3 December, 2022

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Reforming MMDA: Muslim Men Want Polygamy

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

Reforming the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) has become an endless saga of committees and consultations, more to satisfy the political addenda of governments, parliamentarians and Muslim vote-bank managers than to make Muslim matrimonial matters keep pace with changing circumstances of Sri Lanka and its Muslim community. Between the time when Justice Saleem Marsoof Committee (JSMC) submitted its findings and recommendations to the then woman Minister of Justice Thalatha Atukorale in 2018, and until now, the Muslim religious constituency has remained the chief bulwark against delivering justice to Muslim women. SMC report carried a number of progressive recommendations to benefit these women, such as raising the marriageable age to eighteen, requirement of bride’s consent for marriage, appointment of women Quadis and so on. But the intervention of All Ceylon Jamiyatul Ulema (ACJU), a men-only organization of mullahs, sabotaged that report by canvassing against it. It warned Muslim parliamentarians who were facing an election at that time not to approve it, and the surrender of those leaders left JSMC report gather dust in the parliamentary archive. 

It was that act of sabotage which provided the opportunity to an ultranationalist Buddhist priest and parliamentarian, Athuraliya Rathana Thera, to introduce a Private Bill in the legislature calling for One Country One Law (OCOL). That call became the trump card in the presidential electioneering campaign of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR). In 2021, a couple of months before he was thrown out, GR appointed a task force headed by another controversial monk, Ven. Galagoda atte Gnanasara Thera, to make recommendations so that OCOL could be implemented. Recently, GR’s successor Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW), with an eye on garnering Muslim support for his own political agenda, has rejected Gnanasara’s report and bringing a sigh of relief to ACJU and its politicians.

However, the controversy continues. One of the most contentious issues relating to Muslim marriages is Islam’s tolerance for polygamy. Even JSMC did not want to abolish polygamous marriages, but allowed it to continue under certain conditions. Lately, an “Advisory Committee on Muslim Law Reforms”, consisting of seven men and two women, appointed by the Ministry of Justice has done the same, with seven members voting for and two against polygamy. One need not be a rocket scientist to detect who voted for and who against. Inside information reveals that all them supported polygamy under so-called “stringent conditions” while the two women opposed it under any condition. Even among those seven one or two had expressed reservations but did not have the guts to confront the conservative elements that were present in that committee. 

There are two things that raise serious concern in this regard.One is in relation to the composition of this committee. Almost one half of the Muslim population in this country consists of women, and they are the ones responsible for bringing to this world the other fifty percent also. Given this eternal genetic fact, how could one justify the appalling under-representation of women in this committee? Is the Muslim community bereft of educated women? Like the two women lawyers appointed already, there are plenty of able, qualified and erudite others, thanks to the country’s free education, who could educate the men on how Muslim women are suffering and becoming the ultimate victims of polygamous marriages. Apart from lawyers and activists there are among them professors and highly qualified scholars who could present a different perspective on the issue. Why were they ignored by the minister is a mystery? Isn’t the national legislature itself an embodiment of this gender discrimination? 

Like women in other communities, Muslim women of today are an economically independent and resourceful other half, and many have taken the role of breadwinner in their families. Why should they be subjected to the dictates of the masculine half? Whatever the conditions imposed upon polygamy and however strict those conditions are to be followed, it is common knowledge that in a male chauvinist society women receive the lower end of any bargain. At least they must be adequately represented in any committee that decides on such a vital issue as marriage, divorce and type of marriages. 

The second area of concern could become bitterly controversial. The winning argument that permits polygamy to continue is that it is allowed in the Quran, and that the words of the Quran are eternal. This is the contention of orthodoxy and the committee referred to also has taken the same view without any critical review of the time and context of those words. There are modernist scholars who argue today that Quranic verses which are strictly religious in nature are eternal but those relating to mundane matters like economic and social relations and their institutions are contextual. It was that renowned Muslim philosopher and sociologist, Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988), for example, who set the golden rule that “contextualization of the text and textualization of the context” must go hand in hand in order to make Islam a way of life for all times. It was along that line the theological instrument of ijtihad or independent reasoning was developed since the time of the Prophet of Islam. That door is said to have been controversially closed after the 12th century with the reassertion of orthodoxy. This is why Muslim religious conservatives and neo-fundamentalists of today have nothing to do with ijtihad and clinging on to taqlid or imitation. They therefore disapprove the contextualization argument. However, even they had embarrassingly contextualized Quranic verses whenever pushed to a corner to defend themselves. A classic instance was when Islamist Jihadists started quoting verses from the Quran to justify their barbaric killings of non-Muslims after 2000. When critics condemned the jihadists and quoted the same verses and argued that Quran itself was encouraging barbarism, terrorism and violence, orthodoxy immediately came to the defense and countered that those verses were revealed at a particular time in a particular context and that time and context have lapsed now. What a volte-face?

Shouldn’t the same argument be applied with reference to polygamy also? Permission for polygamous marriages was granted at a time when Arab society was at an underdeveloped stage of civilization where women were used as chattels and sexual objects to satisfy men’s carnal desires. Arabs in that society had limitless number of wives. Islam actually cut down that number and limited it to just four but favouring one to be the norm.  In that context that itself was a revolution. Yet, the rich and the powerful opted for the plural justifying with the Quran. The harems of Muslim caliphs are a historical testimony to this abuse. Quranic restrictions were openly flouted. 

That society has changed today and the status of women also has changed along with it, thanks to the freedom and respect the Quran itself has granted to women. These changes and the elevated status of Muslim women should be understood and their views should receive greater weightage when deciding on marriage issue.  More than the literal meaning of the scripture the intention behind each of its instructions should be understood. That requires a good grasp of the critical stock of knowledge that has developed independent of the Quran. Unfortunately, today’s madrasas, their pedagogues and institutions which control like ACJU suffer from a great deficit in this area.   

Before accepting the recommendations on polygamy, the Minister of Justice must make arrangements to organize island wide discussion groups for Muslim women to participate and represent their concerns on this matter. Justice to those women demands that arrangement. 

*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia

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Latest comments

  • 15
    1

    Polygamy should be made illegal in SL. The law should be not based on religion.

    • 7
      2

      “Almost one half of the Muslim population in this country consists of women, and they are the ones responsible for bringing to this world the other fifty percent also.”
      I wasn’t aware that a Muslim woman, unaided, can produce offspring. Truly amazing!
      Be that as it may, I personally feel that this polygamy business should be legal for all, not only Muslims. Like ganja smokers nowadays, there are many males who sleep around. Why not make poygamy legal, and, like alcohol, tax the users?

      • 6
        3

        Naman,
        Monogamy too is based on religion.

      • 4
        2

        OC
        To be fair, we need to make polyandry legal too.
        But everything should be legal and above board.
        Sex outside marriage shall remain to be considered as adultery, and punishable.

      • 3
        0

        Divorce rates in Sri Lanka are said to be on the rise today and more men and women are reported to be involved in extramarital affairs today than ever before.
        This is not peculiar to mulism srialnkens. Some experts say Sri Lankans are among the biggest spenders on sex sites.

        Among the domestic workers exported to the Middle East, there is a lot of preliminary evidence that they have become easy prey for bangladesh, indian and pakistanian men.

        Majority of these women come from poor rural areas (sinhala buddhists) of the country and some of them do not care much about cultural etiquette. In fact, I have seen with my own eyes how some Sri Lankan women behave while waiting for transit to/from Europe/Colombo but in Dubai and Doha.
        It is even common among diaspora communities in Australia and other countries. It seems that this is not limited to the “Sri Lankan Muslim community” as many men today have extramarital affairs without any shame. Some of them I know are from popular schools in Colombo.

    • 4
      4

      Why should any practice, that doesn’t interfere with your life or mine, be subjected to a law? That decision must be for that community to decide.

      • 3
        0

        Why should any practice, that doesn’t interfere with your life or mine, be subjected to a law? That decision must be for that community to decide.

      • 2
        1

        That is the theory. But what happened to the Roe Vs Wade case in America. President Trump, one man, purposefully appointed conservative judges to overturn the case, but not to make America go forward with the Supreme Court Decisions. (Evil Ranil fired Mokan Pieris saying he was only a defacto CJ, but never reversed his verdict which said as Tamils are terrorists, terrorists have no fundamental rights.) Here America has become stagnant. Americans elect 500 congresspeople. All of them are divided on many issues. What if I am a conservative person but for Roe Vs Wade? Then before I cast my vote for DP or RP, I have to think that my all-other conservative issues are important, or the one Roe Vs Wade is important. Then where is my real opportunity to decide on all issues, at my free will? If you are a Sinhala Buddhist Langkang citizen, the decision is simple; i.e.: ignore the economy, education, cultural advancement, international relation…….but vote strictly only for the party that promises to wipe out Tamils more violently than all other parties. On an inverse situation, White Community wanted the slavery to continue, but conservative president Lincoln overturned it. Did Italians want Galileo Galilei punished or even Greeks wanted Socrates poisoned?

      • 2
        1

        Then the question is should we do the right thing, or should we practice “Kumpalai Kovindha”, blindly surrender to majoritarianism? Would you open the economy fully, so there only one or two monopolistic or oligarchy companies would produce and sell all the goods and keep all the wealth. (There are so many things that need to be defined here but I present to you it as only an unrealistically simple situation) Is that an element of Fundamental freedom that few men herding and hoarding all the women and others observe celibacy? Does the Government not have any responsibility in maintaining justice or equality for its people?

        What is prostitution? What is adultery? Is adultery a new chicken curry cooked with the recipe of JOU Sadampi? Once a group of violent people dragged a woman on the street, brought her to Jesus and threw her like pulling the big shark out of the ocean and throwing it into their boat, at his feet and spoke. “Our lord, this sinner is polluting your heavenly clean land. She needs to be casted to hell by throwing rocks by the owners of this land. Thus, thou may cast first stone, so we the followers of you can follow you and eliminate her from this land by throwing rocks, until her sinful soul and the sinful body are separated.”

      • 2
        2

        Jesus noticed that if he is not following the orders of his devotees, he would be the one first to be stone throwed. Jesus picked up a stone from the heap that was lying there and called from the crowd, “One of you who has never committed a sin, please come forward and throw this stone on this woman.” One after other the whole crowd dispersed. Jusus helped the woman to stand up and dusted her dirty cloths and body. Then said to the woman, “Child, what we do is always go to society and end there. What we eat is something that comes from society and ends in us. Then why did you decide to give the society something they think is a sin to get your food from them that they worked hard and made it. Do you think you were fair? “The woman kept her head down in silence like a newly married woman in front of her new husband. Then he said to the woman, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The woman bowed in silence to thank him and walked away.

      • 2
        2

        Jesus, who was standing there, lonely, fell into transcendence. A million questions cased his mind and body figure. “Who are we to judge others? Who is the one entitled to judge us?”

        Yes, it is also a challenging question that who are we to provide justice for our fellow men and women. What is our capacity to understand the nuance of these matters? Suppose if the true mother of the child did not come forward and told the fib: “Your excellency, it is not my child; please pardon me for my crime which stemmed from my greed, please give the child for the true mother standing over there” would Solomon the Wise would have split the child to find out the truth? To decide which student is correct and go further above and who is wrong & stop at there, we need a professor on the chair. To decide who is the victim and who is the criminal, we need at least three professional lawyers and a team of Jury. But we all laypeople, selecting ourselves the candidates, that is deciding who is the shrewdest and the worst poor in hiding his/her shortcomings and thus we are passing our unworthy verdicts on others’ lives.

      • 2
        2

        Other than for anti-Tamil racist Don Stephen, in what way is the law (MMDA) written to tilt the equality of women’s fundamental rights towards men can be justified? Did Don Stepen think that he was the latest Allah, who was replacing the Sharia with MMDA? Further, the woman fighting for women or men fighting for men could deliver the justice if one other party wins in that fight. If Russians fight for Russians in Ukraine and win the smaller Ukraine, is that justice? How many of you want to call any kind of victory over the enemy as a kind of justice? Justice within a society can be provided if only men and women give for the lost one. That is justice for the society. Appe Aanduwa used Muslim ministers to bomb Tamil Churches and tourist hotels. Then, in order to save the Muslim ministers, government punished the Muslim civilians and social workers. Government appointed two women and seven men to a committee which’s topic was highly contested society splitting on gender line, only to serve its judgment to Muslim society, but not to serve the justice which was the Muslim society was looking for.

    • 4
      7

      N
      Look at Hindu mythology for evidence of both polygamy and polyandry. A lot of other things are seen too.
      Hinduism was a fun religion.
      Sangam literature has plenty of premarital sex.
      People did what came naturally.

      • 2
        0

        It may lead to the prevalence of many genetically modified disorders in the South Asian region.

        Judaism strictly forbids premarital sex, but in modern times they are less concerned. The same is the case with Muslims. I have seen a significant number of people wearing headscarves behave beyond all limits, even in some schools and universities in Germany and Switzerland, those headscarves are the worst. Some of them continue to argue, but they even drink alcohol (I am talking more about Turkish and Syrian women).

        In the eyes of many, Jews are said to be very particular about their religious beliefs. Whenever I see them entering the nearby synagogue, I observe them. I also work with some Jewish researchers in Europe. Some of them are very unique to their thinking nature.
        .
        There is ample evidence to show that intermarriage of close relatives breeds various genetically predisposed diseases.

        • 1
          0

          “It may lead to the prevalence of many genetically modified disorders in the South Asian region.”
          That seems to contradict “There is ample evidence to show that intermarriage of close relatives breeds various genetically predisposed diseases.”
          *
          An Israeli friend told me that the incidence of homosexuality is high in Israel. He gave 10% as an estimate. Even half of it is pretty high.
          The more rules they make based on faith, the greater the tendency to violate.

  • 5
    2

    This Evil Ranil & Rowdy Royals’ game. When they brought MMDA did worse than Sharia, did they lent a year to Muslim women folk? When they disenfranchised 1.5 million did they care about that Tamils’ opinion? Then Solomon West Ridgeway Dias brought Sinhala Only did they mind the 15 million Tamils opposition? When Badiyudeen Mahmud brought Standardization did they think that they were doing justice to Tamil students. This is specially a Ranil’s game, he set up Muslim Politicians Rishard, Hizballah, Anwar like extremists on one side and pretending like he is willing to curb the injustice of MMDA for women. He will fool all the people all the time for a millennium with this technique. Nobody will suspect or catch him. He is so foxy smooth in this trick.

    Do you remember how Evil Ranil saved from the courts the Old King Rowdy and New King when they were accused of Unconstitutional Coup? Evil set up 122 MPs to make a case in CoA and Supreme Court. Foreign Embassies met Ranil and said they only support Ranil’s government. Then he three times met Old Rowdy and New King after midnight and released all the secrets to them and warned them. This game is him playing to fool the EU and keep the GSP +.

  • 5
    1

    Some Tamil MPs said that KMB Rajaratne, RG Senanayake, Keralakaraya Cryril Mathew’s line Appe Aanduwa has set up the Rear Admirable. These days Weerakuddy Rear Admirable and Weerakuddy Lemon Puff are blowing Conch with their second mouth against the Tamils. In the Yahapalanaya time, they did this Ravanaya Bala Vegaya and SinhaLE. Unless a Sinhala Thirunavukarasar is born and gives a haircut for these extremist Sinhala Buddhists, the army camps dwelling half baked Pikkus won’t stop their hooting. When, in India, in 2010, GLP said A Federal 13A will be implemented and Tamils’ problems will be settled, the Chitanta government immediately denied that it was not in their Chitanta government’s policies, it was only GLP’s private opinion. Have you heard any time Evil Ranil or Communist Dinesh saying that the “Weerakuddies Rear Admirable and Lemon Puff” are only talking about their opinion. Under the hate speech bill proposed in the parliament during Yahapalanaya time, what they are talking about is hate. But irrelevant of anything they say the government is working to solve Tamils problems”, No! Because Weerakuddies are only working for Evil Ranil and paid by Appe Aanduwa for these hate mongering speeches. So Ranil can show these to EU that it is not in his hand so still EU have to give the GSP+.

  • 7
    0

    “Muslim women of today are an economically independent and resourceful other half, and many have taken the role of breadwinner in their families. Why should they be subjected to the dictates of the masculine half?”
    The law is of little help. Customs and beliefs are barriers.
    Muslim women should assert themselves. They should canvas opinion among women.
    They could go on strike on several fronts, until they have their way.

    • 4
      0

      What Iranian women are sending to the world these days is unique.
      I think the whole people should at least accept that in today’s society there should be a big barrier between men and women. Religions should be removed from each society to play their fantasies in that regard. Only then will women be able to live their lives happily.
      :
      They have provocatively broken the silence of the public demonstrations held to protest against the strict anti-women laws established by their men in that society.
      :

  • 4
    1

    “The winning argument that permits polygamy to continue is that it is allowed in the Quran …… “
    The right to marry up to 4 women was sanctioned by the Almighty in only one verse (out of the 6000+ verses) in the Holy Book.
    After the Battle of Uhud where many Muslims lost their lives, the surviving males were encouraged to look after the orphans of the dead.
    Verses 4.2 & 4.3 (which have to be read in tandem) speak directly to those Muslims who have undertaken the responsibility of looking after such orphans.
    Verse 4.2 : To orphans restore their property (when they reach their age), nor substitute (your) worthless things for (their) good ones; and devour not their substance (by mixing it up) with your own. For this is indeed a great sin.
    Verse 4.3 : If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or that which your right hands possess. That will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.

    • 4
      1

      The critical clause (” marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four” ) is clearly contingent upon the first clause (“If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans” )
      Contemporary Scholars have interpreted these verses as being applicable only to those Muslims who have orphans under their care AND who feel they may not be able to deal justly with such orphans (in accordance with verse 4.2).
      It follows therefore, that permission to marry 2 – 4 wives was granted ONLY to such Muslims.
      Verse 4.3 does NOT give carte blanche for all Muslim males to do so.
      [Quote] While interpreting the Quranic verses relating to polygamy, jurists belonging to different schools of thoughts, presented diverse observations regarding the wholesale permission and restrictive approval of polygamy…….. The classical or traditional jurists interpreted this verse as allowing a man to marry up to four wives, while the modernists as well as contextualists observed that this verse legislates monogamy and allows polygamy only under exceptional circumstances. It will be prudent to note that contextualists emphasise the context and background of the verse. [Unquote]

      • 3
        1

        In preparing their exegeses (tafsirs) of the Quran decades after the death of the Holy Prophet (sal), Arabic scholars driven by their highly-patriarchal outlook may have wittingly or unwittingly sacralized and perpetuated many socio-cultural practices that existed during the pre-Islamic times. In this case, they have cherry-picked a section of a sentence (“..marry women of your choice, two, three or four ..”) to justify the continuation of polygny based on the following simplistic argument :
        [a] Polygamy was widely practiced by the Arabs during the pre-Islamic period
        [b] The Holy Quran does NOT expressly forbid Polygamy
        [c] Therefore the practice of Polygamy can be continued subject to the condition that all wives have to be treated ‘equally’.

        • 3
          0

          The attitudes of the 7 male members of the Committee regarding Polygamy is understandable. The vast majority of Muslim males have from their formative years ‘sub-contracted’ their critical thinking / reasoning of religious issues to the ‘learned scholars’ (e.g. ACJU). They are perfectly content in blindly adhering to the pronouncements of these senior Ulemas, resulting in the ossification of their brains. According to the grapevine, many Ulemas have multiple wives. Can any sensible person then expect the Ulemas to advise their ‘sheep’ that Polygamy is only permitted in the cases of Orphan-fostering males ?

  • 3
    3

    Dear Dr Ameer Ali,
    .
    Thanks for an article that is responsible and honest. What is the law of this land concerns all Lankans, but in this particular instance we (non Muslims like me, I mean) have to tread warily.
    .
    Any child born into Sri Lankan society should be out concern. No child marriages! Females must have full rights. Education, the right to work, etc.
    .
    Beyond that, I don’t want to interfere too much, but I think that a law closest to those for other groups seems desirable, and monogamy seems fairest in normal times and normal societies. Else some will be without spouses. There have been the various jokes and quips here. That was to be expected.
    .
    Get this MMDA amended as early as possible, given the complexities for families. In practical terms, this is a vulnerable spot for people to attack the entire community.

    • 2
      0

      Human Rights are universal, one cannot hide behind religious label.

      If it is a violation of human rights, it is the concern of not only Muslim community, but the entire humanity

      • 0
        1

        I agree, absolutely, dear srikrish,
        .
        However, I don’t want here to shoot my mouth off knowing that many of the comments on this subject are just an excuse to say something nasty about Muslims.
        .
        I don’t, therefore, want to say anything too strident. If, as much as possible, is done by admirable people like Dr Ameer Ali, from within the Muslim community, it would be best.
        .
        I try to be most outspoken when those who violate Human Rights are those from my own “sub-community”. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the idea of “World Government” and the perfect equality of all humans. Now I realise that although that would be ideal as a final objective, we have to be satisfied with one small step forward at a time.
        .
        Panini Edirisinhe (NIC 483111444V) currently in Maharagama

      • 0
        2

        Dear sri,
        .
        There are subtle ways in which messages are got across. These seven minutes in Sinhala was sent to me:
        .
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrND903wQGA
        .
        I have made this comment below the video:
        .
        I can’t help but share the concern of Jagath Wickramasekara among the YouTube comments. Nobody now dares to directly defend the doings of Ranil Wickremasinghe. What does this venerable monk do? He talks acceptably, but ends up condemning the Aragalaya and praising (of all universities that this monk could think of) the Katunayake Defence University!
        .
        What is the final message? Is it not covert support for Ranil?
        .
        If you feel that I’m paranoid, please tell me so.

        • 0
          0

          “Recently, GR’s successor Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW), with an eye on garnering Muslim support for his own political agenda, has rejected Gnanasara’s report”
          Why is it necessary, when Ranil does some good, as in this case, to put it down to political expediency? If he accepted the report, Dr. Ali would have called Ranil a racist.
          Anybody with the slightest acquaintance with Ranil’s politics of the last 20 years would know that he doesn’t use political racism. That’s why he consistently loses elections.

  • 1
    2

    “Almost one half of the Muslim population in this country consists of women, and they are the ones responsible for bringing to this world the other fifty percent also.”
    I wasn’t aware that a Muslim woman, unaided, can produce offspring. Truly amazing! Old Codger

    You failed to contextualize the quotation , sorry. Once again sorry Sri Lanka has not got enough place to accommodate more children born through polygamy

    • 2
      0

      AN,
      “Sri Lanka has not got enough place to accommodate more children born through polygamy”
      There is a simple answer to that. It’s called birth control.

    • 0
      0

      AN
      One can do with a sense of humor.
      *
      Marriage is no more simply about having children.

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