Abdul Talib Harun, a Singaporean Muslim preacher with 10 wives, would no doubt prefer to forget a week that saw him sentenced to 25 months in prison by a Malaysian religious court on a conviction of bigamy. The country's Islamic laws permit a man only four wives.

With 10 heavily veiled Mrs Haruns in tow, one might imagine Harun would enter a plea of guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court. But the self-styled religious scholar fought a bitter defence, pitting himself against some of the finest Islamic brains in Malaysia.

Most religious authorities reckon it was an open-and-shut case. While the Koran, the ultimate authority for Muslims, is annoyingly vague on many subjects (the legitimacy of on-course bookmaking and alcohol, for instance), on the subject of how many wives a man can take, it is crystal- clear. Sura 4, verse 3 advises the faithful that of "women who seem good in your eyes, marry but two, or three, or four".

Harun explained his decision to ignore Malaysian law by arguing that under the rules of the Shia sect of Islam he practised, he was entitled to have as many wives as he liked. This was dismissed by the judge, who declared: "When this court has reached its decision and imposes sentence, it is not against any sect but on individuals who went against Islamic laws enforced in the state."

One imam said the judge had no need to resort to this "raison d'etat" argument. In fact, the injunction on Muslims to confine themselves to four spouses extends to Sunnis and Shias. There are certain wrinkles relating to Shias, however - such as the practise of muta, or temporary marriage, which permits a man (generally a pilgrim or merchant - someone who travels for long periods) to contract with a woman to be married for a fixed period - generally six months - in exchange for a dowry. However, there was no evidence that any of Harun's marriages was of a temporary nature and, anyway, Sunni Muslims regard muta as licensed prostitution.

Harun perhaps missed a trick in not deploying the little-used "Mohammed Defence" which hinges on the historical fact that the Prophet had more than four wives, justified on the grounds that he needed to ensure an heir. But as Harun had already fathered 18 children by the time of his arrest, a further one being born during the trial, the jury might have viewed such a defence with cynicism.

There was a further way out for Harun. At any stage of the trial, he could have availed himself of the simple Islamic divorce proceedure - repeating three times to one's soon-to-be ex-wife "I divorce thee" - to bring himself down to the legal limit. But he disdained this option, and for their part, the wives have all decided to stand by their man.

Harun claims this is because he has always treated them with scrupulous fairness. Soon after his arrest, he told the authorities that he slept with his wives one at a time, according to a strict rota: "My wives prepare a roster among themselves to decide on the rotation," he explained. "All of them accepted the arrangement willingly."