Philly's Black Muslims Increasingly Turn to Polygamy

This is part two of a two-part report.

Hear Part One of This Report

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.

Finding Another Wife

When it came to finding a second wife, Zaki said he had no one in mind, and he asked Mecca to conduct the search.

"You know, he gave me the baton, and I took it and ran with it," Mecca says.

Mecca launched a nationwide search. She found candidates by word of mouth. She scoured the Internet. Eventually, she interviewed about a dozen women.

"I had to make sure that she'd be the right fit — not just for my husband, but for our whole family," Mecca says.

But the ultimate match was right under their noses: 20-year-old Aminah, who was a friend of Zaki's younger sister. Aminah knew Mecca was looking for a second wife but thought she was too young. That is, until one night after a dinner party when Mecca pulled her aside. Mecca asked Aminah if she would consider marrying Zaki.

"And I said, 'That's funny, because I was thinking the same thing,'" Aminah says.

Zaki was the last to know the identity of the final candidate to be his bride. He could have vetoed the choice, of course, but he was delighted.

In October 2007, he and Aminah married in a religious, not civil, ceremony. Many polygamous marriages are conducted in secret and are not legally binding because state laws prohibit them.

Aminah recalls that Mecca helped prepare the wedding feast.

Aminah, who's finishing college, lives in an apartment a few miles away from Mecca's house. Zaki moves between homes on alternating nights. But every week after Friday prayers, they get together as a family.

"It can be a variety of things," Zaki says. "Going to a nice restaurant, catching a movie, going bowling, maybe seeing a concert. All kind of things."

"I always call it family date night, because it's one big date," Mecca says. "We just chill. I always look forward to it. We always have a ball, laughing, goofing around."

Treating Each Wife Equally

On a recent day, Zaki's attention is on Aminah. Riding the elevator to her penthouse apartment, he explains that it's Aminah's 21st birthday and he's taking her to New York to see a Broadway show.

"She has no idea what she's going to do today," he whispers. And so while Zaki's second wife is changing for a surprise trip, his first wife is getting the train tickets and making the arrangements.

"See, you got to work as a unit or it's very inconvenient otherwise," he laughs.

As Zaki hurries Aminah along, he says he will do something equivalent for Mecca on her birthday. Islam requires that the husband treat each wife equally. Zaki explains that doesn't mean he gives them the same things. For example, Mecca likes jewelry but Aminah doesn't.

But, he says, "If I upgrade one, then I have to upgrade the other. But the upgrade may not be the same because you have two different women with two different tastes."

They've worked out a system. Even still, why would a woman want to share her husband?

"Well, I'm looking at it more as a spiritual perspective," Mecca says. "Zaki is a blessing — just like everything else. He is a loan from God, is the way I look at it. And in my religion, if he's able and capable to [marry another wife], I wouldn't want to hold him back. So, why not?"

She acknowledges that there have been "a few bumps in the road." But she hasn't once second-guessed sharing Zaki with Aminah.

As Mecca speaks, Aminah nods in agreement.

"I might have certain feelings when my husband walks out the door and I haven't seen him all day, but I know his responsibility is not only to me. And the respect I have for my co-wife, all that plays a role in how I handle my emotions," Aminah says.

'Two, Three, Four'

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."

Shaheed's Story

With this numerical advantage, some men collect wives for the sex. But some men also marry out of altruism. Consider 43-year-old Shaheed, who is married to Alieah.

Fourteen years ago, his friend died. The friend's wife, Nadirah, was 30 and expecting her third child. That brought her to Shaheed's attention.

"When we came to the grave site — I remember it as if it were yesterday — what stuck out was that her demeanor was so calm," Shaheed says.

Nadirah is an elegant, contained woman. After becoming a widow, she decided the only way she would marry again was as a second wife.

"At that point in my life, I was used to being alone," she says, running her household as she liked, "as opposed to constantly being with someone and attending to someone else's needs."

She accepted Shaheed's proposal. But she quickly saw the tricky relationship was not with Shaheed. It was with his wife.

"We met, and we had dinner, and we had lunch and we went out and shopped and did different things at that point. As the marriage got closer, I think she was more apprehensive and more unnerved by the pending situation."

"I remember me telling him, 'Please don't go,'" Alieah says. "He's like 'What do you mean? The wedding is today, you're telling me not to go today?' I'm like, 'Just don't go!'"

Alieah, who is 40, says she considered Shaheed's commitment to a widow "noble." Afterward, however, she considered divorce. She eventually decided she did not want to start over. After two years of misery, Alieah says, she had a spiritual epiphany.

"I literally just got up one morning and said [to God], 'OK, this is what you want me to do. I'm going to handle it in a civil manner, and I'm going to do X, Y, Z about it,'" Alieah says. "And from that point on, it was the strangest thing, because it never bothered me anymore. I never even thought about it."

The family began to operate like a well-oiled machine and a model of polygamy in their Muslim community. Shaheed runs his own security company. Alieah teaches first grade, and Nadirah home-schools some of the family's 10 children.

"We really depend on each other," says Nadirah, who considers Alieah a friend.

What About the Heart?

There are benefits to polygamy for the wives, Nadirah says.

"She could fill something that even a husband couldn't fill. It was a cross between a sister and a friend and a co-worker," she says. "You have a cushion or a help that you didn't have before."

At first, the two families lived in separate homes. Now Shaheed, his two wives and nine of his 10 children live in one house. Each wife has a bedroom on a separate floor, but everything else is communal, including cooking and eating. Shaheed says it's not easy to treat his two very different wives equally, but he tries.

"I'm not going to be overly affectionate with this one as opposed to this one out in the open," he explains.

And what about controlling his heart when it comes to these two women?

"That's something that you can't really control," he says. "But materially, you want to do that as adequately as possible."

For her part, Alieah is philosophical about love.

"You cannot blame someone for where their heart lies."

Did she have a sense of whether her husband was falling for someone else?

She pauses.

"It really didn't matter," she eventually answers. "I just knew he had someone else in his life, and it wasn't me."

Alieah says polygamy isn't easy for either wife, though she believes it is harder on the first.

"The second wife is receiving something, where a first wife will feel that something is being taken away from her," she says. "I mean, I'm devoted to you for my whole life, but you're only devoted to half of my life."

Alieah's youngest child is 4 years old. Her oldest — a 17-year-old daughter — says she's had a happy childhood in a polygamous family. But she hopes she won't have to share her husband with anyone else.

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