Second Wife: A Feasible Alternative to Divorce?

18 September, 2016
Q I am an American who is considering converting to Islam, yet I find it difficult to grasp any logic of polygamy. I am a strong advocate of equality and women’s rights and see it simply as unacceptable. How would you address such an issue?


Salam Dear Rachel,

Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

I am an American too, and I used to detest the idea as well before converting to Islam. But allow us to discuss the matter here in a calm manner. Could taking a second wife just be the solution to some forms of marital discord?

Consider the sad case of Texas dentist Gail Harris. On February 14, 2003, Valentines Day, on her eleventh wedding anniversary, Gail, 42, was sentenced by a predominantly female jury to twenty years in prison for the murder of her husband.

She ran him over with her Mercedes after finding him in a hotel with his receptionist, hugging and holding hands. To make the whole crime even more tragic, her 17-year-old stepdaughter, the victim’s daughter, was in the passenger seat and witnessed her dad paying a most heavy price for adultery.

Gail, a native of Columbia, had previously begged her husband to end his affair, and he had promised her he would on the condition that she would lose weight and get breast implants.

Although she was a former beauty queen, perhaps bearing and raising her four-year-old twin sons had taken a toll on her, and the reality of change inherent in all created beings was too much for her weak husband to cope with.

Although they together shared a prosperous dental practice, Gail could not accept that her husband share his heart. Gail could not control her rage when she initially found the lovers snuggled together in the hotel dining room and began pummeling her rival with her fists.

Hubby, in an act of devotion — to “whom” I question, desperately wrestled the two women apart and, being a martial arts expert, succeeded in throwing the attacker, his wife, to the ground.

Broken and humiliated, Gail fled to her car, and the rest we can all only imagine. By all accounts, Gail was a model wife and mother who felt betrayed. It happens every day, but seldom ends in murder of such ferocity. She ran him over repeatedly, obviously out of control, blindly seeking vengeance from the most painful hurt, that ever ached in her heart.

Mind you, I don’t condone Gail’s behavior, but I do understand her anger and frustration. Satan’s favorite trap, the “other woman”, caused Gail to lose her children, her home, and her husband, whom I presume she loved.

Women, unlike men, do not kill out of pure jealousy, as their egos are not the issue. The issue for women is betrayal of trust, and the overwhelming sadness and anger that ensues when the one who filled your heart decides to vacate.

Allah, our Creator, knows us better than we know ourselves. Let us assume that the allowance of an additional wife has been given for just such cases as Gail’s.

Although in Islam a wife would have every right to turn down the option and obtain a divorce, she would also be given the opportunity to accept her competitor and try to accept the fact of a changed situation, due to a change of circumstances, which as previously mentioned — is indeed the nature of things.

Often, husbands of the type Gail chose have an inability to commit. Truly, this phenomenon has been recognized throughout the ages, termed variously as “ladies man, philanderer, roving eye, or cheater”.

Such men as these are unfortunately often attractive, successful and charming, so what does one do when she finds that she is stuck with this type for a husband and, moreover, he is the father of her children?!

In America, the usual scenario is either divorce, or turning a blind eye to his escapades, or constant strife, with his lying and her spying. This is along with the accompanying anger, sadness and resentment that follows.

Nobody wins here and the children are raised to mistrust love and all relationships, as closeness and commitment stand for pain and disappointment.

The woman is often unfairly blamed for neglecting her husband’s “needs”, as though he is somehow blameless, when in fact these men are almost never satisfied, and the reason has nothing to do with their partner’s inadequacy. Certainly this type of man exists.

Instead of wishing away a situation of a character trait, one should investigate all options. In Islam, one option is multiple another marriage. It is through this setup that all can get what they deserve.

You see, once a woman becomes a wife rather than a girlfriend, most of the thrill is gone. Candle-lit dinners and rendezvous at the sea turn into “call the plumber and take the kids to the dentist”.

Some men cannot get off so easily as to think that their extra cash or dashing charm entitles them to forever “fulfill their fantasies”. In Islam, it’s marriage… or nothing.

Another important facet to be considered when evaluating the issue is the plain fact that women place a far higher value on romantic commitment for the long term.

This is why they get so upset when they feel ignored emotionally. How many times have we heard the complaint that “he doesn’t talk to me” whereas men, on the contrary, hardly ever care about verbalizing their feelings? A good meal and a warm bed are just about all many men ask for.

This is why they can often overlook the importance of emotional expression. A good, devoted husband feels his wife’s needs because he is in touch with someone other than himself.

On the other hand, the immature, selfish type described above often feels entitled to more and more in a never ending cycle of desire that can only drive his partner further away. So then let him try again, but not with the automatic upshot necessarily being the certain demise of his marriage.

Many women, of course not all, would opt for the social and financial maintenance as well as the social status concurrent in a legal marriage. How many times has a wife been either cast aside or driven to divorce court after a lengthy marriage of 20, 30, even 40 years as the result of her husband’s indiscretions.

Often, to save face, she gives the ultimatum that she feels will curtail his escapades: “Choose, it’s either me or her!” In fact, many times she really does lose everything, when she would do well to consider herself on a sort of vacation from all the responsibilities that a marriage entails, a part-time leave so to speak, while the man is occupied elsewhere.

This point of view can only be chosen in the setting of a second marriage, accepted as a viable option for some. Surely NOT the perfect image of marriage, but humans are not perfect themselves either.

As previously mentioned, this type of husband is rarely the type to bond seriously. If the truth were told, she is not really relinquishing much, as the affection she is losing may not have been so fulfilling anyway. Of course, we also have the cases where an ideal couple suddenly falls under the spell of a seducer intruding into their happy nest.

Here, all are shocked at the sudden change of heart. “Why, they were such a happy couple!” This is indeed a severe trial for all concerned, yet the pain is assuaged quite a bit if the new relationship is legal, open and not secret. Shock and devious betrayal are really the key elements in the wife’s feeling of degradation.

I seriously wonder if we could put forward this option in a palatable fashion to the American public, if it would be at least acknowledged as an alternative that may avoid much more dire consequences? Is the problem that this alternative is viewed as Islamic?

Is the reason why multiple marriage is illegal the fact that it could be considered a threat to the American way of life with all that the term implies? Let us step back and take an honest look at the American way of life as it impacts on the relation between the sexes.

Unrestricted social mixing has been the norm for the past century. In my grandmother’s day, separate rooms were maintained at nearly all family social gatherings, and shaking hands as a matter of practice was never the norm. It was in my mother’s generation, post-World War II, that films and fashion changed forever the behavioral patterns between men and women.

Women began to openly smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, wear pants, then bathing suits, culminating in today’s seductive clothing and behavior that is, in my opinion, a form of male abuse. Yes, I pity today’s male. After all, he cannot change his physical structure, which is under constant assault from the time he is old enough to start starring at the closest female in his school class.

Was the daily temptation of an attractive woman in close quarters in a cooperative endeavor too much for the now deceased Mr. Harris to bear, or would he perhaps have found an outlet in some other place? Only Allah knows, yet the chances of romantic inclinations are significantly increased upon frequent contact and easy accessibility.

Co-ed classes can be as stimulating as parties and phone conversations if the will is there, or even the unawareness of how quickly the human being can succumb to temptation.

Our Creator planned for all eventualities, ordering upright believers of both sexes to lower their gaze and dress modestly. Needless to say, social restrictions would help rather than hinder all of us, as we struggle to maintain a sense of order and commitment in our families.

As I stated in the beginning, a second marriage is an option, but do not get me wrong: it is not open season for any male. Those who undertake the responsibility should view it as just that, more work for not much more fun.

A Muslim man has many duties to fulfill with a second marriage and strict rules of justice to observe vis a vis the two wives. And every woman should seriously consider all she stands to gain or lose by her acceptance or refusal of her husband’s decision to marry another.

This system, of course, is designed to be implemented alongside a social code that utterly rejects adultery. Otherwise, what would be the point of all the trouble and expense. Unfortunately, today’s spouses cheat on each other at a far higher rate than ever before.

The reason, I truly believe, is not that they are merely sexually starved, but that they are frustrated by the emptiness of their lives in a materialistic, aggressive system that has lost all real sense of cohesiveness due to lack of belief in and worship of the Creator.

Unrestricted freedom is in fact tyranny, tyranny of greed, lust and loss of the conscience that rightly should rest continually inside all of us — “Is this all there is? Isn’t there a better way?” The answer is a resounding: YES! Turn your whole heart towards Allah, seek repentance, and He will guide you to the straight path.

Anything new is difficult at first. Perhaps the thought of another wife disgusts you. Do you consider it an assault on your pride, a covert criticism of your abilities? Why be so limited, viewing solely with a narrow cultural perspective enforced on you by the man-made laws that govern your generation?

We should all be far more disgusted by the legalized prostitution and promotion of homosexuality and abortion, not to mention the various forms of perversions, that are openly advertised as viable options on all forms of media available to our children.

Not all men want another wife, and not all women dread the possibility, so open up your minds and heart to diversity and accept what Allah the All-Merciful has created.

Needless to add at the end that a man can consider a second marriage in cases when the wife cannot bear children or in cases of serious medical condition, preventing her from having a sexual relation that satisfies both parties.

Interesting enough that in Islam a woman is not obliged in the case the husband is the party with a problem to remain with her husband and can chose to look for divorce and start another family.

This is while a Muslim man is guided to keep the wife and remain to carry the burden of all the financial and moral obligations. This is along with seeking another wife to fulfill the roles the first one could not fulfill, while keeping his first wife and looking after her.

You might see the matter as unacceptable, but I see it as a right of woman here rather than a pleasure for the man. If you think about it within the frame of the organic society Islam builds, you might conceptualize it in a different manner than putting the issue within the frame of individual rights.

Allow me to stress at the end that this potential is not the image of an ideal marriage in Islam, where both – wife and husband – enjoy a stable, strong and happy relationship. This whole issue is a matter of alternative routes to keep a family, not break it. Thus, it is not to idealize polygamy or advocate it as a value.

I hope that this reply would open up new horizons for you, in considering the wisdom of Islam. Thank you again for your question and please, do keep in touch.