A GROWING number of young British Muslims are taking second or third wives in an unexpected revival of polygamy, according to religious leaders.
The new wave of polygamy is revealed in a special report by the BBC Asian Network using findings from the Islamic Sharia Council.
The council, which provides legal advice and guidance to Muslims, said it was receiving an unprecedented number of inquiries about polygamous marriages.
Its most recent figures show that, for the first time, polygamy is now among the top ten reasons cited for divorce, as wives decide that they can no longer tolerate competing with one another.
Polygamy is illegal in Britain, but Muslim men can take a second, third or even a fourth wife under Sharia law in a religious ceremony known as the nikah.
These wives are not recognised by British law, but are considered legitimate within many Muslim communities. Khola Hasan, lecturer and adviser to the Islamic Sharia Council, said it was clear that polygamy among the younger generation was on the increase.
“Out of 700 applications for divorce in 2010, 43 cited polygamy as the reason,” she said.
Ms Hasan said her research uncovered three main reasons for the growth in polygamy. The first is the growing number of young Muslim men who want to practise a more orthodox and conservative form of the religion.
“Young men who have come into a more radical understanding of faith know it is illegal to marry more than once [under British law], but do it to spite the system,” Ms Hasan said.
“These marriages have the lowest record of succeeding,” she said.
The second and biggest group are men whose first marriage has failed.
“Typically their wife does not want a divorce, there are children involved and the father wants to carry on seeing and supporting the children. Rather than carry on living together and biting each other’s heads off, the husband takes a second wife. That is the model which works best, largely because it is a pragmatic arrangement,” Ms Hasan said.
That was the case with Imran Patel, a second generation Pakistani living in Birmingham, central England, who has a successful business making desserts. He wanted to marry when he was 18 and settled down with a woman chosen by his parents.
But seven years later he met and fell in love with another woman who was divorced and had two children. Rather than embarking on an extra-marital affair, he decided to marry the second woman as well.
“I didn’t tell my first wife about it in the beginning, but she accepted it after a short period of time,” he said. “I love both of them. I spend one day and one night with one, then one day and night with the other.”
Everyone is happy, he says, apart from his parents, who are appalled.
There is a small third group of men whose parents live in the country of origin, say Pakistan, and need help in old age, so they marry a woman from the community there.
“When he is visiting, she is a wife. When he is back in Britain, she is the carer,” Ms Hasan said.
Perminder Khatkar, who carried out the investigation by the BBC, said there was also growing concern that wives in polygamous marriages are unaware that they have no legal rights.
The Muslim Council of Britain has urged all those who marry only under Sharia law to have a contract in place setting out who is entitled to what. However, these contracts require the consent of all parties, and may be challenged in a British court.
Islam sees polygamy as a realistic answer to some social woes like adulterous affairs and lamentable living conditions of a widow or a divorced woman.
A Muslim man who seeks a second or a third wife should, however, make sure that he would treat them all on an equal footing, even in terms of compassion.
The Noble Qur’an says that though polygamy is lawful it is very hard for a man to guarantee such fairness.