LONDON—Thousands of Muslim men in Britain may have exploited a loophole in British law banning multiple marriages by holding religious marriage ceremonies in mosques, Islamic leaders said.
Muslim men can contract a “nikah,” or religious ceremony, in a mosque without going through a civil ceremony, allowing as many as 4,000 men in Britain to have multiple marriages, the leaders said in issuing guidelines warning against the practice.
“We are concerned for the ‘women—the second wife or subsequent wives usually find they have no rights if the relationship breaks down,” Mufti Barkatullah, a judge on Britain’s Shariah Council, said Friday.
“Practically speaking, a second, parallel marriage is frowned on,” Barkatullah said.
Despite this, the council—which provides guidance on legal and theological issues—deals with 600 applications for polygamous marriage every year, Barkatullah said.
He estimated that 3,000 men in Britain are in relationships that are only technically polygamous. They have left their prior relationship and are living with their new partner but want to avoid the stigma or expense of divorce. Another 1,000 have multiple, parallel marriages, he said. In such instances, the men are maintaining households with each of their wives.
Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, an umbrella body of Islamic groups, puts the number of men practicing polygamy at around 2,000.
“But at the best, we are only guessing,” he said, noting that in some cases, women are brought in secretly from abroad.
The nikah ceremony, which is conducted by an imam, is recognized by Islamic authorities as a marriage in the sight of God. But it is not valid under British law, leaving many wives without income, pension, property or welfare rights if the relationship breaks off.
The government says it is a criminal offense to contract a second marriage while the first is still in force.
The guidelines—which Barkatullah helped to draft—state that “no Muslim should seek to contract a marriage without the full protection of the law of the land.”
“Persons most likely to be harmed by avoiding the civil registration would be the wives, who would only then have the status in the United Kingdom of unmarried partners, a status forbidden in Islam. The children would be illegitimate. No Muslim man should wish to put his spouse or offspring in such a dishonorable position,” the guidelines say.
The guidelines urge imams to do their best to find out if couples have been married before and if so, whether they have terminated a previous marriage.
“Obviously, people interpret the Quran differently, but most imams already do not conduct polygamous marriages,” said Barkatullah.