By Mirza Mohammed Ali Khan
November 28, 2016
I happened to walk into the Husain Day event at Thousand Lights Mosque in Chennai last month (October) as Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, renowned Shia Muslim cleric and vice-president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), had just begun his speech. I also happened to walk into a very interesting debate on women’s rights in Islam; at a time when Muslim personal laws have been thrust into the limelight, thanks to petitions before the Supreme Court concerning the contentious practice of Triple Talaq. I was intrigued to hear what Kalbe Sadiq had to say on the issue, given his unique position as a Shia member of the AIMPLB.
Most of his address stressed on Shia-Sunni unity and how both the major factions of Islam stemmed from the same belief in the oneness of God. He also expressed his vehement opposition to the idea of a Uniform Civil Code on the grounds that it would infringe on the personal laws of Muslims. The interesting part, however, began when he was faced with a question on the Triple Talaq practice being endorsed and even defended by the AIMPLB.
“Islam has two major factions — Shia and Sunni,” he began. “We respect the other faction and do not interfere in their affairs. However, Shia Muslims do not follow the practice of Triple Talaq, and we would request our Sunni brethren to consider re-application of Sharia law, which is a provision to keep the law up with the times, in the case of Triple Talaq, if possible.” This was probably the most important take-away from the address. The cleric reiterated the point later during an informal dinner. By “re-application of Sharia law” Sadiq meant the provision of ‘Ijtihad’. While Ijtihad has different meanings in different schools of Islamic thought, it broadly refers to reasoning and interpretation.
It is important to note that not all of the Sharia law has its basis in the Quran. A lot of the guidelines under the law come from word of mouth of the Prophet of Islam. Not just that, as Islam spread across regions, a lot of regional customs and practices are believed to have been co-opted into Islamic law. For example, as Islamic law was evolving, people in Medina (present day Saudi Arabia) did not allow a woman to arrange a contract for her marriage on her own, based on Arab Tribal Law. But in Kufa (present day Iraq), a woman could arrange her own marriage contract, owing to the Persian ambience. Moreover, Triple Talaq itself does not have its basis in the Quran and is considered by some Islamic scholars as Talaq-i-Bid'ah or an ‘innovated’ form of divorce, something that Zakia Soman, the co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, the organisation at the forefront of the issue, lost no time in reiterating, when I spoke to her later.
“Triple Talaq does not have any mention in the Quran,” she said. “It was a temporary or a stop-gap measure innovated by Hazrat Umar (one of the four ‘rightly-guided Caliphs’ of Islam) because a whole lot of women at that time were not getting divorces from their husbands.” Soman said that in their (the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan) petition, they have quoted at least seven verses from the Quran, which establish that the word of Allah is equivalent for everybody, irrespective of gender.
Soman argued that the fundamental values of the Quran are justice, kindness, compassion, and wisdom, which Triple Talaq contravenes. “That is the spirit of the Quran — to move with the times, and to account for the context, geography of where you live, and the social and cultural reality,” she said. This seemed to imply that there are beliefs in Islam that currently espouse that Sharia law can indeed evolve with the times, which many hardline clerics are quick to refute.
Like Kalbe Sadiq, Soman also spoke of the Shia Muslim community not following or allowing Triple Talaq. “The Shia community is very progressive and the position of women in the community is much better when compared to the Sunni Community,” she said.
The All India Shia Personal Law Board (AISPLB) too has opposed the practice of Triple Talaq. Its spokesperson Maulana Yasoob Abbas maintains that the AISPLB wants a law that will protect against Triple Talaq. “We are going to intervene on the issue in the Supreme Court. Our writ petition in this regard is ready, and it will register our opposition to the Triple Talaq practice,” he said. The AISPLB’s opposition to Triple Talaq is based on the Ja’fari school of thought in Islam, which is followed predominantly by Shia Muslims and is one of the five schools of Islamic thought. (The other four being the Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali, and the al-Shafi’i Schools)
However, one issue that has united the AIMPLB and the AISPLB is the Uniform Civil Code. Yasoob Abbas said that the AISPLB has unequivocally opposed the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code. “In this issue, we stand united with the AIMPLB”, he said. However, he implied that the Uniform Civil Code and Triple Talaq are two different things — a sentiment that was also echoed by Zakia Soman.
There are clearly a lot of differences between the five schools of thought, and the best way forward, as reiterated by other clerics and stakeholders, are discussions and dialogues to arrive at laws and procedures consistent with constitutional norms of equality. There also appear to be myriad instances throughout the course of Islamic history where Sharia has indeed evolved and changed, keeping in mind the sentiments of time and place.
The common thread in the views of both Soman and Kalbe Sadiq is that, if followed correctly, the Quran is equal, just, and compassionate. According to them, no matter what the differences, Islam’s holiest book has all the answers. With the discussion now having begun from within the religion itself, this is a direction the debate on Islam’s personal laws truly needs right now.