The vapid version of this post has appeared in the Dec 19, 2006 issue of The Jakarta Post.
The Question of Indonesia, Islam and the Modern World
Yes, the issue of polygamy is very hot nowadays in Indonesia since the recent second marriage of a very prominent Islamic cleric many thought led an exemplary purist family life.
I am a Muslim, non-antagonistic, pacifist stay at home mom, with side job as evolutionary biologist, and I say: in the modern world, where humanity have progressed to the point that women are free to be a self sufficient, free thinking feeling human being, insistence of polygamy is a violation of human rights.
Yes, they did it back then, some 1500 years ago: polygamy. Some 100 years ago, women in America did not have the right to vote either and slaves roamed the earth. If ever any Islamic law was put into place to deal with this issue, it was to curtail the number of women men were allowed to marry. Before, there was just no law to anything.
History notes that the prophet himself was married to only one woman most of his life, a remarkable feat in the days when most men would marry hundreds in addition to several hundreds more uncertified extramarital sexual exploits, without question. History has also noted that he loved his first wife most dearly and there was none other like her after for him.
After the passing of the prophet's most beloved wife, he did marry many women, but it was unlike his first marriage. There was no law telling him that he should marry only one woman and most women did not even have the chance to think and question. Everyone did it. Life was much too hard for women back then to have a chance to have a say in anything. And I daresay, that most women 1500 years ago in the deserts of Arabia would prefer to be married to a good man with many wives or even just a self sufficient man with many wives as opposed to being alone and vulnerable to the lusts of dishonorable men or destitution.
But that was 1500 years ago. Women are free to think and choose in our 2006 world and it is not a sin to reject a man's wishes if she feels that she is being violated by the act. The problem is, many Islamists try to impinge the rights of women who chose not to be in a polygamic relationship by saying that she is not a true Muslim. And many Muslim women just accept or keep silent because they are afraid to be judged in such a dishonorable way.
Many Muslims would very much like disagree with me, but besides everything, I do feel for the cleric and his two wives and their children. Being in the judging eye of every Indonesian must not fare well, especially for the children. I sympathize because I am a parent. As a Muslim and Indonesian and a parent, I say that having an opinion is important but it is more important to remember that with the current state of the world nowadays, it is better for Indonesian Muslims to support than argue with one another.
I was rummaging the bookstore for a wonderful book I think an Indonesian friend of mine should have. I read this book many years ago in a college course called "the rise of the west". This book is titled Candide, written by the great French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known by the pen name "Voltaire", some 300 years ago. It is a satirical tale about the life of an honest and plain but beautifully physically featured young man name Candide who discovered, after multiple torturous experiences culminating in the Inquisition, that the world is not the best of all possible worlds and people are entitled to question the acceptance of such blind faith.
I think most Indonesians have never been exposed to this kind of literature. It's a shame because it is a must read for one to understand how the modern word came to be. This revolution of thought came to be known in the history of the west as the "Enlightenment". Indonesia has never been through this history. We came to the modern world from tiny huts to nano-technology without any knowledge of the history that happened in between. Unfortunately such a gap in-between makes the discovery of nano-technology bland in Indonesian hands.
Anyway, I found the book and was on my way to the check out counter when I came upon a horrid title "The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion". It was displayed most honorably in the new non-fiction rack in one of the largest bookstore chain in the United States of America. Yes, this book was paraded freely nearby the entrance of the bookstore in the middle of the most pluralistic cities in the world: New York City. Yes, there is this issue called freedom of speech in American Law, but I question many times why this type of freedom of speech is called 'racism' if the labels are put around.
How this came to be I sure know why but I never seem to be able to feel bland about it. Life following 9/11 in America has made me really understand how Rosa Parks and many felt in 1955 America, being told everyday by some bus driver to sit in the back of the bus because they were just a disagreeable marginal lot of American society that needs not to be heard or seen. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, an unknown seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, became the venerable black woman who stood up for freedom and the rights of all Americans when she refused to give her seat to the white man. Muslims all over the world are now sharing her burden.
Most Americans probably do not know any Muslim person. They would take such writing that throws blame to a group of disagreeable people with no connection to their own without question because they want others to blame. Yes, many Muslims take the name of Islam to help Americans blame some more. And Americans, or just people anywhere who always wanted to blame many Muslims, took the state of the world nowadays as fuel for their cause. Ours is not a much different world from Candide's Inquisition.
So why am I writing all this nonsense? You know I should be thinking about what to write on my most recent scientific finding on the evolution of my favorite microbe, or mop the floor, or read to my three-year-old boy. These are many other interesting tales to be told yet I write about nonsense. I write because I am part of the mess and I am bombarded constantly by the result of this mess everyday.
My grandmother's name is Khadijah, the name of our prophet most beloved wife. Candide was one of my favorite books in college and I talk about Darwin in Graduate School. I live in New York City and was witness and victim to the fall off the two towers. My young cousin in a small West Java town quit his job as a engineer to pursue his idealistic dream: opening up a school so that future generations in his small town can have a chance to study and learn from people in places such as the United States of America.
He prays five times a day, if not more. He grows the signature "beard" on the chin as symbol of piety many male Muslims believe to uphold. He lives in a very humble house where I can find our grandfather's old Dutch written book of colonial Indonesia in addition to a giant picture of the Ka'bah hanging prominently in the living room.
I write because I am the gap in-between. I write because I have a vision that someday Indonesian Muslims can all be literate about Candide's adventures and understand Darwin's treatise on the law of science in the history living things while still able to proudly showcase a giant replica of the Ka'bah in their living room without some group of know it all people telling them that they can't and should not be able to. Those who like to defame my Muslim identity for their own agenda call people like me "apologetics" and a Muslim one at that. I have no need to apologize. I write the truth.