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The War Within Islam ( 12 Nov 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Making Sacred Spaces Unfair: Arshad Alam on the creeping Wahhabisation of Islam

By Arshad Alam for New Age Islam

13 Nov 2012


Muslim men and women together perform the Hajj and bear witness to upholding the faith in front of the Kaba. If they can pray together at the Kaba, the house of God, then it simply defies logic as why Muslim women are excluded from praying in mosques and mausoleums. The recent decision of the Haji Ali trust to banish women from the Astana of the dargah can perhaps only be explained by the fact that Islam is becoming more and more misogynist or that its ‘custodians’ are increasingly becoming anti-women. To be fair, this is not limited to Islam alone; there are temples and similar places of worship in other faiths where women are not allowed. Fighting for Muslim women’s rights to pray along side with men is thus as much about Muslim society as it is about other societies and their treatment of women. What is extremely unfortunate is that Haji Ali was one of the few places where women had no restrictions placed on their spiritual selves and even that space has now has collapsed under the pernicious weight of some Shariah compliant Muslims.


Dargahs are inclusive spaces and not Muslims but scores of people from other faiths throng these places for spiritual succor. In that sense, these mausoleums and the saints buried therein have been ambassadors of peace and amity throughout centuries. The popular practice of visiting these graves has the potential to dissolve religious boundaries which is a profound declaration of the common objective of all religious traditions: that in essence all of them exist to promote understanding and brotherhood. By excluding a section of people from these precincts, the ‘custodians’ of Islam are in fact giving their own religion a bad name. More importantly, the breakdown of shared spaces will feed into the larger process of segregation between different religious communities, something which is definitely not desirable for the idea of India.


The argument that is often given is for banning entry of women into dargahs is that it is the requirement of the Shariah. In fact it is claimed that Shariah is immutable and cannot be changed. This is not only wrong as the Shariah has evolved over time but also negates the different interpretations of the Shariah. Since there is no church in Islam, there is no authoritative voice which is universally applicable to all Muslims. Consequently there have been wide plurality over the interpretations of the Shariah for centuries and these interpretations have existed in perfect harmony with each other. Scholars of Islam have pointed out that the Quran is silent over the entry of women in graveyards and that this injunction actually comes from a hadis. Moreover, scholars have also pointed out that this particular hadis is a weak one and that the Prophet’s daughter herself prayed at the grave of her father.


What we are witnessing today is that only one of the myriad interpretations is gaining currency within the Muslim world, an interpretation which is very close to the Wahhabi idea of Islam. This creeping Wahhabisation of Islam, and its uncritical acceptance even by the followers of Sufi mediated Islam is worrisome, to say the least. In the long run it might lead to total surrender of popular Islam to a more scripturalist, literalist and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam which will become increasingly disconnected with the local mores and customs of Indian subcontinent. We must recognize that we are not particularly enamored by certain aspects of the Shariah. For example, we do not advocate that hands should be cut of for petty thefts. Similarly we do not say that adulterers should be stoned to death. If the custodians of the dargah and their advocates are so fond of Shariah, would they also advocate its application in criminal law? If not, then why are they selective in their application of Shariah? Is it that they remember about Shariah only when the questions of women’s rights and access comes into the picture?


What is also important in this whole debate is the attitude of the state. Historically, the Indian state has refused to take a stand against Muslim orthodoxy, thinking erroneously, that Muslims are represented by the Ulama. In the broader context of reformism within different religious traditions, the state has played a vital role in supporting modernist and reformist ideas. From Ram Mohan Roy to the Hindu Code Bill, the reforms within Hinduism would not be possible without the backing of the colonial or the post colonial state. In refusing to intervene within Muslim issues, the state conveniently abdicates it modernizing role that it should be play within all communities. One might ask, in refusing to listen to the voices of Muslim women in the Haji Ali case, whether the state, saw these women simply as Muslims or also as citizens who had some rights on par with other citizens of the country. What is the message that the Indian state is trying to give here: that it can intervene in cases related to the Hindu religion but would refrain from doing when it comes to Muslims. Is this because or curious case of Indian secularism or because the Indian state sees itself as having a mandate only over its Hindu population?


Arshad Alam is a writer and commentator on Muslim minority issues.  He teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.