Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sex, hypocrisy and Muslim leaders

“The way to be at peace and free from the anxieties of unjust behavior is to have only one wife…. I have had plenty children with both of them. Day and night, I feel unrest since there is one thing I always think of: fairness. …. Never experiment with polygamy since we are dealing with humans. I myself am weak in this case, Abdulmalik.”
— Hamka, Tafsir al-Azhar

Hamka (1908-1981), a renowned Indonesian Islamic scholar, is quite different from Tifatul Sembiring, a so-called observant Muslim, leader of an Islamic political party as well as the communications and information technology minister. Tifatul practices polygamy and often shocks people with his statements related to sex.

Hamka respected women (albeit in his own way) and had true dignity. He stood out from other clerics of the time as chalk dies from cheese. Suryadharma Ali, another Muslim party leader and the Religious Affairs Minister, unambiguously supported polygamy with a public statement. He even said he agreed with unregistered marriages, which means he opposed the 1974 Marriage Law.

Hamka was not alone. Haji Agus Salim (1884-1954), Mohammad Natsir (1908-1993), and, more recently, former president Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009) were Indonesian Muslim clerics who respected women as true human beings. Their biographies clearly described the women in their lives as people who were created as equals by God. They were not objects for any kind of exploitation.

“Treating women as sexual subjects and objects is a way to tame women through religion economics and status bargaining.”
Even if we refer to Islam in earlier times, the founding fathers of Islam’s major school, Imam Mazhab, did not practice polygamy. Many decided to live unmarried for their entire lives. In this context, Abu Shuja’ al-Isfahani (1197), a famous Islamic author and jurist, stated that he would not marry so he could focus on learning, teaching and writing books. “To deal with societal affairs is more critical than being busy with sexual desire or indulging in a profuse personal life.”

Therefore, it is questionable when contemporary Muslim leaders and clerics demand that women be treated exclusively in terms of gender and polygamy. Do the Muslim politicians, for example, really think about their constituents’ prosperity?

Another interesting example is Abdullah Gymnastiar (A’a Gym). After enjoying several years of popularity as a preacher who successfully broadened his business, the cleric sank to the level of rhetoric supporting polygamy. Soon, most members of his congregation — especially women — withdrew from any activities related to him. His popularity decreased as well as his business.

Instead of accepting the public’s opinion on monogamy, A’a Gym persistently defended his choice to have a second wife. While Buya Hamka and his monogamous colleagues could cope with their sexual desires, this business-minded preacher employed all of his religious guns to ensure things proceeded according to his wishes. He even blamed the mass media for his troubles.

Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan Muslim feminist, said that in Islam, contrary to western culture, sexual inequality is based on the belief of the biological inferiority of woman. The whole system is based on the assumption that woman is a powerful and dangerous being. All sexual institutions — such as polygamy, repudiation and sexual segregation — can be perceived as a strategy for constraining a woman’s power.

Treating women as sexual subjects and objects is a way to tame women through religion economics and status bargaining. The supporters of polygamy, insist that women are not fully humans that they are not equal to men.

A man deserves to marry more than one woman while a woman never has the right to have more than one man at the same time.

What of Islam’s teachings on polygamy? Zeesan Hasan, a Bangladeshi Muslim intellectual, made the following statement on two sutras of the Koran (4:3 and 3:129): “Polygamy must then be viewed as a temporary phenomena, allowed only due to the social needs of the Messenger’s community. The Koranic stance on the ethical shortfalls of multiple marriages should result in their ultimate replacement by monogamy.”

We hope that Indonesian Muslim leaders will focus more on what the people need instead of continuously treating women and sex as their main business. Let’s pray that they will soon follow the path exemplified by their predecessors: Dedication to and thorough comprehension of their religion, without hypocrisy.

Khairil Azhar researcher at the Paramadina Foundation in Jakarta.

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