In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
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Islam is a way of life consonant with nature, providing human solutions to complex situations and avoiding extremes. This characteristic of Islam can be observed most clearly in its stand concerning the taking of more than one wife. Islam permits the Muslim to marry more than one woman in order to resolve some very pressing human problems, individual as well as social.
The prominent Muslim scholar, Sheikh Ahmad Hulail, imam of Tariq ibn Ziad Mosque in Frankfort, Germany, states:
Polygamy is a thorny issue, particularly in the Western countries. The West claims that many of women's rights in the Muslim countries are violated and regard polygamy as one of the signs of this violation.
It is true that polygamy is allowed in Islam, but it is to be borne in mind that there are many juristic points to be regarded in that respect. But let's concentrate on the point raised in the question, i.e., what the Muslim man who resides in a Western country should do if he has to have a second wife. The European countries incriminate the man who has a second wife, yet, alas, they allow him to have free sexual relationships with a woman other than his wife.
With regard to the Muslim man who has a second wife, I believe—and Almighty Allah knows best—that he has to follow the channels of law in order to legalize his second marriage in the country he lives in. There are some Muslim brothers who did so through the legitimate channels. They submitted documents to the European countries they reside in to the effect that they have second wives according to the Islamic Law and that the first wives agree to that; they also asserted that they would not give a privilege to one of the wives at the expense of the other. I know a Jordanian Muslim who managed to get residence for his two wives in a European country.
If the attempts to legalize the second marriage fail, the person could document his (second) marriage in one of the Islamic centers, yet, his marriage then would not be regarded legitimate under the law of the country concerned. The problem he might face in the future is regarding getting birth certificates for the children from his second wife. But I think there are some flexible European laws concerning registering names of the children born even from illegitimate relationships.
I advise the Muslims who live in the Western countries to demand their rights in that regard. Foreign non-Muslim minorities who live in the West managed to get approval to exercise their rights pursuant to their religious rituals, such as rights concerning slaughtering animals and burying their dead. Muslims can follow in the same footsteps to get legitimate approvals from the Western countries to exercise the rituals of their religion freely.
Focusing more on this issue, the prominent Muslim scholar Dr. Jamal Badawi, professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and member of the Fiqh Council of North America, adds:
Polygamy is an example where there is a difference between what is legitimate in Islamic Shari`ah and what is considered illegitimate in secular societies. I am not discussing the problem of polygamy; or whether polygamy or monogamy is the norm in Islam; or whether, as many people mistakenly think, Islam really introduced polygamy; or that it is the only Abrahamic religion that limited the number and put conditions. There is no mention of limiting the number of wives either in the Old Testimony or the New Testimony; there are some Christians, like Martin Luther, who said that there is no Biblical evidence to the prohibition of polygamy.
I must say, in the first place, why would a particular person want to have a second wife, even though it might be acceptable or legitimate under the Islamic Shari`ah? Because there is also a spirit of why polygamy has been permitted even though it has not been codified in the Qur'an.
Secondly, a Muslim living in a non-Muslim society is obligated to follow the laws. We cannot say that their laws are contrary to the Shari`ah, so we have to follow the Shari`ah. Taking a second wife is not a necessary requirement; there is no mandatory duty on the Muslim to have a second wife.
If a person has become a resident or a citizen in a European country, it is a condition for him to abide by its laws. When a Muslim man in a European country sticks to not having a second wife, it is like giving up a particular right according to his own Shari`ah. The person who has a second wife could be subject to criminal punishment.
If, however, in the future the non-Muslim societies give Muslims the same right to their personal law that Islam gives to its minorities, that is a different issue. It is known that historically and, in principle, Islam does allow religious minorities to have their own personal law regarding marriage, divorce, division of the estate, and custody of the children according to their own religious teachings. The Christians in Egypt enjoy such a right though they are only a tiny portion of the population. If the Western world reciprocated to Muslims in the West the same kind of tolerance and acceptance of autonomy in issues pertinent to religious practice, including marriage, I think polygamy would be quiet legitimate, and there would be no contradiction between what is permissible under the Islamic Shari`ah and what is permissible under the Western laws.
However, there are strange and contradictory situations in the West. For example, in Canada it has become quite legal for people to get married homosexually with all their rights, including pension, taxes, etc., reserved. I think there is also a pressure in the United States to have something similar. Adultery and fornication have also been permissible in the West for a long period of time. It sounds rather strange that when all these are permitted and some become legal, marrying a second wife is not permitted and is regarded as a criminal act.
To allow homosexuality in the name of liberalism and freedom is a kind of diversion from the innate or fitrah nature in which Almighty Allah created humankind. In terms of our perspectives as Muslims and in terms of the moral standards, this is a setback and decline in the world today.
You can also read:
Polygamy: Why Is It Permitted in Islam?
Polygamy: Norm or Exception?
Between Polygyny and Polyandry