On the face of it, the ulema’s advice to the ummah (community) sounds eminently reasonable: For building a house, you go to an architect; when ill, you go to a doctor; to look good, you go to a beautician. In short, in secular affairs, you turn to experts. So where would you go to gain knowledge about Islam? The religious experts (ulema) of course.
Right? Perhaps you should think again.
There is something the ulema does not teach the faithful. What do you do when every edifice erected by some architect collapses in no time? What do you do with a doctor who kills more patients than he cures? And what do you do when the ulema tell you that the practice of triple talaaq “though socially repugnant, is theologically valid”?
Look elsewhere maybe? If you have the time and the inclination, the internationally acknowledged Islamic scholar and champion of gender equality, Aziza al-Hibri, would be a good person to learn your Islam from. If you are not the scholar type, her simple five-word mantra should suffice as moral compass: “If it’s unjust, it’s un-Islamic”.
So here we have it, as simple as that: because it is unjust, a male-centred society can never be Islamic, never mind what men with long beards and flowing robes preach. In his unguarded moment, even the maulvi sahib will concede that there is no priesthood in Islam. “To seek knowledge is the sacred duty of every Muslim and Muslimah (female),” said Prophet Mohammed. He also said: “Seek knowledge, even if you have to go as far as China.”
Taken together, two things are evident. First, all knowledge is sacred; Islam recognises not boundary between sacred and secular. Second, the pursuit of knowledge is a sacred duty that must not be sub-contracted or outsourced to the ulema; faith is too important a thing to be left to the “experts”. Perhaps the ulema should explain to the ummah why in direct violation of the Prophet’s message they compartmentalise knowledge and set themselves up as barriers, not facilitators, between Muslims and their sacred text.
Whether the explanation is forthcoming or not, one thing is certain: the mullah’s monopoly over “The Message” is increasingly under question in India and across the Muslim world. Those who have chosen to go directly to the source of Islam are astounded to discover the huge gulf between the gender parity message of the Quran and the male supremacy myth that the ulema have been peddling through the centuries.
The mullah’s monopoly over “The Message” is increasingly under question in India and across the Muslim world. Those who have chosen to go directly to the source of Islam are astounded to discover the huge gulf between the gender parity message of the Quran and the male supremacy myth that the ulema have been peddling through the centuries.
A good example of this was the two-day consultation on the theme “Codification of Muslim Personal Law” organised jointly by Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer’s Institute of Islamic Studies and the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) in Delhi on February 4 and 5. Present at the consultation were a maulana, two (Muslim) judges (one serving, the other retired), Islamic scholars from Jamia Millia Islamia, two (Muslim) members of the Law Commission of India, a large number of women activists from all over the country and a few journalists.
The most remarkable thing about the consultation was the free and frank atmosphere that marked the discussions and debate. No one threatened another with the apostasy/blasphemy charge. The fact that the majority of the participants were confident, articulate Muslim women activists — a rarity at ummah gatherings — and each with a hundred horror tales to recount on the injustices and indignities that continue to be heaped on their sisters in the name of Islam certainly helped.
None may have heard of Ms Al-Hibri. But, ironically enough, they have heard the maulvi sahib assert on countless occasions that Islam is a religion of insaf (justice) and masavat (equality). Now, unfortunately for the ulema, having read the Quran on their own, they know how gender equality is but a logical and theological extension of the core Islamic principles of insaf and masavat. Looks like the maulvi sahebs will have much to account for in the coming years.
The first salvo has already been fired. For starters, the gathering of Muslim men and women punctured the hollow claim of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board that what goes in the name of Muslim Personal Law in India is “Allah’s law”. If anything, it’s a colonial legacy which until Independence was referred to as “Anglo-Mohammedan Law”.
Casting aside the colonial hangover while keeping the Quran, the teachings of the Prophet and reforms in many Muslim-majority societies as their sole reference points, the consultation arrived at a broad consensus on the essential elements of a codified Muslim Personal (Family) Law for India: The obnoxious unilateral practice of oral and instant divorce (triple talaaq) must be banished.
In case of marital conflict, divorce must compulsorily be preceded by attempts at reconciliation as enjoined in the Quran (talaaq-e-ahsan). Divorce by mutual consent (mubarah) should also be incorporated in the codified law. Following divorce, the husband must pay a fair amount towards maintenance of the wife and children.
As to who should have custody of children, it was agreed that the “best interest of the children” should be the paramount criteria. The minimum age for marriage must be 18 years for a woman and 21 years for boys and all marriages must be registered with state authorities. The mehr (bride price) should not be nominal as is the prevalent practice today but equal to a year’s income of the bridegroom. While there was near consensus on many issues, the polygamy question remained unresolved.
The majority of the participants took the view that the Quranic verses when read in the context of our times can only mean strict monogamy. For tactical reasons, others favoured putting in place such stringent conditions as to make a second marriage virtually impossible. The codification campaign is sure to be fiercely resisted by many among the ulema. For freeing Muslim women from the clutches of patriarchy, rescuing Islam from the stranglehold of its male supremacist clerics may be the only option. A long battle lies ahead but the battle lines have already been drawn.
(This article was first published in The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle; February 2012).