By Sadia Dehlvi
May 24, 2016
Whenever Muslim women approach the judiciary in a quest for justice, Muslim orthodoxy rallies against the abolition of Personal Laws. Their rhetoric of ‘identity under attack’ resumes. Clearly, Indian Muslims have moved beyond the politics of identity; choosing to express themselves through contributions to science, architecture, law, medicine, film, theatre, music, literature and other fields.
Debates over the validity of pronouncing Talaq, divorce, three times in one go or over three months offer no solutions. Both methods find permissibility in schools of Islamic Fiqh, jurisprudence. Unilateral divorce allows men to commit grave injustices by stripping women of honour and dignity, inalienable rights both in Islam and the Indian Constitution. It is unwise to expect reform from the community whose religious leaders have historically treated women as subjects and not equals.
Islamic law is a human endeavour that evolved over centuries with multiple schools holding diverse opinion. The principles of Islamic jurisprudence are weighing the benefit and harm of legal rulings in societies that jurists live in. Barring the foundational five pillars of Islam, nothing in Islamic law is definitive. Salafis and Wahhabis reject classical Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy. Their myopic literalist interpretations of Islam cause gross violations of human rights.
Sharia has always been flexible in adapting to changing times and situations. Umar, the second Caliph of Islam and companion of Prophet Muhammad, dropped Sharia punishments for theft when famine struck Arabia. He realised people were stealing to survive. The eighth century Imam Shafii, founder of Shafii jurisprudence, changed many of his Fatwas on migrating from Iraq to Egypt. Had Sharia lacked movement, Islam would not thrive in India.
Islam is dynamic, understood and practised in a variety of ways in different cultures. Patriarchy remains deaf to the Quran’s call for equality, justice and compassion that extends to all humanity. Excluding women from leadership, patriarchy is blind to the Quran celebrating the wise consultative rule of Queen Sheba and her diplomatic engagement with Solomon.
Patriarchy fails to recognise the Quran honouring women as recipients of Wahi, Divine Revelation; as experienced by Moses’s mother and Mariam, or Mary. Some famous early and medieval commentators of the Quran, such as Imam Hajar Asqalani and Imam Qurtubi, include Mary amongst the prophets.
The Islam of Prophet Muhammad disappeared within 40 years of his death with powerful and oppressive patriarchal tribes regaining power. The poor, women and slaves embraced by Islam were again marginalised. Islam’s paradigm shift in empowering women and slaves had created great difficulties for the Prophet. He sought political counsel from women, welcomed them in his mosque; encouraged women like Haqibatul Arab to deliver Khutbas, sermons. He appointed Umm Waraqa the Imam of her mosque, and sent a muezzin, one calling to prayer, from Medina to her village.
Some Islamic scholars, including the famous 9th century Imam Tabari, drew upon this precedent to proclaim it lawful for women to lead mixed gender prayers. American Muslim feminists are reclaiming this tradition despite the controversies it evokes.
Islam abrogated the concept of God as Father, saying, ‘Nothing is like Allah’. God transcends gender and is best understood as Noor, Compassionating and Illuminating Guidance. ‘He’, is used in the Quran and its translations because Arabic grammar is gender specific with no pronoun for the neuter gender. In most languages including Arabic, Persian and Urdu, the feminine is applied for ‘Zaat e Elahiya’, Divine Essence.
The word Rahm, womb, is derived from God’s primary attributes Rahman and Rahim, Mercy and Compassion. Prophet Muhammad often likened God to a Mother who forgives her children. Traditional Arab poets addressed God in the feminine, literature that would probably be termed blasphemous today.
The Quran advocates equitable treatment of slaves and encourages freeing them, but does not specifically ban slavery. Responding to prevailing 7th century Arabian evils, Quran forbade the inheriting of women, female infanticide and abuse of slaves. Muslims across the world welcomed the abolition of slavery, believing it to be in accordance with Quranic guidance.
Islamic scholars have responded creatively with Quranic verses sanctioning armed struggles. Invoking the principle of ‘Asbab e Nuzul’, cause of revelation, they rightly limit this relevance to ‘just wars’ against oppression fought by the first Muslims. Instead of similar creative engagement with regard to oppressive canonised laws for women, patriarchy maintains the status quo. Women’s rights can no longer be defined by political Islam or Arab culture and histories.
In matters of inheritance and Nafaqah, maintenance, Quran guarantees a minimum financial protection for women but does not cap the maximum. Offering more financial and emotional security to women can never conflict with Islam. Prophet Muhammad famously said, ‘None of you believes till you love for the other what you love for yourselves.’
Sharia law denies the right of punishment to individuals, leaving this responsibility to the state. Sharia endorses responsible citizenry, making it mandatory for Muslims to comply with laws of the lands they inhabit.
Traditionally, women pilgrims travelling to Mecca required to be accompanied by a Mahram, husband or other male relatives with whom marriage is forbidden. Negotiating modern challenges, many Islamic scholars have ruled it permissible for women to travel alone. They declare the state as Mahram, for in ensuring security, the laws of the state replace the role of the ‘protective bodies’. This principle should extend to the Indian state.