Not surprisingly, in the recent debate on the suggestion to re-legalize polygamy for non-Muslims, most women’s groups and progressive minded men have reacted with outrage and condemned the proposal.
It is acknowledged that polygamy was legal for non-Muslim men in Malaysia until the enforcement of the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce Act 1976 in 1982. Prior to its enforcement, unlimited and unconditional polygamy was recognized under the men’s respective customary laws. The Law Reform Act was the outcome of the struggle of various women’s groups in this country to put an end to the oppression and injustice suffered by women under unfair and outdated customary practices. Women’s groups comprising of women from different races and religions, including some Muslim women, joined in the struggle against the abuse of polygamy and the discrimination against women. The pressure from the various women’s groups led to the abolition of polygamy for non-Muslims, and certain attempts (not very effective) intended to control it among the Muslims. However, any effective measures against the abuse of polygamy among the Muslims were unfortunately condemned as “un-Islamic” due to a general mistaken notion that polygamy was a sacred male right guaranteed by Islam.
Sisters in Islam (SIS) wish to point out that Islam neither invented nor encouraged polygamy. Unlimited polygamy was a pre-existing practice prior to the revelations of the Qur’an. The Qur’anic revelations relating to polygamy are clearly restrictive rather than permissive. Since the nineteenth century, several leading Islamic scholars including Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, the Grand Mufti of Egypt until his death in 1905, have pointed out that polygamy was reluctantly tolerated by Islam due to the pre-existing conditions at the time of revelation. Similarly, slavery was also reluctantly tolerated by Islam, with the guiding principles towards its eventual abolition by enjoining the kind treatment of slaves as well as making the freeing of slaves a cardinal virtue. The guiding principles in the Qur’an against polygamy can be demonstrated by firstly, limiting the maximum number of wives to four, then by enjoining on the fair and just treatment of multiple wives, and finally by declaring that fair and just treatment is impossible.
An argument that is being put forward in support of the suggestion for the re-legalization of polygamy for non-Muslims is that it would help to reduce social ills such as illicit affairs, prostitution and the birth of illegitimate children. However, the legality of polygamy has not put an end to these social ills among the Malay community. In some cases, it might even have contributed to the problem of social ills among young people who have been brought up in unhappy and neglected polygamous households. Therefore, the question that should be addressed in our society today is not on whether polygamy should be re-legalized under the civil law for the non-Muslims, but whether it should still be continued under the Islamic family law for the Muslims, bearing in mind the true purpose of the Qur’anic injunctions on polygamy: “if you fear you cannot deal justly (with your wives), marry only one (wife)”. The Qur’an is also the only holy scripture that contains the phrase “marry only one”. The Muslims should have led the other communities in the struggle against polygamy and its abuses.