The big cost of big love: A scholarly analysis

The show Big Love has also added to the popular imagination about polygamous households. While the Mormon Fundamentalists were in the national spotlight, Muslims have quietly practiced polygyny in America. Barbara Hagerty writes, “No one knows how many Muslims in the U.S. live in polygamous families. But according to academics researching the issue, estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000 people”
Big Love is a popular show about a Mormon fundamentalist, Bill Henrickson, his three wives, and combined nine children. The issue of polygyny came into national spotlight following the government seizure of 416 children from the Mormon ranches in 2008.(West). While the issue was rape and physical abuse of minors through forced marriages, the practice of polygamy within this branch of Mormon Fundamentalists brought the question of polygyny to national attention. The show Big Love has also added to the popular imagination about polygamous households. While the Mormon Fundamentalists were in the national spotlight, Muslims have quietly practiced polygyny in America. Barbara Hagerty writes, “No one knows how many Muslims in the U.S. live in polygamous families. But according to academics researching the issue, estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000 people” (HAGERTY).

Many people wonder how can that be? Bigamy is illegal in the United States. That is true, but the reality is that many Muslims Muslim religious leaders will contract religious marriages and do not record them with the state. In fact, two Muslims don’t need an imam to contract a marriage. They just need the groom, the bride, and two witnesses (which may include the wali who acts on behalf of the bride). Many Muslim marriages are not recorded, making it difficult to quantify polygynous marriages or study their success rates. Most of us go off anecdotal evidence.

Just want to be clear, as a Muslim I cannot make something halal (permissible by Islamic law) haram (forbidden). If three or more people choose this as their lifestyle, I say more power to them. But I do have strong feelings about women who get polygyny thrust upon them by or women who are berated because they do not want to participate in a polygynous marriage. Polygamy is a controversial topic that probably draws more heat than hijab or niqab. The discourse on the issue often insults and belittles both the Muslim women who practice it and those who chose not to engage in it.

While many people critique Islam for curtailing women’s rights, Islam ensured women’s rights and put limits on the exploitation of women that occurred in Pre-Islamic Arabica. The reality is that during the 7th century, Islam put restrictions on the practice of polygamy. There was not a limit on the number of wives a man could have 10, 20, 30, 40, etc. Men could inherit their father’s wives. Also, the way polygamy was practice did not emphasize the husband’s responsibility for maintaining his households. It was common for the wife to remain with her family and that the man visited her. Muslim marriage made the men shoulder the responsibility as women moved to their husband’s households.

Muslims are encouraged to marry and it is considered half of our religion. Imam Ghazaly writes, “For earning lawful gain, supporting a family, seeking to obtain offspring, and tolerating the manners of women constitute forms of worship whose merits do not fall short of supererogatory acts of worship” (Ghazaly). The Qur’an tells us: “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, three, or four, but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one…(Surah al-Nisa, 3). Many of those opposed to polygamy will point out that shortly after this verse Allah warns Muslim men that is impossible. Most Muslims in America do not condone polygamy. In fact, many polygynous families are often shunned. Carolyn Rouse, who wrote a thoughtful study on African American Muslim women, Engaged Surrender wrote, “Men who have cowives are judged by how well they follow the edict to treat the wives equally and provide for them financially”(Rouse 68).

For many years I have steered clear of this subject, even though I’m known for courting controversy. One reason is that this is not an issue in my marriage since we have decided that our marriage will not be polygynous and it is stipulated so in my marriage. But even more so, a major reason is because of my ambivalence towards the topic. Well, let me correct that, I have some strong feelings about it on a personal and ideological level. My strong feelings about polygyny have came out in a recent discussion on a sister’s blog as I defended a sister who was critiqued for raising the question about how financially prepared one Muslim man was to engage in polygyny. The sister wrote:

Please stay strong and always expect your rights to be fulfilled. It is about 55K to support 2 adults and 2 children for your spouse/yourself and his children from the other marriage. If he chooses to add to your family with another wife – he better be able to pay for it. I know you are gainfully employed but it would make me sad for you to subsidize additional wives by paying your own bills. I don’t wish to seem rude and I don’t how it is in the BAM community but I do know many White coverts who end up subsidizing a husband’s additional wives by paying their own bills or collecting welfare in various forms and that is wrong. If he can have more than one, he needs to fully take care of what he has. I know you know this, but love can make us not always act in our best interests.

Another sister had a major problem with this sister’s comments. And that’s when I intervened in the conversation. It was that intervention that inspired this long drawn post. My aim is to show that it is possible to ascertain the minimum amount a man should have before taking on a second spouse. Further, I will argue that Muslim men should strive to create self sufficient households where their families can live without need of government aid or assistance (unless unforeseen circumstances such as disability, unemployment, or illness). The same goals that apply to monogamous marriages applies to polygynous marriages. The goals of marriage in Islam are for the husband and wife to provide each other with comfort and support and to help ensure the propagation. Carolyn Rouse writes, “statistics in the African American Sunni community on divorce and out-of-wedlock births are high, and the social expectations and pressures of keeping these statistics high are at odds wtih the Islamic ideal” (Rouse 153-154).
Two people are the basic social unit, and a marriage is a social contract that helps build community. The Quran states:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means.” (Qur’an 4: 34)

Muslim men have a duty to provide for and support their wives. And men who are not able to support a family are encouraged to fast, as evidenced by what the Prophet (saws) advised a group of young men without wealth:

“O young people! Whoever among you can marry, should marry, because it helps him lower his gaze and guard his modesty (i.e. his private parts from committing illegal sexual intercourse etc.), and whoever is not able to marry, should fast, as fasting diminishes his sexual power.”

Muslim scholars have outlined the duties and obligations men and women have towards each other. Rouse writes, “Women, however, are usually attracted to the man’s requirement to provide an income, to women’s rights as stated in the Qur’an, and to the role model of the Prophet and his wives.” She points out that men often assert their dominance without fulfilling their role of provider (Rouse 56). Financial problems are a major strain in most marriages. Islamic law speaks about the suitability of marriage, where a man should be able to provide for his wife according to her social station. That is why Zaid’s (r.a.) marriage did not work with Zainab (r.a.). In the case of Zaid and Zainab, lineage played a part in their incompatibility. lslamic scholarship has outlined suitability factors in determining marriage matches. This comes into play when scholars determine what a man should pay to support his wife. So, if a woman grew up in a one bedroom shack and is accustomed to that then that’s fine. However, if she is used to having servants, then a man is obligated to provide for that. Islamic law does take into consideration local custom, so it is possible to consider standards of living in the 21st century. Instead of tribal lineage or servants, occupation and class may be determinants in suitability. For most Black American Muslim women, the question is not type of occupation, but whether or not a brother can be gainfully employed. This is especially an important question considering the numbers of Black American Muslim men who convert in prison. Rouse writes:

Marriages rarely end because the woman refuses to fulfill her Islamic obligations. She will take care of domestic chores, willingly seek employment to supplement her family’s income, educate her children, dress conservatively, and have sex with her husband when he so desires. But women often find that fulfilling their obligations is no guarantee that their husbands will be good providers, fathers, or husbands. (Rouse 56)

This is even the case when a woman acquiesces to polygyny. Often, American Muslim converts, and as one sister pointed out, Black and White, are not financially supported in marriage as their husbands look to polygyny as a viable option.

Now is this fair? Was this sister correct in bringing up the standard of living issue? Was $57, 000 an arbitrary number just thrown out there? Is it reasonable for American Muslim women to expect a man to be the sole provider? Finally, is it reasonable for an American Muslim women to expect that her husband can financially support two households before taking on another wife. First, let us look to the basic requirements for having a wife?

Islamic law also states the MINIMUM that he should be able to afford, which is shelter, food, some clothing, and grooming. I am not saying that women shouldn’t contribute to the household. But I am interested in what is the Islamic position on rights and obligations in a marriage. How can we reasonably determine what a man needs to make to maintain a household free of debt, without the help of public or private assistance.

Imam Ghazaly writes, “Thus the husband’s rights toward the wife are many, but most important are two: the first is safeguarding and sheltering; the other is to be spared unnecessary demands and the need for having to provide them if they are unlawful” (Ghazaly). As far as support, he outlines:

One should not be stingy toward them nor should he be extravagant; rather he should be moderate. The Almighty said, “and eat and drink but exceed not the bounds” [Qur’an 7:31 (Ali)]. He also said, “And let not thy hand be chained to thy neck nor open it with a complete opening” [17:29].87 The Messenger of God said, “The most favored among you is the one who is most generous toward his wife.”“ The Prophet also said, “A dinar spent for the sake of God, a dinar spent for ransoming a slave, a dinar offered [as charity] to a poor man, and a dinar spent on your wife -the one that earns you the greatest reward is the one spent on your wife.”(Ghazaly)

Shaikh Mohammad Iqbal supports this view:

It is narrated by Abu-Darda (radhiallaho anho) that the Prophet (sallallaho alaihi wasallam) instructed me: “Spend as much as possible upon your family. . . ” (Kanz) This is indeed a source of encouragement to spend for the comfort of women. The husband is also under an obligation to maintain his wife irrespective of whether she is rich or poor. Those who are not generous with their wives should take heed of this advice (Iqbal)

Within the context of polygyny, the obligation towards support does not diminish. A Muslim man is still required to support his wives. Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari writes:

It is one of the foremost requirements from a man who has more than one wife to treat all his wives equally and justly. There are grave warnings mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah for oppressing, mistreating or not being fair with the wives. The Qur’an conditioned the permissibility of marrying more than one wife with justice and fair treatment.
Allah Most High says:
“If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, three, or four, but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one…(Surah al-Nisa, 3).
It is a grave sin to treat the wives unequally. Any man who wishes to take a second wife also has to meet the important condition of fair treatment of all his wives. The verse quoted above includes the command to treat wives equally, and anyone who is unable to do so should marry only one wife.
Sayyiduna Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “A man who has two wives and he does not deal justly with them will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment with half his body paralysed.” (Sunan Tirmizi, no. 1141)
Equal treatment includes all social, economical and physical needs. It is very difficult for human beings to be completely fair, a fact which is recognised by the Qur’an:
”You are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: but turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air)… (Surah al-Nisa, 129).

The above verse alludes to the fact that, a man must be fair in his external treatment of his wives, in that he should spend equal time with all of them, spend out on them equally, etc. However, if his heart is inclined towards one or he has more love for one wife over the other, then that is not blameworthy, for it is beyond his control. (Second Marriage and Rights of Wives)

Now considering the edict to try to treat wives equally, we need to look at the basic requirements for marriage. Shaikh Muhammad al-Kawthari writes, “it is your husband’s responsibility to provide you with financial support and maintain you according to his means. He must provide you with adequate shelter, food, clothes and pay all the normal bills, for the responsibility of maintenance rests entirely on the shoulder of the husband” (al-Kawthari). In another question where a young woman asked about marrying someone without income, Ustadha Zaynab Ansari answers:

According to Reliance of the Traveller, a book of Shafi’i jurisprudence, “a man who needs to marry (because of desire for sexual intercourse) and has enough money (for the bride’s marriage payment), for clothing for the season of the year in which he marries, and the expenditures of one day) is recommended to do so (to protect his religion). One who needs to marry but does not have enough to pay for these expenses is recommended not to marry, but rather to suppress his sexual desire by fasting…” [Reliance, m1.1]
Once married, the husband is required to provide financial support in the form of:
1. Food
2. Articles for personal hygiene
3. Clothing
4. Housing
5. And any expenses related to pregnancy and childbirth
[Reliance, m11.0-11.8]
Sacred Law sets down the minimum standards for financial support. In other words, a man has to have these minimum requirements in order to get married. If a man does not have the means to marry, he should fast because this is a way of guarding his chastity. If fasting does not suppress his desire, then he is permitted to borrow what he needs to get married.(Ansari)

I alluded to these positions in my response on the blog post. However, there was some contention that outsiders were trying to impose our own standards. The reality is that Islamic law has a tolerance for customary law. So, we can find out what are normal standards of living for women of different stations. But, if we want to be more democratic, you can use a general figure to see what is the mimimum that a husband needs to make to sustain a family without need of public or private assistance.

I have not yet found a ruling where a Muslim scholar tells a Muslim women to contribute to her household so that her husband may take a second wife. Taking these rulings, we are left with an important question: What is reasonable? In order to answer this question, I looked to several studies conducted by the United States Government census, California, Wisconsin, and University of Washington. First, I sought to find out what was poverty level. According to the US government, a two member household earning $14,570 or less is at poverty level. For a four member household, that number is $22,050.00(Govt.). Most studies on poverty have indicated that the government measurement of poverty is outdated. It does not take into account many of the changes in cost of living. So, I began to look at more sophisticated studies to get a figure of how much it costs to “get by,” meaning that a family can afford to pay basic expenses including, housing, utilities food, transportation, childcare, and health care costs without government aid. One article states, “…the poverty level does not reflect the true cost of supporting a family. In addition, the current poverty measure is a national standard that does not adjust for the substantial variation in the cost of living from state to state and between urban and rural areas” (Measuring Poverty in the United States). I first considered the state I grew up in, California, which is known for its high cost of living. Getting By, was a fascinating study that showed how many families are driven into debt or public assistance. “ The standard of living envisioned is more than a “bare bones” existence, yet covers only basic expenses, allowing little to no room for “extras” such as college savings, vacations, or emergencies”(California Budget Project).

The study found that, on average, a two parent family with one employed parent needs an average annual income of $54,039 or almost $26.00 per hour to get by. Two parents working, need to make much more to cover childcare costs. They must make $75,000 or both parents working at $18.15 an hour. (California Budget Project) Now where I currently live, a recent study on Self-Sufficiency Standard in Philadelphia explains:

“To survive in Philadelphia without food stamps or other government assistance, a family of four needs to make nearly $60,000 a year – a hard-to-fathom ’sticker-shock’ number that shows how expensive life has become. According to a study being released Thursday, two adults with one preschooler and one school-age child have to take in $59,501 a year to live on a bare-bones budget in the city. In 2008, the same family of four needed $53,611 to make it in Philadelphia. That’s the word from the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Pennsylvania, a highly respected University of Washington analysis that comes out every two years. The problem is that nearly 62 percent of Philadelphia households take in less than $50,000 a year, according to census data analyzed by Dave Elesh, a sociologist at Temple University…” (Lubrano)

The other issue that the blogger brought up was that women could make a contribution to the household and these things are frequently negotiated within monogamous and polygynous households. This is also recognized by renowned scholars, such as the late Sheikh `Abd al-`Aziz Ibn Baz, the former Mufti of Saudi Arabia. He wrote:

The issue of sharing the household expenses should be settled by mutual consultation and consent. It should not be a matter of dispute.
However, if we are to talk about what is obligatory, then we have to discuss it in detail:
1. If the husband has stipulated in the marriage contract that expenses are to be shared or else he will not let his wife work, then Muslims are bound by their conditions, as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Muslims are bound by their conditions, except for conditions which forbid something that is permitted or permit something that is forbidden.” And he (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “The conditions which are most deserving to be fulfilled are those by means of which sexual intimacy becomes permissible for you. “
Hence, the wife becomes bound by this condition.
2. If the wife has not made any condition, the household expenses are all the responsibility of the husband and the wife does not have to pay any of the household expenses. Allah says: ( Let the rich man spend according to his means)(Al-Talaq 65: 7).
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “You (men) are obliged to spend on them and clothe them according to what is reasonable.“
So, managing the expenses of the household is the duty of the husband. He is the one who has to take care of the needs of the household, his own, and those of his wife and children. The wife’s money and salary belong to her alone in return for her work and her efforts, because the husband concluded the marriage contract on that basis, and he did not stipulate any condition that she should share in the household expenses – unless she gives away a part of her salary out of her own good pleasure, as Allah said: (But if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it, and enjoy it without fear of any harm) (Al-Nisaa’ 4: 4)

However, we advise the wife to give away part of her salary to her husband in order to please him, resolve the dispute and solve the problem, so that they may live in peace and harmony.(ibnBaz)

In conclusion, a Muslim man should be prepared to take care of the basics of his household when pursuing marriage. Ideally, the goal is to be self-sufficient and to do more than just get by. Several studies have shown that the actual cost of living is much higher than we imagine. Many Muslim Americans live below this basic standard and can only dream of going on Hajj. Finally, all Muslim men considering polygyny should take into account Islamic injunctions their financial responsibilities. Their wives should not be forced to work or turn to government aid to subsidize their lifestyle. If cowives choose to remit their dowries and spend their income in support of their families, no one should judge them. But no wife should be forced to give up her rights to minimum support on threat of divorce. Muslims should move beyond moral platitudes, but take into account real life circumstances when making rulings on these situations. Black women should not be expected to take the crumbs on the table or be forced to share a man with limited emotional and financial resources due to the shortage of men. Finally, Muslim women who do make contributions and sacrifices for their families should be respected and honored. No sister should be forced to accept the role of halal girlfriend in a shady misyar marriage, playing second fiddle to another woman who gets all her rights. However, if that is her choice, then I hope she makes it with full knowledge of her rights.

If there are any mistakes in this article, they come from me. And any good from it is from Allah.

And Allah is the Most Knowing.


  • abunas says:

    I periodically read these types of ‘scholarly’ analysis by the writer and I generally do not have any specific response to her views.  I accept the premise of the right of any individual to have and to offer a point of view.  My comments herein address only the concept of what we as Muslims consider and/or accept as “scholarly”.  In brief summary, I am observing my fortieth (40th) rammadan – having accepted Al-Islam (Sunnah) as a teenager.  That said, I comment on this issue because I see marriage in the Deen – or actually the absence of marriages in the deen as a major impediment to the proper growth of the Ummah in America.

    I comment based upon a Khutbah I attended many years ago wherein the kateeb observed…‘the major reason why muslims, our ummah is getting pushed around and humiliated all over the world, is because of our inability and often unwillingness to address current issues with current thinking and analysis’…‘the Quran is a LIVING document and it is foolish and hardheaded to believe that Allah, subhana wa ta’ala does not or would not inspire fresh thoughts, perspectives and ideas’.

    With so many unmarried sisters, especially Afrrican-american sisters -and with so many of those younger women opting to marry OUTSIDE of the deen (often under the guise of ‘people of the book’)- it would seem to me that we should not base so much, if not all of our problem analysis at the doorstep of ‘scholars’ who have long passed on – and obviously had no foresight into the complexities of 20th century USA.

    With the Quran, revealed for all-time, I submit that we need to more aggressively and actively and more acutely study and understand both the arabic language of revelation and balance that study against the tafsir of the revelation and then with comparative analysis of our current situations. To think outside the box means to do some thinking directly from Quran rather than starting our critical thinking from boundaries and or bases established by “the scholars”

  • Salaam alaikum Abunas,

    Thank you for your comment. Sorry I didn’t get back to you since I have been extremely busy prepping for the school year. I think you raised an important question regarded as what is accepted as scholarly in the Muslim community. Mind you, there are secular notions of scholar and Islamic notions of scholar ( ‘Alim). My use of scholarly was mainly pertaining to the methodology using outside sources, such as using statistics and scholarly opinion, to support my argument. My methods are based on my training as a historian.

    As far as my scholarly credentials: I am a student of Arabic and have studied with traditional scholars. I have also taught classes as a graduate student at Stanford University and lectured at UPenn on various subjects related to the Muslim community. My academic credentials qualify me to teach on a college level. Since I left my program before earning a PhD, I’m not going to get tenure anywhere. For now, I am teaching at an Islamic school.  While I do not count myself as one of the ‘ulema, I have been authorized and asked to teach in various masajid utilizing similar methods of research and analysis that I used in this article. Some institutions I have been asked to teach at include Quba institute, Philadelphia Masjid, United Muslim Masjid, and LampPost Media.  If reputable scholars such as sheikh Anwar Muhaimin and Abdullah Ali think what my research and thoughts are worthy, I am secure enough to know that my work is making a contribution to Muslim thought in America

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