LONDON // Sharia councils in Britain are reporting an unexpected and "dramatic" rise in the number of Muslim men taking second or third wives.
A prominent Muslim legal expert warned that, because polygamy is illegal in the UK, second and any subsequent wives and their children could be left destitute and without recourse to the courts should these marriages break down.
Official government figures estimate the number of polygamous marriages in Britain at about 1,000. However, Muslim social workers believe the actual total could be 20 times greater.
The only legal polygamous marriages in the UK are ones that involve foreign nationals who marry in countries where they are lawful. And they have to have been carried out before any of the people involved arrive in Britain.
A BBC report this week said British Muslims were getting around this by taking one wife legally and then subsequent ones in unrecognised nikah services carried out in homes or mosques.
Khola Hasan, a law lecturer and member of the UK's Islamic Sharia Council, told a Cambridge University law journal that the number of non-registered, nikah-only marriages "is showing a dramatic rise".
"This has wide implications for sharia councils as well as for the human rights of women," she said. Because polygamy was practised underground, she said, "if these marriages fail, the women and children are often left in very vulnerable positions".
Most Muslim organisations in Britain have declared their opposition to polygamy. "We are not in favour of the practice of polygamy for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it goes against both the letter and ethos of the law in this country," said a statement from the Islamic Society of Britain.
"Regardless of the theological and ethical debate, the bottom line is that this is not a positive requirement of Islam - it is an allowance. Thus, if the law of this country has prohibited the practice, this must be upheld."
Tariq Ali, a social worker in Lancashire and co-founder of Project BME, a charity for minority communities based in Darwen, Lancashire, told the Daily Mail that he was encountering many nikah-only marriages in Britain, mainly in the Pakistani community.
"Every single man of my age who I bump into seems to have a third, fourth or fifth wife," he said.
"The issue is going unreported but in the Asian communities this is becoming a way of life. I think the number of polygamous relationships must be 20,000."
He said that men find second wives not only in the UK but abroad. "The new favourite places to find women are Turkey and Morocco, because the men can drive there by car to meet them and bring them back," he said.
Research by Mrs Hassan has indicated that men taking second wives basically fall into three categories.
"There are those who think polygamy is compulsory. [They have] almost a sense of bravado or competition - 'Oh, he has a second wife and I haven't'," she told the BBC.
"The second group are those who have been forced into unhappy marriages, usually to cousins from abroad, tried to make the marriage work, have children, and don't want a divorce as their parents will never speak to them again, so have taken a second wife.
"Then there are those who have got a parent living abroad and want someone to look after them."