The latest inanity from the head of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB)—on
family planning, no less—only goes to show how irrelevant the organization is and how irresponsible its
president can be. As the press reports had it:: "Board president Maulana Rabey Hasan Nadvi said "Allah
ne jiska paida hona tai kiya hai usko rokna theek naheen hai" (It is not proper to stop the birth of
those whom God has destined to be born). He termed adopting family planning as "gair zaroori"
I am not surprised that ‘our lord and master’—for that is what maulana means—did not think it fit to mention even incidentally what the Prophet of Islam neither approved nor prohibited but left to people’s judgment, namely ‘azl or coitus interruptus. ‘Lords and masters’ don’t seek to enlighten people, and far be it from them to try and lighten people’s burden. Their only concern is that they must appear in full and sole authority—all the time. And so when the president was reminded of his lapse, he reportedly said that while ‘azl was allowed in Islam it was the ‘new technologies’ that were not allowed.
I wish the reporter had then asked: what about the new technologies that save people’s lives? Are they
also ‘prohibited innovations’? Are you telling Muslims not to seek benefit from them because ‘Allah
ne jiska marna tai kiya hai usko rokna theek naheen hai’ (It’s not proper to stop the death of those
whom God has destined to die)? I doubt if any of these ‘lords and masters’ put that much trust in God.
(Only mystics and other true men of God do that.) Medicine and medical treatment of the latest kind, the
maulanas will assuredly declare, are most zaruuri. And, no doubt, they will then remind us of the Prophet’s
remark to a bedouin that he should first tether his camel securely and only afterward put his trust in God.
Heads they win, tails we lose, that’s the way it goes with these learned men.
In any case, I truly fear there was a different motive behind the Maulana’s statement, and a mischievous one, to say the least. According to the newspaper report, ‘When Maulana Rabey's attention was drawn towards the success of family planning in Iran, he said there was no need for Muslims in India to follow the edicts of other countries. "Muslims in Iran are different from Muslims in India," he said.’ Now the letter urging the Board to give some consideration to the issue of family planning was written by Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, a Shi’ah scholar who lives only about three miles away from the Nadva where Maulana Rabey resides. Is he not Indian and Muslim enough for the President of the AIMPLB? Much to my regret and shame I fear that may well be the case. And had the rector of Nadva been more forthcoming he could possibly have said: ‘Iranians are Shi’ahs, and I am a Sunni; I do not regard them as Muslims.’ He would still have been perverse but, nevertheless, honest to himself.
As is well-known to those who read Urdu, many people associated with the Nadva have long engaged in anti-Iran and anti-Shi’ah polemic and propaganda. For example Maulana Manzoor Nu’mani, who was much encouraged by Maulana Ali Mian, the former rector of Nadva and the present rector’s uncle. The latter even wrote a highly admiring introduction to the former’s most vitriolic book, Irani Inqilab, Imam Khomeini aur Shi’iyat. Thanks to Saudi patronage, Wahabism of the worst kind has spread in South Asia, and since 1979 it has included a prominent trend of anti-Iran and anti-Shi’ah sentiment. Its horrific results have been evident in Pakistan for some time. The chief reason it has not so blatantly showed itself in India is the secular stance of the Indian state, no matter how faulty the latter may seem sometimes. But this sectarian poison remains a strong undercurrent in the Muslim religious elite, even in such a seemingly peaceful movement as the Tablighi Jama’at. ‘Live and let live’ is what most Muslims, like most of their compatriots, follow in their daily lives. Sadly, it’s a rare religious ‘leader’ who does so now.
We must never forget that AIMPLB brought itself into prominence by blocking the pitifully small financial relief that India’s Supreme Court had granted to an elderly Muslim divorcee, Shah Bano. The Board succeeded because Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and a coterie of people around him chose political expediency over social justice. (The same bunch then unlocked the doors in Ayodhya, thus opening a second Pandora’s box.) Since then the Board has gained a totally misplaced importance only due to the attention it has received from the press.
This fact cannot be overemphasized. Should the reporters stop going to the Board for a change, it would
immediately become clear that Indian Muslims have diverse—in some matters, even disparate—ways and
opinions. They go about their lives peaceably just like other Indians, and when they need guidance in any
matter where they feel a religious perspective is needed they ask someone locally. They then follow or reject
the given advice much as they feel. They do not rush to the Board for guidance. A vast majority of Indian
Muslims may not even know that it exists.
The ratio of women to men in the Muslim population in India is roughly 9 to 10. We hear ad nauseum from these Muslim ‘leaders’, particularly from those who sit in Delhi, that Muslims should be given representation in every sphere—e.g. jobs, college admissions, and legislative seats—proportionate to their percentage in India’s population. The same people, however, turn mute if it is suggested that Muslim women should be given proportionate representation in all Muslim waqf authorities and educational institutions, and, yes, on the AIMPLB too.
After all most of the issues the maulanas of the Board pontificate upon expressly effect women. If
questioned, they will no doubt respond, ‘There are not enough qualified women.’ Unfortunately the press
never asks these men: whose fault is it, and what steps have you, the masters of Deoband and Nadva, taken to
ameliorate the situation? How many Muslim women have you trained in religious learning? To put it bluntly,
Muslim religious trusts and schools have abysmally failed to serve Muslim women despite the fact that women
constitute almost one half of the population whose support these institutions draw upon. Does that bother ‘our
lords and masters’? Shouldn’t it?
How obdurate the Board has been becomes clear if we examine its act of commission concerning Muslim marriages and its act of omission concerning the use of mosque spaces by Muslim women. The first issue is very much in the news presently in India and not for the first time, while the second is less so. It is quite prominent an issue now in the United States. However, the issue first appeared twice in Kerala a few years back, then came up in Tamil Nadu and also in Lucknow. It is likely to become more prominent with the passage of time.
As is well known, marriage in Islam is a legal contract and not a sacrament. It does not entail a declaration that the two persons have been ‘joined by God’ and therefore none should separate them. The ceremony requires neither the presence of a mulla nor the premises of a mosque. The only requirements are that the two parties must consent to the marriage freely, and that the groom should pay a mehr or bride-money to the bride—not to her parents—before the marriage is consummated.
Needless to say, in the name of ‘tradition’ or ‘local practice’—why do they always favour the groom?—the two requirements have been diluted beyond recognition to serve the purpose of Muslim patriarchy. Now any non-adult female can be given away in marriage by her father. In fact, even an adult female cannot now give or deny her consent directly but must have a vakil to represent her. As for the requirement of the mehr being paid directly and promptly to the bride, it can now be delayed, paid only partially, ‘forgiven’ by the wife, set too low to be of any use, set too high to be realistically payable, or simply litigated out of existence. Don’t try asking the Board members about mehr; it doesn’t interest them, though it is of course critical for one-half of the Muslim population they allegedly represent. It is the male prerogative of ‘giving’ a divorce that is of utmost concern to ‘our lords and masters’ of the Board.
Remember, they originally came together exclusively as a band of men, and only to protect a man from paying
to his divorced wife what the law of the nation required. Later the Board expanded itself grudgingly and
included a handful of women. However it continued to act the way it always had. It took its own sweet time to
discuss a uniform and equitable marriage contract, then scuttled what the efforts of those few women had
brought about. Here is how the logic of these ‘lords and masters’ worked: it is not very nice when men
divorce their wives by saying talaq three times but they must have the right to do so; on the other hand,
women may have a legal right in Islam to get a divorce—note that they can only ‘get’ a divorce, not ‘give’
a divorce—it won’t be very nice to make that right actually enforceable through the marriage contract!
Let us now turn to the second issue: should Muslim women participate in congregational prayers and occupy mosque spaces on an equal footing with Muslim men? Muslims do not need a priest or imam to fulfill the fundamental requirement of five daily prayers. Any believer can pray by herself or himself. However, Muslims are urged to say the required prayers collectively—in jama’a. Collective prayers led by an imam are considered more rewarding religiously. According to some hadith, twenty-five times more rewarding. The imam, however, can be any ordinary Muslim who is perceived by the group or congregation as being more virtuous or ‘knowing more of the Qur’an’ than the rest.
In other words, no specifically ordained or trained person is required. Unlike Christianity, there are
neither monks nor priests in Islam. Muslim women of the Prophet’s time freely attended the prayers in his
mosque. At his most restrictive he is reported to have said: ‘Do not prevent your women from visiting the
mosques, but their houses are better for them.’ In another hadith, he reportedly said: ‘Allow women to
visit the mosque at night.’ Clearly the women of Medina attended the prayers in the Prophet’s mosque
without any restriction. Were they assigned a permanent separate space within that mosque? I doubt if that was
the case. After all, Muslim men and Muslim women even now perform the rituals of Hajj side by side—the women
with fully exposed faces—both groups observing the same rules of modesty and humility. What for centuries
has been allowed in God’s ‘House’ could not have been prohibited in the Prophet’s mosque.
According to a well-known hadith preserved in the Sunan of Abu Dawud and accepted as valid by all Sunni Muslims, the Prophet was asked by a woman, Umm Waraqah, if she could have the call for prayers said at her house, i.e. if she could hold congregational prayers at her house. Apparently she lived at some distance from the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. The Prophet not only gave her the permission but also asked her to lead the inmates of her house in prayers. The ‘inmates’ of her house included at least two males, the muaddhin who made the call and the one slave who later killed her. This is what the late great scholar Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah had to say about this hadith:
‘I am not prepared to accept that [Umm Waraqah] was made the imam of only the women. The word ahl used in the hadith is not restricted to mean women alone. [She had a muaddhin and several slaves] Obviously the slaves performed their prayers with her as the imam. In short her imamat was not for women alone, it was also for men.’
We also know that two of the Prophet’s wives, Hazrat ‘A’isha and Hazrat Umm Salama, are reported to
have held congregational prayers—though exclusively for women—which they separately led. These
congregational prayers must have been performed within the Prophet’s mosque, for that is where the two
venerable ladies lived. (I was pleasingly surprised to read recently that the late Maulana Maududi’s wife
used to hold congregational prayers for women at their house in Karachi, where she led the prayers and read
It would appear then that the existing severe exclusion of women from mosque spaces developed later. It could have been due to any number of reasons which are really not of any concern. The question for us is: are women to be denied those spaces now and forever? A couple of years back, a group of women in Kerala raised this issue twice and, unless I remember wrongly, in one case they were able to prevail. I would, however, put a more modest question before the dignitaries of the Board: if congregational prayers are indeed religiously more rewarding then what have you done to ensure that Muslim women of your own acquaintance and neighborhood obtain that reward? I would be the first to applaud them if they have in fact held or encouraged similar all-women congregational prayers at their homes and at the mosques they control.
One thing, however, I am quite sure of. Despite their piously urging Muslim males to
pray together and thus garner a greater reward, these ‘lords and masters’ of the Board will no doubt
regard my question as ‘un-Islamic’, and the idea of Muslim females having the same right as the males a
sinful bid’at or ‘innovation’—the worst abuse in their rich vocabulary. That is what they always do,
for that is all they seem to have learned to do. They only command, deny, reject, or denounce. Don’t expect
them to share, co-operate, compromise, and give-and-take. Theirs is not an examined life; they believe only in
unexamined acceptance, both for themselves and others.
The other strong belief they seem to share is in the exceptional quality of their genes. Knowledge and authority are hereditary traits and male prerogatives for these ‘lords and masters’. Consider the Nadva itself. A school started by an organization of Muslim scholars from all over India, since 1915 it has mostly been controlled by the members of just one family. Will the present rector care to inform the Muslim community what effort he or his three elders ever made to educate Muslim women in religious knowledge? Are not Muslim males and females together enjoined to seek ‘ilm? And shouldn’t an ‘alim be fair and equitable in sharing his knowledge with the members of his community?
Again a cry will most likely go up: no, that will be a bid’at. We will be told that religious learning
comes in two kinds, of which only one, that of a very limited nature, is necessary for women to fulfill their
‘assigned’ role in the world. Sadly, but not surprisingly, with regard to the propagation of even that
limited ‘ilm to Muslim women the record of the Nadva and the assorted individuals controlling the Board is
shamefully poor. Does that bother them? Not at all. They have greater things to worry about, such as making
sure that an elderly Muslim woman should not get any aid under the 'prevention of
indigence' clauses of the Indian Penal Code.
The AIMPLB is not a representative body; nor is it a democratic body. It created itself, and its members have held on to their seats to serve their own agendas. More ominously over the years it has tried to expand its self-proclaimed authority—vide its brief flirting with the perilous idea of an out-of-court settlement of the Babri Mosque issue. In its existence the Board has done nothing to improve the lot of Muslim women who constitute roughly one-half of the community. Many of its members have little individual distinction of their own, and are there only because they gained some hereditary position. It is about time the Indian press gave Indian Muslims a break. Ignoring the Board may be best, but that may not be possible. In that case, the press should give the AIMPLB only the due it actually deserves within the secular polity of the Indian nation—one among many Muslim organizations and not one bit more authoritative than others.
C. M. Naim is Professor. Emeritus, South Asian Languages & Civilizations, University of Chicago
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