I recently heard of a woman whose husband informed her one day that he had been secretly married to another woman for the past five years. He insisted that as a man, polygyny was his right and he was under no obligation to tell his first wife about the second.
There are so many things wrong with this logic that one scarcely knows where to begin.
Polygyny is not a right like, say, shelter. Simply by virtue of being married a woman has a right to shelter and her husband must provide it for her. It is an absolute right – with an attending obligation on the part of the husband. Polygyny is not that kind of right. It is more like the right of a woman to keep all her earnings for herself – something she has the right to do but that isn’t always the right thing to do. There are conditions to polygyny, and very often it is not the wisest or the most practical style of marriage for a given family at a given time. In addition, the first wife is not obliged by shariah to remain with her husband if he should take another wife (especially in Maliki fiqh, where a woman is permitted to write into her marriage contract a clause that stipulates divorce should he take a second wife.)
A husband who is considering keeping a second marriage a secret from his first wife would also do well to remember that in Islam there are two tiers of expectations for behavior. The absolute bottom line is Shariah – Islamic law. If someone owes you money and is not paying it back you have the right by shariah to take him to court and have him forced to pay, even if that causes him great hardship. But by ______, (Suphan Allah, I can’t remember the Arabic name for it! If anyone knows it, please remind me! Jazzakom Allahu Khairun.) it would be much more praiseworthy (gentlemanly, kind, chivalrous..) to forgive the loan, especially if you have enough and have no real need of the sum you are owed. This is the truly Islamic behavior. According to the letter of the law you have a right to demand that you be paid, but the more appropriate thing for a Muslim to do would be to forgive the loan. Likewise, even if someone believed that by shariah he was not obliged to tell his wife about her co-wife, the truly Islamic thing to do would be to tell her.
As far as I am aware, however, a man may not, by shariah, hide a second marriage. (Mind you, I’m not saying a man must get his wife’s permission to marry a second wife. That is not the case. He doesn’t have to have her permission but I do believe he does have to inform her. If anyone knows of an actual ruling on this subject, please pass it on.) Secret marriages themselves are forbidden – the person’s community must be made aware of any marriage. How much more, then, his current wife? To be married in secret leaves unfulfilled one of the conditions of marriage – that it be recognized and acknowledged. In addition, while I have never seen the hukum shariah on this topic, I have seen in Malik’s Muwatta that when Umar (radhi Allah anhu) heard of a man with a secret marriage in another place, he replied that if the man had been present he would have had him flogged.
In addition to the legal rulings, there is the profound betrayal that is involved when a man keeps a second marriage secret. Trust me, brothers, the pain a woman experiences when her husband takes a second wife is a mere pinprick compared to the pain she feels upon realizing she’s been deceived in this way. And the same goes for the second wife. It is not lawful to mislead a woman into thinking she is marrying you as an only wife and then spring your pre-existing family on her. Either way, it is absolutely no different than cheating – no matter how you may wish to justify it. There is no pain like that that a woman feels upon realizing that the man she thought she knew is really a stranger who belongs as much to another stranger as he does to her. No real man would do such a thing.
So if you are of the opinion that you have a right to marry a second wife, then, by God, stand up for that right and be honest (read: grown up) about it! If you’re too weak to deal with your wife’s reaction you are MOST DEFINITELY too weak to deal with a polygynous situation. And if you marry a second wife and lie to either of the women about the circumstances and then your life falls apart, consider yourself properly compensated.