Polygamy in the U.S. is not limited to remote enclaves in the West or breakaway sects once affiliated with the Mormon Church. Several scholars say it's growing among black Muslims in the inner city — and particularly in Philadelphia, which is known for its large orthodox black Muslim community.
No one knows exactly how many people live in polygamous families in the U.S. Estimates from academics researching the issue range from 50,000 to 100,000 people.
Take Zaki and Mecca, who have been married for nearly 12 years. In their late 20s, they live in the Philadelphia suburbs, have a 5-year-old son and own a real estate business.
Zaki also has something else: a second wife.
Two years ago, Mecca told her husband she wanted to study Arabic in the Middle East, which would mean a lot of time away from home. (NPR is not using any full names in this story because some of those we interviewed could be prosecuted for bigamy.)
"We were talking about it," Mecca recalls, "and the first thing that came to my mind was, 'I'm going to have to find you another wife!'"
Zaki was game. After all, he had been raised in a polygamous home in Philadelphia. Like many black Muslims, his father subscribed to an orthodox view of Islam that allows a man to marry several women. Zaki says he loved having seven siblings and four mothers, especially at dinnertime.
"I would find out who's making what that particular night. I know that this mom makes barbequed chicken better than my other mom makes fried chicken, so I'm going with the barbequed chicken tonight. Things of that nature," he says with a laugh.
Unlike Zaki, Mecca was raised by a single mother and converted from Southern Baptist to Muslim when she was 16.
.... Zaki believes ultimately, polygamy is good for society — especially in the inner city, where intact families are rare and many kids grow up without their fathers.
"There are a lot of blessings in it because you're helping legitimize and build a family that's rooted in values and commitment. And the children that come out of those types of relationships only become a benefit to society at large."
Many orthodox Muslims agree. You can find them on Fridays at a mosque in South Philadelphia.
The congregation that has gathered in a slim townhouse is largely African-American. The rules are orthodox, and the prayers (if not the sermon) are in classical Arabic.
Abdullah, the imam, has conducted religious ceremonies for a dozen polygamous marriages.
Abdullah says polygamy in Islam dates back to the 7th century, when battles were killing off Muslim men and leaving widows and children unprotected.
As a result, Abdullah says, the Koran specifies that a man can marry "women of your choice: two, three, four, and if you fear you cannot be just, then marry one."
"And so, a lot of scholars look at it sequentially," he says. "Two is optimum, then three, then four, then as a last resort, one!"
A Shortage of Men
And while polygamy may seem like a man's paradise, Abdullah says, often an unmarried woman initiates it.
"Sometimes a woman may be interested in a man, but he's off limits. That's not the case in Islam. Does he have four wives? No? Then he's still available."
That's how Abdullah met his second wife. A divorcee, she heard Abdullah preach a few sermons and approached his wife to ask if he would be interested in a second wife. Soon she married Abdullah and now the imam cares for two families — with 13 children and another on the way.
The single women at the mosque say polygamy is a fact of life. But it's not their first choice.
"Every woman has a preference to be the sole wife," says Aliya, echoing the sentiments of the others. Aliya is a 28-year-old single woman who is finishing up a master's degree. She says that South Philadelphia in the 21st century is a little like Arabia in the 7th century. There is a dearth of men to marry.
"We're dealing with brothers who are incarcerated — that is, unavailable," she says. "And then unfortunately, you have the AIDS and HIV crisis, where HIV has struck the African-American community disproportionately to others. So when you look at it that way, there is a shortage."
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