By Sultan Shahin, Founding Editor, New Age Islam
14 September 2016
Muslim media is in a state. Acclaimed poet and writer Javed Akhtar has rightly condemned the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) “in the strongest words” for justifying the instant divorce prevalent in India. In its affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the AIMPLB had defended the practice of triple talaq and polygamy, professing that “polygamy is a social need and a blessing and not a curse for women.
The Muslim reaction to Javed Akhtar’s tweet can be summed up by what Khalid Yunus Ansari wrote in Pratap of 11 September: “There has never been any dearth of opportunists and traitors among Muslims. These people may appear intelligent and educated but are ignorant of Muslim mores. … A real Muslim is one who consciously and even sub-consciously believes in and follows Islamic Laws, someone who cannot even imagine finding fault with or challenging or violating any of them. Even imagining any fault with Muslim Laws is absolute kufr (disbelief), not to speak of expressing such thoughts.”
I have been reading Urdu newspapers for 45 years. While Muslims have been constantly fighting for the so-called Muslim Personal Law which allows them to treat women as inferior beings, never have I come across any Muslim demand for being governed by Islamic criminal laws. If Sharia is so important, if it is such a vital part of our faith, then why this dichotomy? Except for drinking alcohol, punishments for all other hudud crimes (mentioned in the Quran, considered crimes against God) are to be amputation, flogging and beheading. One would have thought that at least those Muslims who are so particular about following Sharia, and, of course, all ulema who consider Sharia divine, would demand the implementation of the entire Sharia. Why follow only the part that helps keep women subjugated and avoid those that may lead to severe medieval punishments specified by Quran and Hadees.
Triple talaq or instant divorce is one of the evils emanating from the personal laws instituted for Muslims by the British. Hardly any Muslim in India follows the Quran-based practice of divorce in three stages, encompassing three menstrual cycles. After Independence from the British, a united Pakistan had refused to accept the Anglo-Mohammedan Law and reformed its personal law in 1961. These reforms have passed the test of time. Pakistan has since gone through much upheaval including an era of Nizam-e-Mustafa under General Ziaul Haq, in which even traditional pre-Islamic forms of punishment like whips and lashes and public flogging were practised for Hudud violations. So what progressive Muslims in India should be and indeed have been demanding for long is reforms in Muslim personal law itself. But perhaps we should also be demanding that those who claim to believe in the divinity of Sharia should be punished in medieval Hudud ways. If the government cannot reform Muslim Personal Laws, out of deference for ulema’s views, it can at least extend Hudud punishments to them. Ulema say Muslims have to be fully Muslim, accept Sharia laws literally, not be partial Muslim. The ulema must be given the option to face medieval Hudud punishments and be fully Muslim according to their own interpretation.
Reform of Muslim personal law is urgent. A demand for this has been made for decades. This is inevitably opposed and equally inevitably exposes the two-facedness of Islamic fundamentalists. India should not tolerate these archaic and un-Islamic personal laws.
But, to my mind, the most important benefit is the opening up of a theological debate within the community. This has already started to a certain extent.
Reacting to Dr Tahir Mahmood’s recent call for reform, AIMPLB’s Secretary Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani made a dangerous and subversive statement. He said: “This issue is not related to the laws of the country but it is an issue related to Fatwa. Hence this issue should be dealt with by reliable scholars of Islamic jurisdiction.”
The clerics questioning Supreme Court’s jurisdiction should understand that the Muslims are as much subject to the Indian Constitution and its interpretation by the Supreme Court as any other citizen. Muslim personal law is a part of the Constitution and the Supreme Court has every right to interpret it. Progressive Muslims are not committing a sin by encouraging the courts to intervene in the matter.
The most important outcome of this debate, however, is that it is breaching the complete stagnation in Islamic theological thinking. This is essential to replace the current theology of violence, exclusivism, xenophobia and intolerance with a new Islamic theology of peace, coexistence, inclusiveness, pluralism and gender equality.
Note: This article was first published in India Today’s Daily newspaper Mail Today and its online newspaper Daily “O”.