Indian Muslims bitterly divided over bigamy

By Khalid Akhter, IANS,

New Delhi : Do bigamy and Islam go together? The Law Commission of India doesn’t think so. Indian clerics of all hues disagree. But they don’t seem to have the backing of ordinary Muslims.

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The issue of a Muslim man having more than one wife has always divided the country’s second largest religious minority. The row has escalated since the Law Commission asserted Thursday that bigamy conflicts with the “true Islamic law in letter and spirit”.

“Bigamy is not against the spirit of Islam,” asserted Maulana Abdul Khaleeq Sambhali, pro-vice chancellor of Darul Uloom in Deoband town, some 150 km from here, and one of the biggest seminaries in India.

“Islam permits a man to have more than one wife provided he does justice to both his wives on economic and other issues,” the Maulana told IANS on telephone from Deoband.

Sambhali was reacting to the 227th Law Commission report submitted to the central government. While falling short of suggesting a change in Muslim law that permits bigamy, the commission report said: “We fully agree that traditional understanding of Muslim law on bigamy is gravely faulty and conflicts with true Islamic law in letter and spirit.”

This is one of the most radical observations on the subject in any recent government publication.

Renowned Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan concurred with Sambhali but with a moderate touch for which he is known.

“Islam permits a man to have a second wife but under certain conditions,” the ageing Khan told IANS here.

Khan added quickly that while bigamy was widespread during medieval periods when wars turned the gender ratio in favour of women, Muslims now did not practise bigamy.

Asked if he would support a ban on bigamy in India a la Turkey and Tunisia, Khan said: “Ban is not a solution. Instead people must be taught and made aware in what conditions a man can marry more than one wife.”

Even in Muslim countries such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Pakistan and Bangladesh, polygamy is subject to judicial review.

The Indian clerics’ views supporting bigamy is met with disgust by most middle class Muslims.

“The system of bigamy is inherently unfair to women and such practices should be stopped,” thundered Arshan Alam, assistant professor at the Centre For Jawaharlal Nehru Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia here.

He said that to stop such practices, the Indian state, as it has acted in the case of Hindus, “must take the initiative because it has the authority to regulate and legislate on such issues”.

Alam is opposed to the veto power the largely conservative Ulema appears to hold over Muslim issues that affect millions. The government needs to rope in liberal and intellectual Muslims, he said.

Shazia Naz, 27, a housewife in Delhi, agreed with Alam.

“If my husband marries another woman, it would be one of the most humiliating things in my life,” she said. “In such cases I would prefer to get a divorce.”

Naz also said the Indian Muslim community needed to take the initiative to battle social customs out of tune with today’s world.

Although many Indians are under the impression that Muslim men tend to take more than one wife, government-backed statistics prove that this is a myth.

According to a 1974 government survey, one of the last on the subject, tribals account for around 14 percent of all bigamous marriages in India.

Surprisingly, Muslims are at the bottom with 5.6 percent of bigamous marriages while upper caste Hindus come a notch above them — 5.8 percent.

“In any case, how can Muslim men have two wives when there are not so many Muslim women in the country?” asked Alam.

(Khalid Akhter can be contacted at [email protected])