While the news media has been focused on the sensational story of a breakaway Mormon fundamentalist denomination and its practice of polygamous marriage and allegations of child abuse, National Public Radio produced a solid two-part series this week on another significant religious tradition in the United States that allows for polygamy. Muslims do not widely practice polygamy and in many cases its discourages from a practical standpoint. But one estimate puts the number at 1-3 percent of the 1-1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, which is no small number if you do the math. There are estimates of 50,000 to 100,000 Muslims in the United States living in polygamous marriages, according to the NPR series.
The Muslim faith also places some hefty requirements on men considering marriage to more than one woman (women cannot marry more than one man in Islam) that may be interpreted differently depending on who you listen to. Here is how NPR described those views:
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!"
This is not the only perspective on the Koran's regulations of polygamy. Islam is a big religion, and views will differ within the faith. Here is the viewpoint I have seen more often:
Sarah begins to cry. Others nod in sympathy. These women are all Muslim. The Koran states that men may marry up to four women. The Prophet Mohammad had multiple wives.
But there's a restriction, says Sally, another group member. The husband cannot favor one woman over another -- with his wealth or his heart.
"You have to love them the same way, share everything the same way, equally," says Sally. "Nobody can do that. It's impossible."
Since it's impossible to treat two women the same, a Muslim man should not even try to. Apparently that argument doesn't discourage all Muslims. And equality between wives is not always observed and sometimes leads to abuse, the article notes.
This is a difficult story to tell. Correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty's reporting demonstrates the challenge of getting people to talk about something about which they are normally very quiet because of laws against polygamy. One husband with two wives refused to be interviewed, although his second wife is interviewed extensively.
Hagerty quotes a Muslim woman saying that every woman would prefer to be married to a man as his only wife. Another says that life is easier for second wives than it is for first wives.
With persistence and time, Hagerty was able to tell a tremendous story of what life is like in polygamous marriages from the perspective of first wives, second wives and husbands. Many diverse viewpoints were put forward, from the opinion that polygamous marriages help build up society and give children a father they otherwise wouldn't have, to the heartbreak a 40-year-old first wife felt when her 43-year-old husband married a 30-year-old woman.
Somehow, I sense that the issue of polygamy will not go away. Perhaps if journalists did a better job covering the FLDS group before their leader was under prosecution, the current mess in Texas would not have played out the way it has.
The United States is a diverse place with many groups believing and practicing many things. Journalists should be open to that and cover as many of those groups as objectively as possible.