Islam – as I understand it – is a religion of strict scriptural canons contained in the Quran, unlike say Hinduism which is for most of us an article of faith – a way of life without any fixed dogma or creed.
So, in Islam the relationship between the devotee and his faith is clearly defined as God ordained. Not just that, each Muslim is obliged to submit to realisation of God’s will.
The Quran makes this task rather easy because it gives the faithful a divine blueprint for achieving these God ordained objectives. But the Sunnah – the verbally transmitted record of the Prophet’s utterances – makes the task a little difficult because the faithful have to rely on the ulema to interpret what the Mohammed said or did.
These transmissions of the ulema are sometimes either not accurate or there are conflicting versions of what was indeed said or done by the Prophet. It is such transmissions that conflict with the essence of Islam. Moreover Sunnah also includes deeds and sayings, silent permissions (or disapprovals) of the Prophet, as well as reports about Muhammad’s companions.
In India we have another peculiar problem: the British never took the trouble of codifying the Muslim personal law as they did not wish to wade into a subject on which there was no clarity among the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Some of these laws must be reviewed and brought into conformity with the Indian constitution, especially those that conflict with the fundamental rights or impinge upon women empowerment.
The irony here is that the votaries of the Muslim Personal law themselves are seeking refuge in Article 25 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion. The Muslim Personal Law Board has even made the outlandish suggestion that the practice of polygamy and triple divorce is protected under Article 25.
But if one goes strictly by the Quran and the Hadiths, which are to be the touchstone of these Islamic precepts, monogamy is clearly advised and polygamy is to be practiced only in very exceptional circumstances and that too when the husband is in a capacity to treat all wives on an even keel. The guiding principle here is equity and justice: the Supreme Court, too, has to essentially examine this aspect.
On the subject of triple divorce, former law minister Salman Khursheed, who is assisting the Supreme Court in the Muslim personal law case, rightly pointed out that triple law is a sin. Admittedly religion cannot make a sin permissible. Also, it is generally accepted that Triple Talaq is an interpolation and was not part of the original scheme of things.
In the Shah Bano case in the 80s the Supreme Court had suggested that the Government enact a uniform civil code and implement the guidelines contained in the Constitution in the Directive Principles of State policy. However, patriarchal and political considerations were paramount and Rajiv Gandhi missed the bus. In fact, instead of moving towards a uniform civil code, the Rajiv Gandhi Government had reversed the apex court order which had ordered Shah Bano’s former husband to pay her a measly Rs 13 per month as maintenance allowance.
Unfortunately, Rajiv’s grandfather had also squandered the opportunity to reform the personal law of Muslims, the second largest religious group in the country. He was primarily guided by the sensitivities of the conservative Mullahs and Imams.
But the same Nehru had mustered all his courage to pass the Hindu Code Bill, thus codifying and reforming the personal law of the majority community. The code enabled the Hindus, which included Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists, to step out of their cloistered religious outlook and move into the ambit of a common secular law.
One of the biggest takeaways of the Hindu code was the empowerment of Hindu women, bestowing on them the right to equal share in parental wealth. Hindu society was also extremely conservative and patriarchal but it had accepted the reforms in the law.
The biggest problem in Islam today is the fossilisation of faith. Someone somewhere will have to open the doors of ijtehad – the doors of inquiry – which were slammed shut in medieval times. Only then, far-reaching reforms would be possible.
Politicisation of the much needed reforms under the Congress regimes had left a big hump which the Muslims were not able to overcome; just as under the BJP there was even greater resistance to reforms, as it was seen as a concerted attempt to mount pressure through the majority community. The common refrain has been: we can’t talk of interior decor when the house is burning!
Hindus ought to be glad they had the grit to pass the law at the time if independence, not as a guideline but as a statute. Now, the onus is on the minority community, for their own well-being and empowerment.
The author is a former editor of The Free Press Journal.