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Imrana, the Maulvis and the Shariah: Bangalore Muslim Voices

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  • yogi sikand
    Imrana, the Maulvis and the Shariah: Bangalore Muslim Voices Yoginder Sikand & Vijay Sai The controversy surrounding the alleged rape of Imrana by her
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 5, 2005
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      Imrana, the Maulvis and the Shariah: Bangalore Muslim Voices

      Yoginder Sikand & Vijay Sai

      The controversy surrounding the alleged rape of Imrana by her father-in-law and the Deoband fatwa calling for the dissolution of her marriage has been further complicated with some sources now claiming that Imrana might not have been raped after all. While the actual facts of the case are, therefore, not clear, the controversy seems to have shifted from the particular case of Imrana to the larger question of whether or not the ‘ulama have the authority to pass legal opinions on criminal matters and whether the state and civil society should allow them the ‘right’ that they seek for themselves to control ‘ordinary’ Muslims, particularly Muslim women.

      Muslim responses to these thorny issues are, predictably, divided. The Imrana case seems to have stirred considerable discussion in Muslim circles, leading to debates about the authority of the conservative ‘ulama among liberal Muslim intellectuals. It has also led to discussions about the actual content of the shariah, with diverse understandings being articulated by the ‘ulama or clerics of different Muslim sectarian groups. At the same time, the media sensationalism surrounding the case has also provoked considerable dismay and anger.

      Syed Zaeem Raza is the imam of the Masjid-i Askari, a prominent Shia mosque in Bangalore. Referring to the Deoband fatwa he comments that according to the Shia Jafari school of Islamic law, the marriage of a woman raped by her father-in-law marriage remains intact. He refers to the writings of several mujtahids, leading Shia scholars, including Ayatollah Khomeini, in which, he says, this point is clearly mentioned. While clarifying the difference between the Shia and the Deobandi understandings of shariah on this issue, he complains that the media is ‘blowing up an isolated case in order to launch a campaign against Muslim Personal Law’.

      Another Muslim group whose version of the shariah differs, on numerous points, from that of the Deobandis is the Ahl-i Hadith, the Indian counterpart of the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’. Maulvi Ahmadullah Qureshi, the head of the Jamiat-i ‘Ulama-i Ahl-i Hadith (‘The Union of the Ahl-i Hadith ‘Ulama) of Karnataka, is a graduate of Medina University, Saudi Arabia, and is, in his circles, considered to be an accomplished Islamic scholar. He tells us that the Deoband fatwa is based on the books of medieval legal specialists belonging to the Hanafi school of law, to which the Deobandis adhere. The Hanafis, he says, rely not only on the Qur’an and the Hadith, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, but also on the writings of the Hanafi Imams and scholars. This, he insists, is ‘un-Islamic’, because Muslims ‘should follow only the Qur’an and the Prophetic Traditions’. Since the Imams and scholars of the Hanafi school, as in the case of the three other Sunni schools, were ‘mere mortals’, they were ‘not free from error’. This is why, he contends, ‘their books are duplicate, replete with errors, including the ruling that calls for the divorce of a woman raped by her father-in-law’.

      ‘This simply has no sanction in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the practice of the Prophet, and in the Ahl-i Hadith’s understanding of shariah’, Maulvi Qureshi argues. ‘As long as Muslims follow books other than just the Qur’an and the Hadith’, he says, ‘they will continue to face controversies like the Imrana case’. He uses this argument to stake the claim that the Ahl-i Hadith is the ‘only genuine Islamic sect’, since they supposedly follow only the Qur’an and the Hadith. Because the Hanafis, he suggests, ‘wrongly’ include such ‘absurd’ rulings as part of the shariah they have created a ‘very incorrect and abhorrent’ picture of Islam. Islam, he says, is meant to be ‘the religion of human nature’, so, how, he asks, ‘can Islam command something so un-natural as divorce for a victim raped by her father-in-law?’. He complains that the media has not highlighted the Ahl-i Hadith perspective on this issue, incorrectly presenting the Hanafis, particularly the Deobandis, as the sole voice of the Muslims. Just as on this issue, so, too, on the issue of triple talaq in one sitting, he says, the Ahl-i Hadith has a ‘progressive’ opinion, condemning this form of divorce as ‘un-Islamic’. ‘Yet the media never mentions us’, he rues, ‘because we are small in number, and the Hanafis, being the majority among the Indian Muslims, are richer, more resourceful and have more political connections’. He also complains that most Muslim newspapers routinely ignore Ahl-i Hadith statements because they are owned by Hanafis.

      The Maulvi hands us a press release that he has prepared, bearing the title ‘Imrana: Her Judgment in the Light of the Qur’an and Sunnah’. It condemns the Deoband fatwa as ‘unfair’, ‘a plain atrocity against women folk’ and ‘far away from the Qur’an and Sunnah and even common sense’. It refers to the Qur’an as saying that a ‘believer’ who is forced to proclaim ‘disbelief’ under compulsion still remains a ‘believer’. This means, therefore, that one cannot be held accountable for an act that one is compelled, against one’s will, to do. In other words, the statement argues, a raped woman cannot be punished with divorce, and, therefore, a fatwa that calls for this has no sanction in Islam.

      Maqbool Ahmad Siraj is a noted Bangalore-based Muslim scholar and journalist. He admits that the fatwa has ‘acutely embarrassed Muslims, but at the same time says that the media has ‘blown the issue out of proportion’ in order to project Muslims as ‘obscurantist’. Domestic rape happens in all communities, he says, and needs to be seen as a general social evil and not through ‘communal lenses’. Rape, he stresses, is a criminal act, and hence, if Imrana was raped, the case should be handled by the criminal courts under state law, not by the maulvis under shariah law.

      Siraj distances himself from the Deobandis on the issue of the treatment a woman raped by her father-in-law. Many maulvis, he says with visible irritation, ‘are more interested in issuing fatwas than in reforming society’. ‘Calling for the divorce of a woman raped by her father-in-law maybe an Arab tradition, but it is nowhere mentioned in the Qur’an’, he contends. ‘Even if it is included in the Hanafi books, there is no reason why we should follow it today’. Several laws prescribed by the Hanafi or other schools of Muslim jurisprudence, he says, were human creations, products of the medieval period, and are not sanctioned in the Qur’an. These need to change if Muslims are to progress. A major obstacle to change, he says, are the traditional madrasas where the ‘ulama are trained. For the most part, they are geared to the transmission of Hanafi jurisprudence. Students are not taught modern social science subjects, which is one reason why some maulvis give ‘incorrect’ fatwas, such as in the Imrana case. There is no reason why, Siraj asserts, Muslims must continue to follow one or other of the medieval schools of jurisprudence. ‘We need new schools today’, he says, ‘which take into account modern conditions’.

      This project of reform, Siraj admits, will not be enthusiastically welcomed by many maulvis. In addition, it is likely to be opposed even by some ‘secular’ politicians, who, he says, ‘have a vested interest in keeping Muslims backward, propping up half-baked maulvis as leaders of the Muslims so that they can get them the Muslim vote’. Siraj makes a clear distinction between ‘genuine ‘ulama’ and ‘run-of-the-mill maulvis’, and accuses the latter, along with the Hindutva lobby and sections of the media, of ‘keeping Muslims engrossed with controversial issues like the Imrana case’ so that they ‘do not think about larger social, economic and political issues’.

      Siraj stresses the need for the ‘ulama and Muslim organisations to be more sensitive to women’s concerns. He tells us of the numerous meetings that he has conducted with Muslim women in Karnataka, where he has spoken about the rights that Islam gives them but which the ‘ulama rarely, if ever, mention. He cites an example. ‘Yesterday I addressed a gathering of around 35 women, and only one among them had received mehr or dower, although this is a Qur’anic provision’. At the same time as he critiques conservative maulvis, Siraj also berates certain ‘secular’ women’s groups for their indifference to Muslim women’s concerns.


      A retired IAS officer, now living in Bangalore, M.A.K. Tayab echoes some of Siraj’s concerns. ‘Since rape or allegation of rape or adultery concerns criminal law there is no justification for any madrasa or maulvi to issue a fatwa on it’, he insists. Under Indian law, such cases must be dealt with only be secular law, not the religious law of any community. Critiquing the Deoband madrasa for its controversial fatwa on Imrana, he says that the fatwa was issued without ascertaining as to whether or not the rape actually happened. ‘Neither Imrana nor anyone from her family had approached the madrasa for a legal opinion’, and so it ‘should not have issued a fatwa against her. Nor did the mufti who passed the fatwa arrange for four reliable adult male witnesses to the act of rape that the shariah is said to call for’. ‘Marriage is a contract between two individuals’, Tayab argues, ‘and some third person’s fatwa, which is just a legal opinion and not a verdict, cannot dissolve it, particularly if neither of the spouses has approached the mufti for his opinion’. ‘The maulvis cannot behave as if they are court judges who can decide criminal issues as well’, he insists, while also critiquing ‘secular’ politicians for pandering to the ‘ulama on the Imrana case. ‘Politicians need to uphold the law, but instead they seem to be subverting it’, he rues, adding that ‘the hegemony of the conservative maulvis that some politicians want to preserve is thoroughly counter-productive from the point of view of ordinary Muslims’.

      Sadathullah Khan is the editor of the Bangalore-based Islamic Voice, India’s largest-selling English-language Islamic magazine. He argues that fatwas, in general, are ‘specific’, related to a particular case in its particular context of space and time. Hence, the ruling that a woman raped by her father-in-law should be divorced, contained in Hanafi law books, does not, he says, ‘have universal validity’. Like Tayab, he argues that since neither Imrana nor anyone from her family had approached the Deoband mufti for a fatwa, there was no need for him to issue it, especially since he did not verify the facts of the case properly to ascertain whether or not the alleged rape had actually taken place. ‘Some members of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board initially supported the fatwa’, he notes, ‘but now some other members of the Board are arguing that the rape did not happen! There being such confusion about the case, the mufti ought to have verified the facts before issuing his fatwa’.

      Khan admits that sections of the media have sensationalised the Imrana issue, but asks, ‘Why should we blame others when, at root, it is we who are at fault?’. ‘After all’, he observes, ‘the media is always on the look-out for sensational stories and if we provide them such stories how can we blame them for this?’. Nigar Ataullah, Islamic Voice’s assistant-editor, agrees with Khan on that score. ‘ While some papers have used the controversy to portray Muslims in a bad light’, she says, ‘several others have projected the issue from the point of women’s rights and gender justice, not from the religious angle, and that I think is a good thing’.

      A noted social activist, Hasanth Mansoor is one of the leaders of a coalition of more than a dozen Muslim women’s organisations in Bangalore. She argues that, irrespective of whether or not Imrana was raped, the fatwa was ‘uncalled for’ and that it has made the woman’s life ‘sheer hell’. Fatwas are not legally binding, according to both Indian as well as Islamic law, and the Deoband mufti’s fatwa, she says, ‘is not acceptable, being against reason as well as the Qur’an’. Mansoor is impatient with maulvis who ‘claim the right to pass fatwas on all and sundry’. ‘Who has given them the right?’, she angrily asks, adding that ‘Islam has no room for a priesthood, or intermediaries between God and human beings’. ‘Muslims, both men and women, can interpret Islam for themselves, because Islam is a very simple religion. They have no need to rely on professional mullahs’, she insists. She claims that the ‘ulama have ‘neglected their duty of educating women of their Islamic rights and duties’, and ‘ to preserve patriarchy, are ready with a fatwa each time they see women stepping out of line’. Yet, she says, the Imrana controversy, for all the heat and passion that it has raised, does have a somewhat positive side to it. ‘More people are now thinking and writing about the role and the claims of the ‘ulama, about Islam and gender justice’, and this, she says, ‘is a welcome sign that things might be beginning to change’.


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