At its eighteenth annual convention last month the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) issued an appeal for Muslims to settle their personal disputes in shariah courts or dar ul qazas instead of approaching state courts for the purpose. Less than a fortnight later, last week the Jamiat ul-'Ulama-I Hind, an all-India body of Deobandi mullahs, followed suit and passed a resolution at its annual conference in Delhi making a similar demand. It called for Muslim couples to sign what it called a 'covenant' at the time of marriage agreeing that in the event of failure to resolve their marital problems on their own they would authorise shariah courts 'completely [sic.] to decide' on the issue. The decision of these courts would be binding on them. The covenant rules out any possibility of the couple or of one party approaching state courts for redress. 'Even if they [the shariah courts] annul our nikah [marriage]', the covenant makes the couple undertake, 'we will accept their decision and shall not revert to court against it'. In this way, the Jamiat, like the MPLB, is now seeking to bring all Muslims under its ambit, propping itself as an alternate legal authority.
The demand for separate shariah courts for Muslims in India is by no means a new one. For many years now various ulama associations have been demanding that Muslims should seek to have their family matters settled by trained mullahs, instead of by judges in the secular courts. They insist that mullahs are best able to understand and interpret the shariah, including Muslim Personal Law (MPL), suggesting that judges trained in a secular system, particularly if they are non-Muslims, do not have the same qualifications to do so. Indeed, so vociferously opposed are some of them to judges in state courts interpreting MPL that they go so far as to claim that such judges may be in league with 'anti-Islamic' forces to deliberately misinterpret MPL as part of a alleged secret plot to smuggle in a Uniform Civil Code and eventually to absorb the Muslims into the Hindu fold. Advocates of shariah courts claim that their campaign has the support of the entire Muslim community, because, so they argue, this demand is actually mandated by Islam itself. To oppose this, they suggest, is tantamount to opposing Islam, a sin unthinkable by any practising Muslim. Muslims who resist this call may, therefore, expect to be branded as apostates or at least as traitors to the cause of Allah.
Appealing to Muslims to resort to the mullahs, rather than to the courts, to settle their personal disputes is, of course, a means to bolster the sagging prestige of the mullahs. Painfully aware that as modern education spreads increasing numbers of Muslims can dispense with the mullahs to interpret their religion for them, the mullahs face a grave challenge to their authority. What better way, then, to recover it than by insisting that Muslims must accept them as the final arbiters of their destinies and that to refuse to do so is to sin against Islam? To further seal that claim to authority the mullahs can, if further emboldened, even go so far as to declare a social boycott against those who refuse to abide by the decisions of shariah courts, branding them as 'anti-Islamic' and as 'agents' of the 'enemies' of Islam.
The shariah court campaign comes at a time when numerous Indian Muslim women are beginning to mount an effective critique of the mullahs, accusing them of preaching male supremacy in the name of Islam. Islam, these women seem to be arguing, stands for gender equality and justice. In this way, these women fiercely denounce the patriarchal laws that the conservative mullahs seek to pass off in the name of the shariah. Seen in this light, the recent appeals by certain ulama associations for Muslims to set up shariah courts and to abide by their dictates is also a means to silence recalcitrant women, such as those associated with the newly formed Muslim women's personal law boards, who claim that educated Muslims can interpret Islam on their own without the aid of the mullahs. It is also a way to prevent Muslim women from seeking relief from state courts that, as in the Shah Bano case, might provide a more gender-just reading of MPL than what the mullahs are prepared to tolerate.
The support that the mullahs' demand for shariah courts actually enjoys among the Muslim community is debatable. Although many Muslims might back it, significant numbers are critical of it and many Muslims I know denounce it as wholly preposterous. A rough indication of the diverse responses the proposal has met is provided by the flood of mails that I have received in response to an essay I wrote on the subject a week ago.
In his response to my article, a certain Shan Mohammmad, a college student from Delhi, insists that the call for shariah courts is 'fully legitimate' on the grounds that 'Muslims must follow whatever the pious ulama say, because they are the successors of the Prophet Muhammad'. Quoting Syed Abul 'Ala Maududi, founder of the Islamist Jama'at-i Islami, he says, 'Islam divides humanity into two, the "friends of Allah" and the "friends of Satan"'. Islam also warns Muslims not to take non-Muslims for 'close friends or helpers', he claims. Hence, he insists, as far as possible Muslims must not seek to get their cases decided by non-Muslim judges. In line with the Jama'at-i Islami's claim that Islam provides detailed laws for every conceivable aspect of life, he declares, 'Ultimately, Muslims, be they in India or elsewhere, must struggle to have God's laws implemented in their entirety by a global Caliph'. 'Man-made laws have no place in God's scheme of things', he tells me, adding that my opposition to shariah courts is 'entirely misconceived'.
A similar ludicrous response comes from a certain Ghulam Muhammed Siddiqui from Mumbai, whose major occupation seems to be shooting off letters to newspaper editors protesting against every conceivable case of Muslim suffering, real as well as imaginary. His letters are to be found strewn over numerous Islamist sites on the Internet and in various Muslim magazines. Inevitably, they relate the same story: of hapless Muslims being persecuted by ill-willed disbelievers. If Siddiqui is to be believed, non-Muslims seem to have no other aim in life but to busy themselves plotting against Muslims and their faith. It is also as if Muslims are not to blame for any of their own ills, as if there exist no Muslim oppressors or no good non-Muslims of any sort, and as if all Muslims are innocent, badly misunderstood, lambs.
Siddiqui's response to my article is predictable. While defending the mullahs' call for shariah courts, he announces: 'It is time that Indian Muslims should chose between the two virulent anti-Muslim adversaries, the Left-Liberals and the Hindutva extremists, as to who is their Enemy No.1". "With propagandists like Yoginder Sikand raking up and proposing a joint effort between the two anti-Muslim forces", he rants, "Muslims will have to beware of the soothing words of liberals who are now becoming more and more like an improved version of Hindutva in denying Muslims any right to live in India as Muslims". He sees my opposition to shariah courts as reflecting the Left's opposition to religion, claiming that 'Left-Liberals' are particularly opposed to Islam, which allegedly unites them with Hindutva fascists. He ends his vituperative diatribe by threatening that the Muslims' 'reaction' to 'the machinations' of 'Left-Liberals' like me who are opposed to the shariah courts will 'be as decisive as [the] Muslim response to Hindutva'.
As these two responses so well illustrate, Islamist ideologues, like their Hindutva counterparts, inhabit a frighteningly Manichaean world, where pious believers are pitted against plotting enemies in a struggle for global hegemony. Any critique of diehard conservative mullahs or Islamist groups, no matter how well meaning, comes to be construed as a hidden ploy against Islam, even if the critique is not directed against Islam as such, as in the case of my piece on shariah courts. This explains why a certain Sayyed Idris, another vehement critic of my views on shariah courts, goes so far as to denounce me as an 'enemy of Islam' in the guise of a 'do-gooder', although nowhere in my article have I critiqued Islam at all. Judging by his profuse quotations from Maududi, he appears to be another Jama'at-i Islami sympathiser. He is not the first person to bestow me with the 'enemy' label, however. While some Hindutva writers have for long been accusing me of being an 'anti-Hindu pseudo secularist', I have recently earned the 'enemy of Islam' epithet after discovering that Hindutva fascists and Islamist radicals need to be opposed equally consistently. Before that truth dawned on me, my denunciations of Hindutva were regularly published in the Jama'at-i Islami's weekly Radiance, but these stopped completely ever I began speaking out against Islamists and obscurantist mullahs as well. Unlike many other fellow Islamists, Sayyed Idris, I must admit, is generous enough to acknowledge my consistent opposition to Hindutva, in addition to radical Islamists and bigoted mullahs. Yet, in true Islamist fashion, he sees in this yet another 'conspiracy'. 'Your anti-Hindutva and pro-Muslim articles', he tells me, 'are simply a clever ruse to fool gullible Muslims in order to carry on with your anti-Islamic agenda'.
Interestingly, and this has given me some cause to feel cheerful about, more Muslims have written to me to express their support of my article than those who have sought to rubbish it. One of these is a certain Raju Mohammad, an accountant from Chennai, who writes that 'Muslims must focus on bread-and-butter issues instead of non-issues like shariah courts'. The campaign for shariah courts, he warns, 'will only play into the hands of Hindutva fascists, in the same way as reactionary Muslim leaders did in the Shah Bano case that led, finally, to the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the killing of thousands of Muslims and the alarming rise of Hindutva'. He also disagrees with the mullahs on their understanding of shariah. 'Shariah is not a static entity, and the rules of shariah, humanly interpreted in the form of jurisprudence or fiqh, can change over time', he says. However, he laments, most Islamists and mullahs are 'opposed to such change, as that would undermine their own authority'. Accusing them of 'wrongly equating the 'divine shariah' with 'human interpretation', he insists that the demand that Muslims resolve their personal matters in shariah courts, instead of state courts, is 'wholly mischievous'. It would, he claims, only further 'fuel anti-Muslim passions and reinforce the image of Muslims being anti-national and unwilling to live as normal citizens of a secular state'.
Another Muslim who expresses his appreciation of my stand is a certain Ghulam Faruki from New York. 'Since, in all matters other than Personal Law, Muslims have rightly obeyed the laws of the land and accepted government appointed judges', he writes, 'and since the results of this acquiescence have been satisfactory, extension of such a paradigm would be considered a natural next step'. Hence, he says, 'attempts to set up separate courts are bound to be frustrated as well as divisive, and probably retrograde'. "It does appear", he goes on, "that the AIMPLB is out of touch with reality and is unable or unwilling to consider the consequences of its ill-advised pronouncements". He critiques the conservative mullahs of the AIMPLB for what he calls 'their dogmatic orthodoxy' and for misinterpreting Islam, which he describes as, in actual fact, a 'liberating religion'.
Faruki calls for Muslims to seek to understand their religion on their own, denying the mullahs the power that he spies them as hankering after. After all, he argues, 'Islam is supposed to be a religion of common sense, and therefore equally accessible to lay as well as expert interpretations'. 'If common sense is applied to a simple and practical religion such as Islam', he says, 'it diminishes the authority of the scholars and the experts, thereby reducing the chances of someone leading us astray'. Bypassing the hidebound legalism of the mullahs, this 'lay' Islamic theology would, he suggests, 'inspire us to seek equal rights for women, shed the ideology of violence, learn to respect other religions and other Islamic sects, and participate fully in the democratic and national activities of the countries we live in'.
In developing this new and more contextually relevant understanding of Islam, Faruki argues, the distinction between the spirit and the letter of the shariah needs to be respected. This is crucial, for he rightly sees that shariah courts that the mullahs want to set up would inevitably apply archaic and, in particular, misogynist, interpretations of the shariah. Speaking out against the mullahs' insistence that shariah laws 'as they were practised a thousand years ago' be replicated in their totality today, he argues that 'many Muslims today would rather preserve the true spirit of such laws' such as to ensure justice. In support for his plea for a historically grounded understanding of Islam he quotes with approval a modernist Muslim intellectual, Reza Arslan, who argues that 'The notion that historical context should play no role in the interpretation of the Koran-that what applied to Muhammad's community applies to all Muslim communities for all time - is simply an untenable position in every sense.''
Writing from Texas, America, a certain Mirza Faisal has also rushed to my defence. The shariah court campaign, he says, 'seems to be devoid of some basic understandings', the result perhaps of an absence of what he quaintly calls 'a reality check'. He insists that legally sanctioned shariah courts would 'kill Muslims politically and move them further into ghettos'. 'Religious counselling systems', he says, are a more sensible option than shariah courts. In a climate that is increasingly anti-Muslim, he writes, instead of raking up such 'controversial issues' which would not help them, Muslims must seek to 'build bridges' with other communities. 'The goal', he very sensibly suggests, 'should be to make people better citizens, to motivate people to move up and have a human agenda rather than a Muslim agenda'. 'The goal should be to take up leadership positions in administration, politics, business, journalism, sciences etc and be upright Muslims. That is what is required and not darul qazas', he tells me.
The most scathing critique of the shariah courts' proposal comes from a certain Zafar, an Indian Muslim from Sydney, Australia. 'I am unsure as to whether the AIMPLB is being malicious or just plain stupid here', he writes, 'but either way its talent for picking exactly the wrong issue at exactly the wrong time is reliably breathtaking'.
'Have these gentlemen forgotten so soon what their threatening violence and forcing the government to back down on the Shah Bano judgement resulted in?', he asks in genuine anguish. 'Or are they simply unconcerned', he goes on, 'with the negative impact of their grandstanding-and it appears to me, but maybe it's just me-naked greed for power and influence has on India and its people, especially on Indian Muslims?'.
Zafar goes so far as to denounce the MPLB as 'a grotesquely self aggrandising menace to India and Indian Muslims'. He critiques the MPLB and similar mullah-dominated groups for seeking to exercise a hegemonic control over the Muslims, seeking to force the state to bend to their will and demanding that the state recognise them as the sole spokesmen of the community. The shariah court campaign, he says, is all about a quest for 'money and influence' for the mullahs and the graduates of their madrasas, who would, as he puts it somewhat uncharitably, 'otherwise be unable to use their medieval education'. Unable to conceal his disgust with the antics of the mullahs he says, 'I mean, how stupid do these clowns think we are? Why don't they get a real job like anybody else?'. He even makes so bold as to assert that if the state caved into the demands of the mullahs and legally recognised shariah courts he would 'be tempted to find the closest Arya Samaj Mandir and make inquiries about signing up'. 'It says something that it's only the actions of the AIMPLB that make me consider not being a Muslim', he frankly confesses in despair, 'and never those of the organisations that run shuddhi programs".
'Hind mein Islam ko in ki bevakoofi se khatra hai' ('Islam is threatened in India from the idiocy of such people'), Zafar ends his missive by saying. Not being a Muslim myself in the conventional sense of the term, I reserve my comments, not wanting to be branded, once again, as an 'enemy agent'. But I must confess that I suspect that many Muslims might well concur with him.