Why American Muslims don't care to legalize polygamy.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
July 24 2007 12:12 PM

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Why American Muslims don't care to legalize polygamy.

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.

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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."

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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.

Correction, July 25, 2007: This article originally misstated the release date of American Islam, by Paul M. Barrett. It was released in 2007. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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