Note: This piece is an introduction to Dr. Mohammad Fadel’s scholarly article on Islamic marriage, temporary marriage, secret marriage and polygamous marriage.
Sometimes even holy men have their wicked schemes. Over the past few months, my colleagues and I have learned from multiple sources about a set of Muslim celebrity-scholars and their peers who have been pursuing secret second, third, and fourth marriages. The exact details, protected here for the privacy of the individuals affected most – the women involved — are both disturbing and delicate.
In examining these cases, a pattern emerges: a highly esteemed man with spiritual influence or worldly power preys on vulnerable women – new converts, eager students, or isolated individuals with little social clout within the community. He tells her she is special. He tells her this marriage is their right as Muslim man and woman. He tells her not to tell his first wife. Then, he disappears. He leaves her with little remedy, a devastating secret, and a horrible mess to clean up.
After wrestling with these stories for some time, I’m still not sure what is most alarming about them. Is it the idea that a first wife was left in the dark for the sake of a man’s ego and inability to control his sexual urges, or that a second wife was told to keep her marriage secret or risk losing this same man’s love, his particularly special love? Perhaps the most nauseating element of these stories is that they involve men who seem well versed in our religious tradition, men who have always given the appearance of living exemplary lives, yet here their actions have risked the faith of many. Losing one’s religion is no small thing. The impact these intentional manipulations have had should leave all of us sleepless.
Even worse, who else knew and did nothing about it? Here, some of our leaders who were informed about these particular incidences have disappointed us. By privileging the reputations of individual men over the health of entire communities, they have left their flocks vulnerable and exposed. In some instances, the women who were approached by their teachers for these secret marriages – women who were often young, newly converted, or vulnerable from previous abuses – have been blamed instead. Have those with influence who were informed proactively called to remove these men from their positions, publicly informed communities about these dangers, and implemented transparent policy changes? Or, have institutional leaders, board members, fellow scholars, and leading activists simply looked the other way?
Con men come in different stripes but the effects of their choices are often similar. As a woman who has had to live with the consequences of a former husband’s immoral secrets, I know firsthand the destruction that results. Secrets born out of manipulation and self-aggrandizement have the power to irreparably damage lives and religious identities.
It is not for any of us to ascertain what is best for these women – the first wives, the subsequent wives, and their children. Learning your marriage is a lie is an incredibly painful experience. These women’s decisions and choices are theirs to make. As for those of us who live in the same community as these men or who are their students – we must hold our scholars and leaders to higher standards. We cannot look away for fear of tarnishing these men’s reputations when we see their wives and children humiliated and broken.
We as a community must ask questions rooted in common sense and coupled with our religious tradition. What is moral? What is permissible? How do we respond to secret marriages as individuals? What should our institutional responses be when things go deeply awry? What does community accountability look like here?
On that quest for answers, there will likely be many thoughts and opinions. Here is one, intelligently written and well researched. Please read it, share it, and think deeply about what must be done. People’s lives and their faith depend on our responses to this darkness within our communities. Silence is not an option.
Samar Kaukab is an altM columnist and Advisory Board member.