The Great Polygamy Debate

The Great Polygamy Debate

What’s The Big Deal With Polygamy?

I never intended to write an article about polygamy. I know the emotion and debates it can drag up, so I’ve always avoided talking too much about this subject.

However, some of my previous articles where I did mention it, have brought in a slew of commentary on polygamy and Islam. And the vast majority of it is negative.

I’ve been through these debates before and they’re really depressing and annoying. I also think they’re kind of pointless. But for obvious reasons, this topic brings forth so many emotions that people are always willing to chime in with their two cents of wisdom.

Truthfully, I don’t see what the big deal is. Very rarely do these comments actually come from men or women who are currently involved in a polygamous marriage. I’m not even involved in a polygamous marriage and here I am writing an article about it.

I don’t see any logical reason for so many women (yes, it’s often women who have the most to say, and understandably so) whose husbands are not even considering polygamy to have such negative responses. But for whatever reason, they decide to make this issue their primary crusade in life.

Look, there are lots of abuses against Muslim women that rightfully deserve a lot of attention:

  • FGM – (Female Genital Mutilation)
  • Domestic violence
  • Inadequate access to education
  • Rape and other acts of sexual violence

But polygamy is not one of them.

For one thing, polygamy is statistically rare throughout the Muslim world. It is certainly more common in some parts of the world than others. But overall, it is not practiced nearly as often as its detractors like to pretend.

Second, polygamy is not abusive. You might not like it. It might be emotionally distressing. But it’s not abusive. The only thing that might get hurt is a woman’s feelings.

And if you trust in Allah, you’ll find that to be much less of a concern.

And the final reason I don’t believe polygamy deserves as much attention as people give to it is that Allah and His Messenger (pbuh) have allowed it. We must be very careful about saying something that Allah has made halaal is haraam.

Who Practices Polygamy?

As I mentioned, very few Muslims actually practice polygamy. I’m going to have to limit my discussion of polygamy to the cases I’ve seen. If you want to chime in on how it’s done in other parts of world, feel free to do so.

West Africa

This may be one of the few places in the Muslim world where polygamy is practiced a lot. I studied in Senegal, West Africa and at least a third of the men there had more more than one wife. The society accepts polygamy as just a part of life and I’ve never heard any opposition to it. It is widespread and everywhere.

While most Muslim men are financially prevented from taking a second wife in other parts of the world, that was not a problem in Senegal. I knew several poor (and that’s a subjective term) men who had multiple wives. Usually, everyone lived in one big compound and each wife had their own house within the compound. That house may not be much more than a hut, but it was theirs.

The families usually ate and worked together in groups. All of the wives helped out in the household chores like caring for babies and cooking and cleaning and such.

To me, those were some of the happiest families I’ve ever seen. These families did not have much but they were always willing to share what they had. Their children often memorized the entire Quran. I saw very little drama or fights within the families.

Except for the poverty, these were very happy situations. At least from what I saw.

Now, there were some men who did have a lot of money who did marry multiple wives. In these cases, they usually were able to build each wife their own private house with their own servants and all. Often these men were businessmen or government employees who traveled all over the country. So they usually had a wife in two or three different cities and they rarely got to see each other except for major celebrations.


Trinidad is a Western nation and as such, the Muslim community is much more modernized than in Senegal. Also, Trinidad has a mixture of several different cultures, unlike Senegal which is primarily homogeneous.

Islam was brought to Trinidad by Indian indentured servants. Over the years it eventually spread to African Trinidadians also. So now, there are two distinct groups of Muslims in Trinidad, though they do mix and even intermarry.

During my stay in Trinidad, I was mostly sequestered in the dorm of the Islamic school I was attending. So I did not get to interact with different families the way I did in Senegal. So most of my experience regarding polygamy in Trinidad is limited to those Muslims who worked and taught in the school and a few families I met outside the school.

I don’t know if polygamy is legally allowed in Trinidad. My guess is that it isn’t, since it is still a Western nation and Christianity is the largest religion. However, the Muslim community makes up a sizable portion of the population (about 10-15%) so they still have more political clout than Muslims in other nations.

Polygamy was certainly not practiced as frequently nor as openly as it was in Senegal. But there were still several men that did have more than one wife. This was usually limited to those men who had more money.

From what I could see, it appears that the Muslim community in Trinidad grudgingly accepts polygamy. But it isn’t flaunted about and I’m sure there are some wacky feminist groups out there trying to snuff it out.

The United States

Discussing polygamy and Islam in the USA is going to take a little more time. For one thing, I’m much more familiar with the happenings in this nation (I do live here). But also, there are many more cultures (both Islamic and otherwise) that influence marital decisions.

The cultural fabric of the United States is just way more complex than either Senegal or Trinidad.

Pakistani-American Muslims do not seem to accept polygamy that much. Regardless of what happens in their ancestral nation,they just don’t seem to go for it much here in America.

In general, Pakistani-American Muslims (which includes Muslims from India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka as well) are fairly well to do. They often joke about how it is part of their culture that everyone must become a doctor or engineer. So their communities usually have a lot of money and are very modernized and Westernized.

I have not heard too many Pakistani-American Muslims (men or women) speak out for polygamy. I’m sure they’re out there somewhere. But I just don’t see them too often. And I cannot think of a single Pakistani-American Muslim who has practiced polygamy. Not one.

Most Masjid’s that I’ve seen in the US that have primarily Pakistani administrations will flat-out not perform polygamous marriages. And I’ve heard with my own ears, Muslims leaders from these Masjids speak against polygamy.

Arab-American Muslims are a little more accepting of polygamy than Pakistani-Americans, in general. Arab-American Muslims are more often than not businessmen and entrepreneurs rather than doctors and engineers (of course there are Arab doctors and engineers; there just don’t seem to be as many as there are Pakistani). Therefore, the economic status of Arab-Americans can sometimes be a slightly less stable.

But I have known several Arab-American Muslims who did have a second wife at some point in their life. But it’s still a very, very small minority.

I have heard many more Arab-American Muslims speak out in favor of polygamy. I don’t want to hazard a guess as to why this is so; it just is. In fact, the only Arab-American men I’ve heard speak against it were those who had little knowledge about Islam and were very Westernized. Most Arab majority Masjids I’ve seen do not perform polygamous marriages, however.

The primary exception among Arabs is the Salafi community. Arab-Americans make up a significant part of the Salafi American community and the Salafis are very open and bold about declaring the allowance of polygamy. Salafi culture tends to imitate Saudi culture, and Saudi culture definitely supports polygamy.

African-American Muslims probably practice polygamy more than any other Muslim group in America. And while there is still significant pushback against polygamy in this community, it is more accepted there than either Pakistanis or Arabs.

African-American Muslim communities tend to have less money than other Muslim communities. Most African-American masjids are located in primarily African-American neighborhoods, which tend to be rather poor (i.e. ghetto).

Unlike Pakistani and Arab Muslims, Islam has not been a part of the African-American community for a long time. Most American converts to Islam are African-American. And many come from single-parent families and broken homes.

The only African-American Muslim community I’ve heard speak out against polygamy were from the W.D. Mohammed community. However, Imam W.D. Mohammed himself married a second wife later in his life, and I’ve known at least two Imams within this community that practiced polygamy. Go figure.

A large segment of the African-American Muslim community are also Salafis. And as I mentioned before, they are definitely pro-polygamy. And this may be the only case where I’ve actually seen abuse of polygamy.

It is well known among African-American Muslims how some popular Salafi Muslim Imams and speakers have practiced “serial” polygamy. These Imams would travel around the country giving talks and lectures at different Salafi Masjids. And they became notorious for marrying a woman in these communities, consummating the marriage, and then divorcing her within a month.

Well, this might be more abuse of divorce than it is abuse of polygamy. Either way, it’s abuse and it’s wrong. If you’re not familiar with the African-American Muslim community, you might not have ever heard of this. But is has happened and has caused a lot of problems and corruption.

However, I should stress that these instances are exceptions and not the rule. Most Salafis do not practice polygamy, and most of those that do, do not do so in such an abusive manner.

The main problem I do see with African-American Muslims who practice polygamy (Salafi and otherwise) is taking a second wife when they really can’t afford it. Very often a brother is barely making enough money to take care of one wife, and he decides to marry a second one. This is the primary problem with most African-American men who practice polygamy.

They do so when they just can’t afford it.

The Reality Of Polygamy

While polygamy is practiced more among African-American Muslims than other groups, the reality is that it is probably needed there more. Even though most African-Americans probably can’t afford it.

There are just not enough African-American men for every African-American woman. It’s as simple as that.

One in fifteen African-American men are in prison. One third of all African-American men will spend some time in prison. And then of course you have some African-American men marry outside their race and some who are gay and some who die early deaths for all sorts of reasons.

These problems are slightly mitigated among African-American Muslim men, but they still exist. We all know that a large number of African-Americans come to Islam while in prison. And while that’s a beautiful thing that people can find the truth in such a dark place, the reality is that many of those men will never be free. So they are taken out of the equation forever.

So the opportunity exists more in the African-American Muslim community for polygamy because there are just so many more single Muslim women.

Of course, you might say these African-American Muslim women can marry men from other ethnic groups. That does happen from time to time. But that is not a solution.

For one thing, it just doesn’t happen too often. I’ve known very few Arab-Americans who’ve married African-American women, and even fewer Pakistani-Americans. I’ve known many more Caucasian Muslims who married African-American Muslim women, but that’s still kind of rare. The truth is, that most men prefer to marry someone who looks like their mother. It’s not racism or bigotry; it’s just plain old human psychology.

Furthermore, if every unmarried African-American Muslim woman marries someone from another ethnic group, that doesn’t solve the problem of too many single women. It just shifts the problem elsewhere. It would shift the problem from African-Americans to Arabs and Pakistanis.

Besides, that’s a hypothetical situation that’s never going to happen anyway.

However, despite the fact that polygamy would solve this problem, it still rarely happens, even among African-American Muslims.

  • As I’ve already mentioned, the financial costs of maintaining two or more families prohibits most men from practicing polygamy.
  • And then there’s the drama and emotions involved. The first wife usually throws a fit if the man talks about taking a second wife and the man usually abandons his plans. And those that do go through with it, have to now deal with drama from two different women. That’s enough to scare the average man away from taking a second wife.
  • We can’t ignore the fact that polygamy is illegal in the U.S. I think it’s idiotic that a nation that allows gay marriage bans polygamy but that’s a sign of the times we live in. What is evil and reprehensible is permitted, and what is good and beneficial is forbidden. Additionally, it’s perfectly legal to cheat on your wife; you just can’t marry your mistress. Odd, huh?
  • Society doesn’t accept polygamy. That is probably the biggest obstacle, even more than the legal problem (most American courts would prefer to stay out of people’s private lives so polygamy is rarely punished). Since society doesn’t accept it (though they are accepting gay marriage more and more) that makes it all the more difficult for a family to openly practice polygamy. There are some parts of the country where Muslims do practice polygamy more openly than others. Usually large urban areas like New York City and Philadelphia, are much more accommodating to polygamy than smaller cities and towns.

This article is now much longer than I originally intended. Inshallah, I’ll continue this discussion in a future posting.

6 Responses to The Great Polygamy Debate

  1. This was a fatwa from Darul Uloom Deoband on polygamy some years ago.

    Question: 38097 India

    I am married since last 9 years and have 2 children. During my college days I had one way love on a Muslim girl but she did not accept it then. But today after so many years she is not getting married due to some problem with her hair, she has lost 2-3 inches hairs from front and due to which she is not getting married and now we are again in contact and again I gave her my proposal for marriage and she accepted it and now we are planning to get married, she has no problem of me married, also she knows that I have 2 children and then also she is ready. So please advice me whether it will be good for me to marry second time?

    Answer: 38097 Apr 10,2012

    (Fatwa: 776/655/B=1433)

    According to Shariah, it is lawful to keep two wives at the same time but it is not generally acceptable in Indian custom. Here in India it is like to invite hundreds of problems to keep two wives. Moreover, the husband generally cannot maintain justice and equality between two wives. Hence it is better to have only one wife as the Quran said:

    فان لمَ تَعْدِلُواْ فَوَاحِدَةً

    You should discard the idea of second marriage; otherwise you would feel sorry later.

    Allah (Subhana Wa Ta’ala) knows Best

    Darul Ifta,
    Darul Uloom Deoband

    It is also the position of the Shafii and Hanbali schools of Islamic thought that it is best and also sunnah to restrict oneself to only one wife.

    The reasoning their scholars provided for that is that injustice between two wives is haram, therefore it is better to avoid the risk of committing injustice in polygamy by avoiding polygamy altogether, even if one believes that he can be equitable between two women.

    Here are some of the quotes from classical works of these scholars.

    Ash-Shaafi’i is of the view that it is desirable to confine oneself to marrying only one although it is permissible for him to marry more than one. This is to avoid being unfair by being more inclined to some of them than others, or being unable to financially support them. [al-Hawi al-Kabir 11/417]

    Ash-Shirbeeni from the Shaafi’i School of jurisprudence, said in Mughni al-Muhtaj 4/207: “It is a Sunnah not to marry more than one wife if there is no apparent need.” [End of quote]

    Moreover, Al-Maawardi, from the Shaafi’i School of jurisprudence, said: “Allaah has permitted a man to marry up to four wives, saying: {…two or three or four…}, but Allaah advised that it is desirable for man to marry only one wife, saying: {…But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one} [al-Hawi al-Kabir 11/417]

    Ibn Qudaamah may Allaah have mercy upon him from the Hanbali School of jurisprudence, said in Ash-Sharh Al-Kabeer: [B]“It is more appropriate to marry only one wife. The author of Al-Muharrar [i.e. Abul Barakaat Al-Majd ibn Taymiyyah] said this, based on the saying of Allaah (which means) {…But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one}.” [End of quote from Ash-Sharh Al-Kabeer authored by Shams-ud-deen Ibn Qudaamah]

    Shaykh Ibn Uthaymeen may Allaah have mercy upon him said: “It is safer to restrict oneself to only one wife. However, if one sees that one wife is not enough for him and he cannot maintain his chastity by having only one wife, then we enjoin him to marry a second, a third, or a fourth, until he feels comfortable, lowers his gaze, and enjoys peace of mind.” [Excerpt from Ash-Sharh Al-Mumti’]

    Imam Ahmed ibn Naqib al Masri said ‘’It is fitter to confine oneself to just one’’ [Umdatu Salik]

    Imam Ghazali said in his kitab al nikah: “It does not call for two wives, [since] plurality may render life miserable and disrupt the affairs of the home.”

    Also 99.99% of polygamous marriages which I have known have been a brutal catastrophe, especially in the West. Men abuse this a lot, thus tarnishing this institution. Many wives and children, especially the first wife are abused in polygamous marriages and many are even abandoned for a second wife.

    This is the case with both practising Muslims -Salafis, who often dump their wives on welfare benefits- and non-practising Muslims-many of whom even have illegitimate relationships with women before marrying them.

    • I understand your reasoning, but what has become catastrophic and is worsening exponentially yearly is the astronomical number of marriageable mature single women and mothers within the African American community.with the latter raising their children alone…this sort of imbalance degenerates a culture overtime and needs immediate attention.

      Most of the abuse to women in western culture, IE., the US, is happening under the cultural and ethical auspices of traditional monogamy, and too often, to vulnerable single women. If respectfully and properly orchestrated, polygyny offers, otherwise single woman, security and support in a multitude of ways, for a woman or mother would be able to survive and prosper within a complete communal family structure rather than struggling in this society and economy alone.

      The fact is that polygyny today has to reflect the world today, and today, many women are skilled professionals and don’t need to be solely supported by their husbands income alone, so it shouldn’t be merely the concern of a man/husband supporting several wives, but can a family, which includes a husband and several wives survive and prosper collectively together.

      Polygyny should have a sociocultural and socioeconomic purpose relative to the environment in which one must strive.

  2. Please dont label South East Asians as Pakistani.

    It is very offensive for an Indian or a Bangladeshi to be called Pakistani. I know it is very racist, but still.

    Call them South East Asian Muslims or just Muslims instead.

    Jazakallah Khairun

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