What To Expect When You're Expecting a Co-Wife
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.
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.
Andrea Useem is a freelance religion writer and editor. Her Web site is www.ReligionWriter.com.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.