By Dean Nelson in New Delhi
Published: 5:53PM BST 07 Aug 2009
The ruling, by one of the country's senior judges, has provoked a wave of anxiety throughout India's secular establishment which has until now been content to let its 150 million Muslims live according to its own system of "personal law".
While bigamy has also been practiced by Hindus, it is more common among Muslims who believed they are justified in taking upto four wives.
The practice has been widely criticised in a number of court judgments as "cruel", while one judge said there was no difference between a "second wife and a concubine". Justice A.R Lakshmanan, the law commission chairman, and two other panelists, said: "Traditional understanding of Muslim law on bigamy is gravely faulty and conflicts with true Islamic law in letter and spirit."
"It is generally believed that under Muslim law, a husband has an unfettered right to marry again even where his earlier marriage is continuing. "On a closer examination of the relevant provisions of the Koran and other sources of Islamic law, this does not seem to be true," the report said.
They said they had submitted their report to the government but stopped short of recommending legal reform because they feared it would cause an "unhealthy controversy" among religious leaders who opposed change.
Their concerns were born out by Muslim scholars, who said Islam provided for polygamy on the condition that the man is able to care for each wife financially and honour her physically. "Polygamy is not mandatory in Islam but there is a provision for taking more than one wife. This provision is bound by pre-conditions that the man has to do justice to all his legal wives both physically as well as economically," said Professor Akhtarul Wasey, Head of Islamic Studies at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University.