I am deeply pained to read that the courts have had to interfere in interpreting to the world the true spirit of my religion, Islam. The judgment of the Bombay High Court upholding Muslim women’s right to enter the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai is a slap in the face of us Muslims for not having spoken up for a religion which has stood for the rights of women since the day it was revealed 1,400 years ago. And accolades to the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) for speaking up.
During the life of the Prophet, women freely entered the first mosque of Islam in Medina. They not only entered but asked the Prophet questions to clear their doubts about the revelations. The Hadith about the Prophet’s wife Umm Salama is well-known. She asked him, “O Prophet of Allah, why is it that all revelations of the Quran are concerned with men? What about us women?” It was then that surah 4 of the Quran was revealed which is called Surah Al Nisa, meaning “The Women”. This Hadith proves two points. One, women had the freedom to enter the mosque and hold discussions with the Prophet. Two, their legitimate concern merited an entire surah which is the second longest surah as well as the most comprehensive explication of women’s rights enshrined in any scripture of the world.
Instead of propagating to the world the content of this surah, we Muslims are hell bent on projecting Islam in the exact opposite light. Will we ever realise the harm we are doing to Islam by constantly falling in the trap of our own making? Sadly, we cannot see beyond the patriarchal construct in which we are conditioned. In denying rights to Muslim women, the male ego may exult for a while but it kills the spirit of Islam. Gender in Islam becomes reduced to debates about dargah entrance and burkinis. In these worst of times, when our one-point agenda should be to show Islam’s gendered face to the world, we are hopelessly entangled in the most inconsequential matters.
The Masjid-e-Nabavi in Medina was built by the Prophet as a humble mud structure for the first Muslims. It was here that the great Ethiopian slave Bilal-e-Habsh stood to call the first azan. Today it is ostentatious, glittering and resplendent, because it houses the mausoleum of the Prophet. Whereas in his lifetime women came to him freely, today they are kept as far as possible from his mortal remains. This was my experience when I went to recite the fatiha at his grave. My point here is the same: The intent of Islam and the Prophet to give equal access to women has been reversed by us, everywhere.
The same reversal can be seen in other matters related to women. Take two of the most notorious tenets attributed to Islam; polygamy and triple talaq. Islam is globally condemned for “permitting” up to four marriages and “permitting” arbitrary talaq. The reason for the universal condemnation is the popular understanding that Islam “allows” these terribly anti-women practices. The fact that there are more multiple marriages in other religions than in Islam is negated by the fallacy that Islam casually permits them. It is this grave aspersion on Islam that we need to fight and prove wrong rather than quibbling over settled practices such as dargah entry.
The simple fact about polygamy or “up to four marriages” is the giant step Islam took to correct the pre-Islamic practice of contracting scores and scores of marriages and treating women as chattel and spoils of war. It drastically reduced the number to four but placed upon it a condition that was humanly impossible to fulfill. “If you can give all wives exact equal treatment” was the strict injunction. The next few words slice it to one. The Quran states that human nature is such that equal treatment is impossible, therefore, best to stay with one, and one only. This restriction imposed 1,400 years ago, in essence, prohibits multiple marriage and points towards monogamy. But we not only refused to move forward, we actually slid back.
The same holds for triple talaq. There is nothing more repugnant to Islam than arbitrary talaq and yet the practice not only continues but is also condoned by some. Islamic marriage is a legal contract between two people which is duly witnessed and sealed as a legal document. In the same manner, talaq is a legal process, a way to get out of a bad marriage, with the maximum advantage to the woman. The manner of talaq is detailed in the Quran. It calls for thoughtful, well-considered action, with prescribed intervals for review and change of mind. At the same time it ensures that the woman is well-looked after as the first charge on the husband’s income. The word in the Quran is that even if he has given her a “qintaar” of gold, the husband should not ask for its return. The Quran has many directions for the husband which when aggregated reflect its deep caring for women. These are the aspects of Islam that we should take to the world, change its view, and align it with the teachings of the Quran.
Then there is the beauty of Islam which allows a million flowers to bloom. Each according to his or her own light is what the Quran states. It says that Allah is closer to you than your jugular vein. So I can see it my way, you can see it in yours; there is no compulsion in religion, Lakum dinakum walia din. There are five major schools of Islamic jurisprudence and scores of other smaller fiqahs people follow according to their will. There is no homogenous Islam. One fiqah may have more adherents but that does not mean that other fiqahs are “less” equal. In the matter of triple talaq, for instance, there is clear rejection of it in the Shia school and Ahl e Hadith. Freedom of choice is available to all believers.
In the Bombay HC judgment, the BMMA has scored a victory. They have brought the practice closer to the spirit. My pain is that the court was constrained to quote the constitution and law to allow dargah entrance when Islam opens all places of worship and faith not only to women but to people of all faiths. The worst thing the dargah trust can do now, in my view, is to appeal against this judgment.
There is a lesson here for all of us, especially for those who profess to “speak for the Muslim quom”. By their recalcitrant attitude, aren’t they doing a great disservice to our great religion? As Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, whose Tajumanul Quran is the world’s best translation and explication, said in his Al Hilal article: “All the miseries of the Muslims are due to the fact that they have turned from this divine source of guidance, and they thought they needed to look upon it only in regard to religious rituals, like roza and namaz. They did not realise its importance in all aspects, educational, cultural and political.”
Wisdom flows from the words of the reformist poet-philosopher Maulana Altaf Husain Hali who wrote in 1879 in his 320 canto epic poem, Musaddas e Hali: Until when will they last, your atrophied days/ Until when will new generations be crushed/ Until when will persist your profligate ways/ Until when will you blindly just follow the herd?/ Forget the old fable, the tale and the story/ Fight scourge of bigotry, it’s evil, it’s fury.
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