SCOTT SIMON, host:

Though polygamy is illegal and not common in the United States, some Americans do practice it. HBO series "Big Love" purports the show what it would be like to live in such an arrangement.

But Pauline Bartolone, a fellow with the Knight-Carnegie News21 Initiative, met one such Muslim family living in San Diego that says the drama is more fiction than fact.

PAULINE BARTOLONE: On this Sunday afternoon, Ali Abu Talib(ph), a 59-year-old Muslim elder and spiritual counselor, is packed into his stuffy office with one of his two wives - Asiila Imani Muslima(ph).

Mr. ALI ABU TALIB (Resident, San Diego): Are all these his women?

Ms. ASIILA IMANI MUSLIMA (Ali Abu Talib's wife): His wives, yeah.

Mr. TALIB: It's kind of (unintelligible).

BARTOLONE: It's their first time watching "Big Love," the HBO series about a polygamous family who continue a religious lifestyle begun by early Mormons but has long since been abandoned by their mainline modern day followers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TALIB: Oh, no. This ain't possible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TALIB: Turn this thing off. This is fiction.

BARTOLONE: Asiila is wearing a black hijab and is covered head to toe. Ali is in sweatpants and a long blue Pakistani-style shirt. He gazes into the computer screen, folds his arms over his chest and nods his head in dismay.

Mr. TALIB: Dude's got a lot of problems. I feel sorry for dude.

Ms. MUSLIMA: "Big Love," big TV show.

Mr. TALIB: Big-time problems.

Ms. MUSLIMA: Honey.

Ms. TALIB: Huh?

Ms. MUSLIMA: It's a TV show.

Mr. TALIB: It is, isn't it? Thank God.

BARTOLONE: The Koran says a man may take up to four wives. It's a practice found in some Muslim countries. But in the U.S., polygamy is an impractical and murky proposition. Not many American Muslims accept polygamy as a legitimate lifestyle, and fewer than 1 percent engage in it.

Some women consider polygamy tantamount to abuse. And since civil laws don't allow a man to marry more than one woman, unregistered wives have few protections. Within Islam, there is no mechanism to define or enforce the rules.

But for Ali and his two wives, the Prophet Muhammad created a lifestyle choice that works for them.

Ms. HASANAH HOREYA(ph) (Social Worker): I liked it, you know, in terms of getting a break - oh, I'm getting a break. Not having…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOREYA: …to be with the man 24/7.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BARTOLONE: That's Hasanah Horeya. She's a social worker and Ali's first wife, who married him for his poetic spirit and piety. She has traveled around the world. In Africa, she saw polygyny, or one man with multiple wives, firsthand.

Ms. HOREYA: And I - that was something even before I even saw it, I used to say, you know, I probably - I wouldn't mind being the third or fourth wife. You know, I know I have my day, you know, and I can be - anticipate that time and be on.

Mr. TALIB: So when we got married, I mean, we talked about polygyny a lot because - especially in African-American community, there's just not a lot of Muslim men. And there certainly are not a lot of Muslim men who are highly educated and experienced. So I figured if I found a woman who fit (unintelligible), I wasn't going to just send her out - back out there, you know.

BARTOLONE: Two decades ago, Ali and Hasanah engaged in a nika, an Islamic marriage contract, a union not recognized by state or federal law. At first, their relationship was strained. Hasanah likes her alone time and Ali didn't always understand. Things changed when he started talking religion with Asiila, then a 35-year-old divorced woman in North Carolina. They had long phone conversations about books, faith and finally, marriage.

Mr. TALIB: Now, Asiila, knew about all this. I'm talking to her. Me and Asiila, laying up in the bed reading. After two years, I just, you know, I was in love. To be perfectly honest, I didn't fall in love. I journeyed in the love, you dig? And Asiila was just scared, basically, because she was in loved too but she was scared to admit it. And so I had to talk to her about that, and she said, okay, but I'm no fool. I want to check this out.

Ms. MUSLIMA: And I was never opposed to polygyny. But I also didn't want to marry into a family where the first wife didn't want me to. So he was saying, oh, Hasanah's cool with it. I'm like, yeah, okay, right.

And so then she wrote me a letter. And I said, this is beautiful. But he can have a gun to her head. So I actually had to come out and I stayed with them. I had my own little room and I sat with Hasanah and look in her eyes. And she was serious. She says, please, I have no problem with it whatsoever. You know, hurry up and get here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOREYA: And so, you know, I helped him prepare to go get her.

Ms. HOREYA: (Unintelligble) as sister, and it was a lifesaver.

BARTOLONE: Now, they all live in what they jokingly call the Bates Motel, a tall pink-paneled house that towers over the neighborhood's stucco one-story homes. With them reside two sons, a family of Ferrell cats and a beehive outside of Ali's study that just won't go away.

As far as the state of California is concerned, no marriage exists. Ali and his wives had never signed a marriage license or received any spousal benefits common among the legally married. But they do practice the tenets of polygamy. Ali splits his time equally between Hasanah and Asiina as stipulated in the Koran.

Tuesday through Thursday, he's with Hasanah on the first floor. Saturday through Monday, it's upstairs with Asiina. The rest of the time, he's writing about Islam in his office - his only private space in the house. They say it works that way because of their faith in and fear of God.

Mr. TALIB: It was from God - everybody realized it was from God and MashAllah - what God wills, what Allah wills.

BARTOLONE: Ali's extended family attends a shiamak.

(Soundbite of chanting)

BARTOLONE: Tonight, they're the only group of African-Americans among an immigrant crowd.

Mr. TALIB: Every time I see one of the them it's so, Ali Abu Talib, did you have another one? Did you get another one? No, I don't get another one. Did you get another one? No, I don't have another one.

Professor HASSANAIN RAJABALI (Lecturer): We need the right wing. The two flapping together makes the bird fly. The man and a woman need to do their job.

BARTOLONE: They've come to hear a well-known Shia Muslim scholar. His name is Hassanain Rajabali. He grew up in Tanzania and lectures around the world.

Mr. RAJABALI: A woman has been giver her responsibility and a man has been given his responsibility. Now, to answer your…

BARTOLONE: Rajabali didn't say anything about men with multiple wives. Polygamy may be permitted in Islam, but I wanted to know if he thought it was conducive to the American way of life. After his speech, a dozen mosque-goers circled us to hear his answer.

Mr. RAJABALI: We should not subject polygamy to Judeo-Christian principle. We should subject polygamy to human behavior and misbehavior. And if you take that into consideration, you'll find that polygamy has a solution to the problems of our society.

BARTOLONE: Ali's wives would agree. They say plural marriage complements their household.

Ms. HOREYA: At this stage in my life I'm not real social so that's where Asiina and I come in. She helps balance that part of.

BARTOLONE: Asiina's a midwife and looks after their 10-year-old son. Hasanah works full time. The women clean the house and Ali does most of the shopping and cooking.

(Soundbite of noise)

BARTOLONE: Back in the kitchen the next day, Ali shook some peanuts from a plastic bag into a bowl. He sipped his favorite non-alcoholic beer as we chatted about common misconceptions about his lifestyle.

Mr. TALIB: It's a challenge. It's a beautiful challenge, but by no means is it some kind of whoopi yippee-i-ay-i- k-ay-i(ph) orgy. It's family for God's sake.

BARTOLONE: As a family, they often pray together. Like at this morning service, Ali is leaning in his living room from their relatives who live nearby.

Ms. HOREYA: Love is one of those things that's not finite. The more you give, the more you have, it's actually increases. The blessings come.

Mr. TALIB: But we're all from different places, different times and then they're all converged together, and that's why we say (foreign language spoken). We all prayed for the same thing, and we all got what we needed as well as what we wanted.

BARTOLONE: For Ali, Asiina and Hasanah, Islam does not attempt to rule the human heart. It provides rules for relationships.

For NPR News, I'm Pauline Bartolone.

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