muslims are contractually bound to follow the laws of the country in which they live—an idea rooted in the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed—is theologically sound, but only up to a point. It presumes that the laws of the land are immutable. It presumes that America is not, in fact, a place where a motivated group of individuals can mobilize others to change laws and social mores.
So, why aren’t all American Muslim leaders jumping on the “legalize polygamy” bandwagon? After all, Muslim parents have banded together to call for public schools to recognize Muslim holidays, and Muslim cabdrivers are trying to protect their right to refuse alcohol-carrying passengers; shouldn’t American Muslim leaders step in to secure the rights of their co-religionists to exercise their marital preferences?
As urban anthropologist Robert Dannin points out in his 2002 ethnography, Black Pilgrimage to Islam, some of the most intense and divisive feelings about polygamy are found within the Muslim community itself. Many Muslim women, of course, are frankly relieved that the law of the land forbids husbands from taking multiple wives. But Muslim religious leaders, who are by definition male, may have slightly different motivations in accepting the legal status quo. At a moment when leading presidential candidates can suggest the routine wiretapping of mosques and nearly half of the American public has a negative view of Islam, championing polygamy hardly seems like a winning strategy.
Back in 1890, when the federal government was preparing to dissolve the Mormon church, confiscate its property, and possibly even disenfranchise all its members in large part because of polygamy, the church’s then-president, Wilford Woodruff, publicly declared his advice to all Latter-Day Saints to “refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.” Although American Muslim leaders have not been backed into such an uncomfortable corner, they are quietly issuing their own 1890 manifesto: consenting to theological accommodation as a price of American belonging.