Sheikh ul Islam Faqeeh ul Asar Hasrat Mufti Taqi Usmani is a Hanafi Muslim scholar from Pakistan who also served as a judge in that country’s Federal Shariat Court. The esteemed gentleman has recently come out with a fatwa that Muslim women should not post pictures of themselves or their family on social media, including specifically, Facebook. Our own Darul Uloom Deoband, which claims to be the highest Islamic seminary in India, came out earlier this month with a fatwa that is even more bizarre. It banned Muslim women from plucking, trimming and shaping their eyebrows! The same seminary, which has a separate wing to issue fatwas — Darul Iftaa — had earlier issued directives that stated that Muslim women cannot hold jobs, either in the government or in the private sector, nor can they become judges.
Other Islamic seminaries, and so-called Islamic clerics, have not been lagging behind in their misplaced activism. A maulvi in Midnapore (West Bengal) issued a fatwa on what Sania Mirza should wear or not wear. The Majlis Bachao Tehreek has issued a fatwa against exiled Bangladesh writer Taslima Nasreen offering unlimited financial rewards to anyone who can kill her. The venom that suffuses such fatwas should not be underestimated. In Bihar, on July 30 this year, the day Nitish Kumar won the trust vote with the support of the BJP after breaking ties with the RJD and the Congress, the only Muslim minister in his new Cabinet, Khursheed alias Firoz Ahmed, chanted the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” outside the Bihar Assembly. A fatwa was immediately issued by Maulvi Sohail Quasmi of the seminary Imarat Shariah, pronouncing that the minister’s marriage must be annulled for his act of “error”. Firoz Ahmed protested at first, even saying that he would not be cowed down by such threats, but later succumbed to the pressure and apologised.
Apart from the Islamic seminaries, we have organisations like the All India Muslim Law Board. The board was set up in 1973 to protect and interpret Muslim personal law, and projects itself as the leading body to articulate Muslim opinion in India. However, it has hardly covered itself in glory for the opinions it has held. For instance, the board objected to the law on the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (2009), on the ground that it will infringe on the madrasa system of education. Are madrasas private properties of the board, beyond the purview of law and reform? The board also supported child marriage. Its members prevented Salman Rushdie from participating in the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012, even when this participation was only to be in the form of a video conference.
The board has been the most retrogressive to Muslim women rights on the question of triple talaq. It actually said that while the practice was not without blemish, it must still be regarded as valid. Fortunately, the Supreme Court intervened in the matter in August this year and pronounced it illegal. Even worse, the board justified the practice of Nikah Halala wherein a divorced Muslim woman must sleep with another man before she can remarry her first husband. A report carried out by India Today revealed that “Islamic scholars” were charging a hefty fee for one night stands with divorced Muslim women so as to sanction their wish to remarry their first husband.
The fact of the matter is that Muslim clerics, and organisations like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, represent the worst form of medieval patriarchy, and appear to be completely impervious to the rights of Muslim women sanctioned within the Quran. They have thus far exercised a monopoly on what constitutes “correct” Muslim behaviour, and are stubbornly unwilling to accept that their views are outdated, iniquitous, and insensitive to notions of gender equality, to the much-needed reform within the Muslim community, and to the concept of a modern and progressive society. It is not surprising that of the 50-odd people who constitute the board, women are in a complete minority, and are not more than four as per the board’s own website.
The truth is that there is a great deal of evidence of fundamentalism and an ostrich-like aversion to change among the self-anointed guardians for the welfare of Muslims. Such guardians, who issue all kinds of ridiculous fatwas at the drop of a hat, need to be challenged, not the least by liberal Muslim opinion itself, of which, unfortunately, we do not see too much evidence. Politicians too must stop pandering to such medieval interpretations of Muslim personal law merely for vote bank politics, as happened in the Shah Bano case in 1985.
There is another important reason to consider. As my good friend, commentator and journalist, Shahid Siddiqui says, one cannot counter Hindu fundamentalism by pandering to Muslim fundamentalism. Both are wrong, and both need to be condemned and opposed. In one sense, both extremes feed off each other. When Muslim clerics issue fatwas merely because a Muslim has the temerity to acknowledge Lord Ram, Hindu fundamentalists go to the other extreme and paint all Muslims as being anti-Hindu. This grossly distorts the debate, and the possibility of a meeting ground, which most Hindus and Muslims would be more than happy to share, between people of different faiths who together make up the vibrant Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb or culture of our composite and plural national fabric.
Besides, the time has come to ask: Do these ultra conservative thekedars of Muslims actually represent the real wishes of the community? In 2003, Outlook magazine carried out a survey in which the bulk of the respondents (40 per cent) replied in the negative when asked: Do you consider those fighting the Babri Masjid case as true spokespersons for the Muslim community?
Many Muslims may, perhaps, have reason today to suffer from a siege mentality. We need to oppose those forces that have created this mentality, but equally, Muslims too must show the courage to embrace liberal opinion and challenge the stranglehold of those who claim, in such primitive ways, to speak for them....