About a week or so ago, I was invited to participate in a town hall focusing on religious freedom in America and the contagion of so-called “anti-Sharia” legislation around the country when the topic of Muslim sister wives arose. By way of background, approximately 50 “anti-Sharia” bills have been introduced in more than 20 states and three have passed, including those in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Tennessee.
The “Save Our State Amendment” — the constitutional state amendment of which about 70 percent of Oklahoma voters approved last November — forbade courts from even “considering” Sharia and it was subsequently enjoined by a federal district Judge prior to certification by the state Board of Elections.
The Judge did so on the grounds that it is most likely unconstitutional as it would infringe upon the peaceful practice of religion by American Muslims guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
I was specifically asked to address the civil rights implications of such legislation for the American Muslim community. It is worth noting that observance of Sharia is typically a private and personal matter for observant Muslims. For instance, volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating money to the local food bank is observance of Sharia. Showing kindness to animals is observance of Sharia. Refraining from lying, back-stabbing, cheating or stealing is observance of Sharia. Compassion, mercy and forgiveness towards others is observance of Sharia.
What about polygamy?
As with most town halls, a robust Q and A ensued and I was asked about the Islamic practice of polygamy within the American Muslim community. The topic — shrouded in misunderstanding — necessitates brief discussion and clarification.
The Muslim world is frequently regarded as misogynistic and the misplaced belief that Muslim men may unconditionally marry up to four wives may contribute to the stereotype. (It always amuses me that men who may know little else about the Islamic faith seem to know about the ostensible right to four wives).
To be sure, there are liberal and conservative interpretations of the Quranic verses pertaining to polygamy within Islamic Law.
According to liberal interpretations, polygamy is a pre-Islamic practice and Islamic Law attempted to limit it by restricting the number of wives permitted. Polygamy was not only practiced without restriction by the pagan Arabs who inhabited the Arabian peninsula at the time, but also by adherents in other faith communities as well. In fact, polygamy continues to be practiced in other faith communities today and has inspired shows like “Big Love” on HBO.
Some liberal Islamic scholars go so far as to say that the Quran implicitly prohibits polygamy. Proponents of this liberal view point argue: while polygamy is permitted, the very Quranic verse sanctioning the practice also prescribes a condition to its exercise, a condition which God Himself admits is exceedingly difficult to fulfill which is treating co-wives with perfect equality.
These scholars point to the verse in the Quran which states, “You are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire.” [Chapter 4, verse 29] They claim that the conditions attached to polygamy are so rigorous as to make it a practical impossibility.
The conservative viewpoint on the subject is that polygamy is permitted but frowned upon.
These more conservative scholars argue that the Quranic verse regarding polygamy was revealed in the immediate aftermath of a battle some 1500 years ago against pagan Arabs where a large number of Muslim men were killed and a lot of women and children were left unprotected in what was largely a tribal society.
In contrast, polygamy is habitually misunderstood by some proponents in the context of satiating men’s sexual appetite. Yet, this is largely attributable to cultural bias without sound basis in Islamic doctrine.
What about the American Muslim community?
Islamic Law requires adherents to abide by the laws of the land in which they reside. Regardless of whether an American Muslim subscribes to a liberal or conservative viewpoint of polygamy, as noted above, they are religiously prohibited from engaging in polygamous relationships because it is illegal in the United States to do so.
End of inquiry.
(Photo Credit: Margot Trudell)
Engy Abdelkader is a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a human rights attorney based in the New York/New Jersey area. With more than ten years of legal experience, Ms. Abdelkader has represented clients in a number of notable cases involving a variety of legal matters including civil rights, immigration, and foreclosure defense. She has also researched issues related to racial and ethnic justice as well as the Muslim community and Islamic Law. This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.