Religious authorities in Perlis have told women's groups not to oppose the move to make it easier for Muslim men to take additional wives, saying polygamy is allowed under Islam.
The Mufti of Perlis, Datuk Mat Jahaya Husin, warned that groups which were critical of the move on polygamy would be in danger of committing a 'wrong' by denying its legality under Islamic law, according to a report in Malaysia's Berita Harian.
'Hence it is best to hold your tongue lest you deny the right to polygamy in Islam,' he was quoted as saying.
His remarks were directed at criticisms by women's groups and Women's Affairs Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who described the move as an insult to women.
The mufti recently announced the move to make it easier for Muslim men to take a second wife in the state instead of crossing the border to marry in Thailand.
But in a swift rejoinder, a women's group, Sister in Islam, argued that Muslims had the right to an opinion and to be engaged in Islamic discourse.
'Freedom of expression is enshrined in Islam,' said the group's programme coordinator Ruzana Udin, adding that this did not mean changing the teachings of Islam but, rather, examining progressive applications of the teachings in current situations.
She said it was when Islamic discourse was monopolised by just a few that the religion would become backward.
Another group, Women's Candidacy Initiative, said the cause of the present controversy was the fact that people were not involved in the debate on polygamy.
'Many Islamic scholars have refuted the right of men to practise polygamy, and yet for some reason most Malaysians don't know this,' said spokesman Zaitun Kasim.
She said countries such as Tunisia had banned polygamy, while others such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Morocco and Lebanon allowed marriage contracts, which empowered women to divorce their husbands if they married again.