In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
It is a condition of a sound marriage that it be announced and attested to publicly. A secret marriage, which is only witnessed by a few people in private, is disapproved (makruh) at best and unlawful (haram) according to some scholars. It is potentially harmful to those affected by it, as it almost always involves deception or at least gross omission, especially if a man marries an additional wife in secret and without her consent.
فَانكِحُوهُنَّ بِإِذْنِ أَهْلِهِنَّ وَآتُوهُنَّ أُجُورَهُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ مُحْصَنَاتٍ غَيْرَ مُسَافِحَاتٍ وَلَا مُتَّخِذَاتِ أَخْدَانٍ
Marry them with the permission of their families and give them their due as is good, chaste women, neither fornicators nor secret mistresses.
Surat al-Nisa 4:25
Scholars have said that this verse prohibits secret marriages without witnesses, by drawing an analogy between a ‘secret mistress’ and a secret marriage.
Ibn Taymiyyah writes:
وَمَالِكٌ يُوجِبُ إعْلَانَ النِّكَاحِ وَنِكَاحُ السِّرِّ هُوَ مِنْ جِنْسِ نِكَاحِ الْبَغَايَا وَقَدْ قَالَ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى مُحْصَنَاتٍ غَيْرَ مُسَافِحَاتٍ وَلَا مُتَّخِذَاتِ أَخْدَانٍ فَنِكَاحُ السِّرِّ مِنْ جِنْسِ ذَوَاتِ الْأَخْدَانِ
Malik obligated announcing the marriage in public. A secret marriage is a type of prostitution. Allah Almighty said: Chaste women, neither fornicators nor secret mistresses. (4:25) Thus, a secret marriage is a type of secret mistress.
Source: Majmū’ al-Fatāwá 32/102
Scholars also refer to the statements of the Prophet (s) commanding the announcement of marriages in public.
Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
أَعْلِنُوا هَذَا النِّكَاحَ وَاجْعَلُوهُ فِي الْمَسَاجِدِ وَاضْرِبُوا عَلَيْهِ بِالدُّفُوفِ
Announce this marriage publicly, conduct it in the mosque, and strike the drums for it.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1089, Grade: Hasan
Muhammad ibn Hatib reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
فَصْلُ مَا بَيْنَ الْحَرَامِ وَالْحَلَالِ الدُّفُّ وَالصَّوْتُ
The difference between an unlawful and lawful marriage is the beating of drums and the raising of voices.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1088, Grade: Hasan
Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
Announce the marriage.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Ḥibbān 4066, Grade: Hasan
Based upon this evidence, it is said that a marriage conducted in secret is invalid and annulled, even if it has two credible witnesses and permission from a guardian.
Abu Bakr Abdul Aziz said:
نِكَاحُ السِّرِّ بَاطِلٌ؛ لِأَنَّ أَحْمَدَ قَالَ إذَا تَزَوَّجَ بِوَلِيٍّ وَشَاهِدَيْنِ لَا حَتَّى يُعْلِنَهُ
A secret marriage is invalid, as Ahmad said: If he is married with a guardian’s permission and two witnesses, it is not so until it is announced publicly.
Source: al-Mughnī 7/83
This was also the opinion of Imam Malik. However, most scholars said that a secret marriage is valid if it meets the condition of two credible witnesses and a guardian. It is in legal effect and will not be annulled, although it is disapproved to do so.
Ibn Qudamah writes:
فَإِنْ عَقَدَهُ بِوَلِيٍّ وَشَاهِدَيْن فَأَسَرُّوه أَوْ تَوَاصَوْا بِكِتْمَانِه كُرِهَ ذَلِك وَصَحَّ النِّكَاحُ
If the marriage is contracted with a guardian and two witnesses, but he keeps it secret or conceals its attestation, that is disapproved but the marriage is valid.
Source: al-Mughnī 7/83
And Ibn al-Qayyim writes:
أَنَّ الشَّارِعَ اشْتَرَطَ لِلنِّكَاحِ شُرُوطًا زَائِدَةً عَلَى الْعَقْدِ تَقْطَعُ عَنْهُ شُبَهَ السِّفَاحِ كَالْإِعْلَامِ وَالْوَلِيِّ وَمَنْعِ امْرَأَةٍ أَنْ تَلِيَهُ بِنَفْسِهَا وَنَدَبَ إلَى إظْهَارِهِ حَتَّى اُسْتُحِبَّ فِيهِ الدُّفُّ وَالصَّوْتُ وَالْوَلِيمَةُ
The Lawgiver has set conditions for marriage, in addition to the contract, in order to cut off any suspicion of promiscuity, such as announcing it, the guardian, and preventing a woman from conducting it by herself. It is encouraged to publicize it, even recommended to beat the drums, raise voices, and hold a banquet.
Source: I’lām al-Muwaqqi’īn 3/113
This disapproval should not be taken lightly. The important point here is that the legal ‘validity’ of an act does not mean it is ethical or morally sound. If some scholars accept the validity of a secret marriage, that in no way implies they are endorsing or encouraging the act.
Nevertheless, many scholars said that such a secret marriage resembles adultery despite being legally valid. Umar ibn al-Khattab was particularly strict about this matter.
Abu al-Zubayr reported: Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, was presented with a marriage which no one had witnessed except one man and one woman. Umar said:
هَذَا نِكَاحُ السِّرِّ وَلَا أُجِيزُهُ وَلَوْ كُنْتُ تَقَدَّمْتُ فِيهِ لَرَجَمْتُ
This is a secret marriage and I do not permit it. If I had known of it beforehand, I would have stoned them.
Source: al-Muwaṭṭa’ 1136
This was a rhetorical threat to indicate the seriousness with which the matter should be taken. If there were no witnesses at all, the consensus of the scholars is that it is an act of adultery.
Ibn Taymiyyah writes:
وَأَمَّا نِكَاحُ السِّرِّ الَّذِي يَتَوَاصَوْنَ بِكِتْمَانِهِ وَلَا يُشْهِدُونَ عَلَيْهِ أَحَدًا فَهُوَ بَاطِلٌ عِنْدَ عَامَّةِ الْعُلَمَاءِ وَهُوَ مِنْ جِنْسِ السِّفَاحِ
As for a secret marriage, the attestation of which is concealed and witnessed by no one, it is invalid according to the prevalent opinion of scholars. It is a type of illicit intercourse.
Source: Majmū’ al-Fatāwá 33/158
In sum, secret marriages without witnesses are unconditionally forbidden in Islam as they resemble adultery. If a secret marriage meets the minimum legal requirements of two credible witnesses and permission of a guardian, then at the very least it is morally disapproved if not unlawful. Believing men who fear Allah would be wise to avoid contracting a secret marriage, especially if they are marrying a second wife behind the back of their first wife, her family, and her children.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.