Philly's Black Muslims Increasingly Turn to Polygamy Many men in Philadelphia's large orthodox black Muslim community have multiple wives. In one family, the woman found a second wife to help take care of her family while she studied abroad. In another, the wives acknowledge that sharing a husband can be emotionally wrenching.
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Philly's Black Muslims Increasingly Turn to Polygamy

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Philly's Black Muslims Increasingly Turn to Polygamy

Philly's Black Muslims Increasingly Turn to Polygamy

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Noah Adams.

Today we bring you our second story about polygamy among some Muslims in America. It is illegal in all 50 states for a man to have multiple wives, but some Muslim immigrants still secretly take on two, three, and even four wives. In yesterday's story, we focused on those wives like Sarah and her experience and many others - husbands marry again without their consent.

SARAH: He say, okay, I'm going to be married tomorrow or he say I'm going to be married today. It happened to me. I can't talk.

NORRIS: Today, our story focuses on Muslim women in plural marriages who are U.S.-born. Polygamy is growing quickly among African-American Muslims, particularly in the inner city. Many of these women say they choose such arrangements because there aren't a lot of eligible black men.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has this story about two polygamous families in Philadelphia.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Even on Saturday morning, there's no rest for Zaki and Mecca who own and manage 25 properties in Philadelphia.

ZAKI: Have you talked to Abdul (inaudible) about the water bill?

MECCA: Yeah, he should be taken care of it. I'll call him today, just in case something happens to be wrong with it.

HAGERTY: The young African-American couple was married just out of high school. Twelve years later, they have a son and their own real estate business. The family also has something else: a second wife. Two years ago, Mecca told her husband, she wanted to study Arabic in the Middle East, which meant a lot of time away from home.

MECCA: First thing that came to my mind was, oh, I have to find you another wife.

HAGERTY: Zaki was game. After all, he had been raised in a polygamist home. Like many African-American 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.

ZAKI: I would find out, well, who's making what that particular night. So I know, okay, my other mom made barbequed chicken better than my other mom made fried chicken, so I'm going to barbequed chicken tonight. So things of that nature.

(Soundbite of Laugh)

HAGERTY: Mecca rolls her eyes, her beige head scarf framing her delicate features. NPR is not using any full names in this story because some of those we interviewed could be prosecuted for bigamy. Unlike Zaki, Mecca was raised by a single mother and converted from Southern Baptist to Muslim when she was 16. When it came to finding a second wife, Zake asked Mecca to conduct the search.

MECCA: You know, he kind of gave me the baton, and I took it and ran with it.

HAGERTY: Mecca launched a nationwide search. She found candidates by word of mouth. She scoured the Internet and interviewed about a dozen women.

MECCA: I had to make sure that who ever she - she was going to be that she's going to be the right fit. Not just for my husband, but for our whole family.

HAGERTY: 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, until one night, after a dinner party when Mecca pulled her aside.

MECCA: I said, well, would you consider Zaki and as far as for husband?

HAGERTY: And what did you say?

(Soundbite of laugh)

MECCA: That's what I said.

AMINAH: That's what I said. I said, you know, that's funny, because I thought the same thing.

ZAKI: I was basically the last one to know about the whole arrangement.

HAGERTY: But Zaki was delighted. And in October, he and Aminah married in a religious ceremony. Aminah recalls that Mecca was there, helping prepare the wedding feast.

AMINAH: Mecca bought me this cake from Tiffany's. It was a strawberry shortcake, it was like whipped cream and stuff. And she knew I loved this cake. And right after when she gave that cake, and I was like, I was cool. I was done. I was ready to go home with my cake.

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

MECCA: Wow, we call it a family date night. Because it's like we always -that's one big date, we just chill.

ZAKI: It can be a variety of things - going to a nice restaurant, catching a movie, going bowling, maybe seeing a concert. All kind of things.

I'm going upstairs.

HAGERTY: But on this day, Zaki's attention is on Aminah.

ZAKI: Right now, I'm going to the penthouse and I'm gonna get dressed for our day, a day that my wife doesn't have no clue what she going to be doing today.

HAGERTY: It's Aminah's 21st birthday. They're taking the train to New York to see a Broadway show. While Zaki's second wife is changing, his first wife is getting the train tickets and making the arrangements.

ZAKI: See, you got to work as one unit or it'll be very inconvenient otherwise. Hurry up.

AMINAH: No, no, wait, wait.

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

ZAKI: If I upgrade one, then I have to upgrade the other. But the upgrade don't necessarily - is the same, because we have two different women with two different tastes.

HAGERTY: Of course, there have been a few bumps in the road.

MECCA: But as far as me second-guessing me sharing my husband, no.

HAGERTY: As Mecca speaks, Aminah nods in agreement.

AMINAH: I might have certain feelings as far as when my husband walks out the door and I might not have seen him all day, but his responsibility is not only to me. And the respect that I have for my co-wife, I think all of that plays a role on how I handle my emotions.

HAGERTY: And 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.

ZAKI: There's a lot of blessings in it because, you know, you're doing something, you know, you're helping legitimize and build a family that's rooted in our values and commitment, you know what I mean? And the children that comes out of those type of relationships, only becomes, you know, benefits society at large.

ABDULLAH: (Singing in foreign language)

HAGERTY: The imam's voice blares through the PA system of a mosque in South Philadelphia. The congregation gathered in the slim townhouse is largely black. The rules are Orthodox, with men and women in separate rooms, and the Arabic is classical.

ABDULLAH: (Speaking in foreign language)

HAGERTY: The imam, a 35-year-old convert named Abdullah, has conducted religious ceremonies for about a dozen polygamous marriages. No one knows exactly how many people live in polygamous families in the United States, but estimates range from 50 to 100,000. 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 may marry, quote, "women of your choice: two, three, four. And if you fear you cannot be just, then marry one."

ABDULLAH: And so, a lot of scholars look at it sequentially like two is optimum, then three, then four, then as a last resort, then one.

HAGERTY: And while polygamy may seem like a man's paradise, he says, often a single woman initiates it.

ABDULLAH: Sometimes a woman may want a man, maybe interested in a man, but he's off limits. That's not the case in Islam. Well, does he have four wives? No? Well, it's still an option, he still may be available.

HAGERTY: That's how Abdullah met his second wife. A divorcee, she heard Abdullah preach a few times and approached his wife. Soon they married and now the imam cares for two families, with a total of 13 children and one on the way.

(Soundbite of chanting)

HAGERTY: On the other side of the mosque, the single women say polygamy is a fact of life. But it's not their first choice.

ALIYA: Every woman would have a preference to be the sole wife.

HAGERTY: That's Aliya, a 28-year-old single woman who's finishing up a master's degree. She says that South Philadelphia in the 21st century is a little like Arabia in the 7th. There is a dearth of appropriate men.

ALIYA: We're dealing with brothers who are incarcerated, unavailable. And then unfortunately, you have the AIDS and HIV crisis, where HIV has struck the African-American community unproportionately than to others. So when you look at it that way, there is a shortage.

HAGERTY: With this numerical advantage, of course, some men collect wives for the sex. Everyone admits that. But the men we interviewed also married out of altruism. Consider 43-year-old Shaheed and his second wife Nadirah. They would only meet me outside of their home and the first wife did not join them. Fourteen years ago, when Nadirah was 30 and expecting her third child, her husband died. That brought her to the attention of Shaheed.

SHAHEED: Her husband and I were friends, so when I came to the grave site actually - I remember like it was yesterday - what stuck out was that her demeanor was so calm.

HAGERTY: Nadirah is an elegant, contained woman. Once a widow, she decided the only way she'd marry again was as a second wife.

NADIRAH: Because at that point in my life, I was used to being alone, as opposed to constantly being with someone and, you know, attending to someone else's needs.

HAGERTY: She accepted Shaheed's proposal. But she quickly saw the tricky relationship was not with Shaheed, it was with his wife.

NADIRAH: 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 that she was more apprehensive and more unnerved by the pending situation.

ALIEAH: I remember me just telling him, please don't go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALIEAH: He was like, what do you mean? The wedding is today. How are you telling me not to go today? I'm like, just don't go.

HAGERTY: That's Alieah, the first wife. She agreed to talk with me a week later. Before the marriage, Alieah, who is 40, considered Shaheed's commitment to a widow, quote, "noble." Afterwards, she considered divorce, but eventually decided she did not want to start over. After two years of misery, Alieah says she had a spiritual epiphany.

ALIEAH: I just got up one morning and said okay. 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. And from that point on, it was the strangest thing, because it never bothered me anymore. I never even thought about it. It was just - we're all together.

HAGERTY: 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 the children.

NADIRAH: We really depend on each other. It was like, I guess, a cross between a sister and a friend and a co-worker, and just, like, other areas where you're able to have a cushion or a help in areas that you didn't have before.

HAGERTY: 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.

SHAHEED: I'm not going to be overly affectionate with this one as opposed to this one with regards in the open.

HAGERTY: But what about his heart?

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

HAGERTY: First wife Alieah is philosophical.

ALIEAH: You cannot blame someone for where their heart lies.

HAGERTY: Did you have a sense which way his heart was going?

ALIEAH: At the time, really, it didn't matter. I just knew he had someone else in his life, and it wasn't me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: It's painful.


HAGERTY: Alieah says polygamy is not easy for either wife, though she believes it's harder on the first.

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

HAGERTY: Alieah's youngest is four years old, which means she has many more years of polygamous family life. Her oldest - a 17-year-old daughter - says she's had a happy childhood, but she hopes she won't have to share her husband with anyone else.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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