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Polygamy not justified now

Dr Sharifah Munirah Alatas

I refer to the recent ruling of the Selangor State Religious Department on polygamy. It is time to bring the political rhetoric calling for democracy, civil society, justice, public accountability and popular participation to a reality. As a Malaysian woman I am appalled at the gall of such a ruling, completely dismissing the inalienable rights that women in Islam were given historically.

The ruling is also an example of the outright violation of the democratic process. It was arbitrarily invoked without recourse to popular consultation. As some citizens have already pointed out, it is surely a step backwards for Malaysia, a nation which is otherwise moving ahead economically at break-neck speed towards the 21st century. This is a glaring contradiction indeed. I only wish more women would speak up.

It baffles me how some Muslims could misinterpret Islam so blatantly. I sometimes wonder at the sincerity of some of our religious leaders and politicians. The Quranic decree supporting polygamy has been taken out of context. Most Muslims who possess a critical knowledge of Islamic history would know that the socio-economic situation in seventh-century Arabia was vastly different from that of modern times.

The verses in the Qur’an concerning polygamy refer primarily to the economic perspective of marriage in Islam. Wars had reduced the male population considerably. Women and children were left without a male in their household. In the seventh-century Arab milieu, socially and economically it was difficult for women to pick up the pieces and carry on with their lives. Hence, the Quranic decree permitting men to take on more than one wife to help those who were dispossessed.

Here, we must reflect upon [Allama] Iqbal’s analysis of the structure of Islam. He urged Muslims to realize the dynamic outlook of the Quran. While Islam acknowledges change in human life, it also has elements of conservation. For that particular historical moment in Islam when women far outnumbered men, when widows with children needed a male figure in the family, a solution was revealed in the Quran. In response to such a dynamic situation in the seventhcentury Arab society, Islam suggested polygamy.

The element of conservation over and above the idea of polygamy has to do with the concept of social justice in Islam. The verses stress that the men who took on more than one wife had to be just in terms of equal distribution of time, wealth and emotion among each of the wives. Any human being knows that it is next to impossible to equally distribute one’s emotional feelings equally among more than one partner, inadvertantly discouraging polygamy.

The recent ruling is terribly unjust to Muslim women in Malaysia. Our present socio-economic situation does not justify polygamy. Moreover, the lack of popular participation in tabulating such rulings violates Islamic teachings by denying the woman the right to voice her displeasure. Suppose she is unhappy with her husband taking on a second wife, the situation is unequal, hence it could not and will not be sanctioned by Islam. What is worse is she will have no outlet open to her to legally defend her rights.

Yet, the Selangor State Religious Department will permit men to marry a second, third and fourth time without seeking the consent of the first wife. It seems that the new ruling is a manifestation of the nouveau riche mentality; with a tremendous amount of wealth circulating in our society, even marriages and wives are being ‘bought’ and ‘sold’. When certain men have the monetary means they feel it is possible to acquire more women as their wives.

This is uncivilized and unjust. Women should rise above the belittling game of money and greed, and see through the injustice and powerplay.

Courtesy: Aliran, Penang, Malaysia.

Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 1

Shawwal 21, 14171997-03-01

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