Thursday, October 8, 2009


Stop Herding the Muslims

Sheeba Aslam Fehmi

How can the All India Muslim Personal Law Board decide for the entire community? Why have Indian Muslims given them this legitimacy?

In the last three decades, we have seen the ostrich-like approach of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board towards almost everything it has involved itself with, be it matters regarding Shari’ah laws, the Babri Masjid case, the Uniform Civil Code or the family planning issue. The controversy over triple talaq and birth control have been unnecessarily raked up recently, although the triple talaq issue has been settled by the apex court.

But the board is giving the impression that if the debate is still at its initial stages, it is authorised to arrive at some conclusion that would be acceptable to every Indian Muslim. In the process, it’s trying to make us believe in the impossibility that the Ahl-i Hadith, Shia and Ismaili sects, a minority among Muslims, also practice ‘similar’ personal laws or are ready to sink their theological differences to come under the umbrella of the Sunni personal law.

It’s impossible to even think of such a possibility. However, it’s about time to ask the board if it’s ‘competent’ enough to correctly interpret Shari’ah laws itself.

Not Allowed: women peep at Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah in Delhi photo by sharad saxena
It’s a farce. Not a single member of the board is a legal or academic expert on personal laws! But for the third president of the board, none of its four presidents so far have had professional expertise on Muslim personal laws. The ordinary members, incidentally, who are most vocal and visible and seem to be at the helm of affairs, are regulars from different fields: teachers, NGO operators, journalists, chartered accountants etc. They are deciding the fate of millions of Muslims in the fragmented Indian civil society. (Surely, the mockery of women’s representation in the board demands a separate exposé.)

Another paradox lies in the representation of different schools of Islamic thought in the board and their ideological positions. There are representatives from every Islamic school but all of them are lobbying for the Sunni Shari’ah law only. Indeed, there are four major schools among the Muslims: Hanafi and Shafai, Ahl-i-Hadith (Sunni), Shia and Ismaili (a Shia sect). The animosity and intolerance among these four sects is so deep that none enters another’s mosque to offer prayers — even in an emergency. Besides, there are strong social mores, personal laws, interpretation of the Quran and religio-social traditions etc., which act as natural or artificial divisions. A Dawoodi Bohra will not enter an Ismaili mosque or a Shia mosque though these are all sub-sects of the Shia stream. The level of tolerance is abysmally low. And every school of thought has its own personal laws.

Therefore, the concerted campaign by non-Sunni members to support the Sunni personal law in its present form is complicated by the fact that the Sunni laws in their contemporary form and praxis are obscurantist and retrogressive, and particularly harsh on women. If these members of Ahl-i Hadith, Shia and Ismaili school of thoughts believe that the law is the correct interpretation of the Quran, then they should start practicing it in their own personal matters. If they are adhering to their comparatively liberal faiths, then why are they lobbying for the monolithic ‘practice’ of a personal law for the whole of the Indian Muslim community? This can only be termed as a fraudulent and misleading gesture of the power-hungry ‘theological chieftains’ who never hesitate to unite whenever they face critical, rational, progressive and secular dissent.

There are uncanny questions the board just cannot hide. What are its aims and objectives? Who appoints its members? What are their eligibility conditions and duties? To whom are they accountable?
Another malignancy grips the board: its retrogressive approach towards non-issues ultimately end up helping all kinds of Muslim-bashers and fanatics in India. This year it was triple talaq and family planning, in 2002 the board created a meaningless controversy out of nowhere by demanding that Muslim children should be exempted from the Sarda Act (Child Marriage Prohibition Act) of 1923. In its 75 years of existence, not a single individual (Hindu or Muslim) has been convicted under this Act. When the law is practically defunct, then why should a contentious controversy be created, which only pushes Indian Muslims into a perpetually regressive and difficult corner?

The big question is, shouldn’t there be a ‘minimum marriageable age limit’? Islam was the first religion to introduce the ‘minimum marriageable age’ concept to let the girl child attain at least puberty — as the then Arab society was harsh towards women and considered them a scourge or stigma and looked for ways to get rid of them, including through marriage. Besides, the board should be aware that even countries like Bangladesh, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Indonesia, Somalia, Tunisia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Egypt etc., all Islamic nations, are practicing the ‘minimum marriageable age’ limit for a long time now. If they can bring such progressive laws to improve their socio-economic conditions then why can’t we, the largest Muslim population of the world, follow a new code?

Alternatively, is there a subtle synchronisation between RSS’ pseudo-phobia of Muslims overtaking Hindus in numbers and the one-dimensional, orthodox response by Islamic religious heads in India? Is it not true that the Uniform Civil Code issue has been kept alive by fundamentalists on both sides?

As for triple talaq, the board has only exposed itself by rejecting the directives and interpretations of the authoritative book Majmu’a-e Qawanin-e Islam, brought out by the board itself under its third president and the ‘only personal law scholar and expert’, Maulana Mujahidul Islam Qasmi. It shows its members’ simulated commitment towards reforms.
Surrounded as we are by the neo-conservative forces of the Right, who are celebrating the clash of civilisations, it is all the more crucial to resurrect and reinvent the sense and sensibility of a modernist, progressive and sensitive stream of consciousness, which does not fall into the terrible abyss of feudal values
This book was quoted and a judgement was ordered based on its directives by the high court of Maharashtra (Aurangabad bench) in the Dagdhu Pathan versus Raheembi Dagdhu Pathan case: the court ruled that Muslim husbands will have to ‘prove their talaq and all preconditions prescribed by the Quran has to be duly fulfilled before resorting to the drastic act’. In response, the board tried to precipitate an agitation against the judicial directive. It only shows insincerity and lack of knowledge of its own history when it comes to the un-Islamic and unjust use of the concept of triple talaq.

There are too many uncanny questions the board just cannot hide. What are its aims and objectives? Who appoints its members? What are the eligibility criteria and duties? To whom are they accountable? How do they claim to represent the entire Indian Muslim community? What is the ‘model Muslim society’ they are aspiring for?

Should the crucial issues facing Indian Muslims be left to the apathetic, self-appointed and semi-informed group of people (who treat the community as a herd) just because they claim to lead an insecure minority community by hook or by crook? Or should it be left to the court of law which was authorised by Indian Muslims to implement the Shari’ah, as it is the only institution which can ensure that: Quranic provisions are followed; wanton acts are checked before the drastic plunge and girls of the community are not colonised as slaves under the medieval fetish of a macho orthodoxy.

These questions are in the domain of the civil society and it’s time the civil society wakes up and engages with its own reality of contradictions, mental shackles, unfreedoms and bad faith. This is the essence of the crisis facing the Muslim community in India.

Between the ‘abc’ of enlightenment and cultural and political equality in the contemporary era, Indian Muslims must realise their unique position in a secular, pluralist and diverse nation. Surrounded as we are by the neo-conservative forces of the Right, who are celebrating the clash of civilisations, it is all the more crucial to resurrect and reinvent the sense and sensibility of a modernist, progressive and sensitive stream of consciousness, which does not fall into the terrible abyss of feudal values. It’s a tough trap which Muslim women in India must break.

The writer is editor of a Hindi monthly, Headline Plus, based in Old Delhi, December 25, २००४


  1. शीबा जी , यह पर्चा पढ़ लिया है । शुक्रिया ।

  2. sheeba jee ,

    your thoughts are
    'bold and beautiful' not only for muslims,but also for our mother planet earth.

    i came to youe sites thru ' naree ' blog . may your clear thoughts and courage to express them ,be a mashal for new world , where we can remain just humans.
    bless you !

  3. Raj Sinh Saheb,
    Adab aur shukriya!