Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | December 13, 2006

Islam, Polygamy, and the State

Over the last few weeks, the public has learned about a famous Muslim preacher, Abdullah Gymnastiar (aka Aa Gym), who took a second wife and has started to practice a polygamous marriage. The news has surprised many Muslims, not only because Aa Gym made a public announcement of the marriage but also because he hold an example of a ideal type of a modern Muslim preacher. Unlike the older generation of Muslim preachers, who took many wives and practiced traditional style of dakwah (preaching), Aa Gym uses modern internet technology and applies modern managerial knowledge in running his pesantren (boarding school) Daarut Tauhid. Therefore, the news of his second marriage surprises many of his followers who begin to question his modern outlook and the reliability of his statements (he once said that he was not interested in practicing polygamy).

Aa Gym’s second marriage appears to become a national issue when, in the aftermath of the news, President Susilo Yudhoyono summoned Minister of Women’s Affairs and officials of the Ministry of Religion to discuss the controversy over polygamous marriage. The Minister of Women’s Affair delivered a statement that the government would look into the legal ramification of polygamous marriage. But the conservative Muslims reacted strongly to the statement by pointing out that Al-Qur’an allows polygamy and that the government’s initiative to arrange polygamy is a transgression against religious teaching.

The controversy over polygamy has opened up a debate over the limit of state’s rights. In other words, I tend to see that what lies at the heart of the debate is not whether the state should or should not intervene, but whether the state has trangressed its rights in responding to the matter. Here the situation gets more complicated. For the proponents of polygamy, the state could not perform as the bearer of divine rights and the Divine Law should not be transgressable. On the other hand, as illustrated by comments from government officials, the state is caught in an ambiguous position. It needs to set up a proper boundary between “secular” and divine rights, but this proves a difficult task as the controversy over Aa Gym’s polygamy demonstrates.



  1. I think that the state is acting on common sense. It is important to setup a division between religion and state processes for a number of reasons. First, no religious state can be “religious enough”. I’m from Pakistan and we see this struggle between a moderate government and the Mullas. It’s been going on for decades – and in many other countries. Second, there are many instructions in the Quran (and the Bible) that are just plain wrong. For example, slavery is also permitted in Islam (and Christianity) – would the state permit this?

    Quran: 4:92 “It is not for a believer to kill a believer unless (it be) by mistake. He who hath killed a believer by mistake must set free a believing slave, and pay the blood- money to the family of the slain, unless they remit it as a charity. If he (the victim) be of a people hostile unto you, and he is a believer, then (the penance is) to set free a believing slave.”

    Bible: Exodus 21:20-21
    And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

    Both Quran and Bible never tell you to set your slaves free. But slaver is now an international crime.

    I believe that every state in their evolution will encounter this moral dilemma: On the one hand, if the state starts to create laws based on religious doctrine, then how far will it go. On the other hand, should the state separate itself from God and create laws based on common sense and humanity, rather than questionable religious dogma.

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