Lessons for Lankan Muslims in India’s criminalisation of triple talaq

By Ameen Izzadeen

India’s Hindu nationalist government on Tuesday criminalised the Muslim ‘triple-talaq’ divorce, by adopting a landmark law. The practice is now punishable by a jail term upto three years.
Most Muslim women across India celebrated the bills’ passage in Parliament. They saw it as a significant victory that ended the long suffering they were condemned to undergo as a result of Muslim religious scholars reading only the literal meaning of the scripture while ignoring its spiritual meaning.
With regard to divorce, the Quran insists that every effort must be made to bring reconciliation between husband and wife. The process involves three declarations of divorce, with the first two declarations being followed by waiting periods allowing the couple enough time to save the marriage. However, India’s mullahs, instead of respecting the Quranic will, had endorsed the male chauvinistic explanations of certain imams of the past and resisted moves to eliminate the abominable practice that allowed a man to divorce his wife by repeating the word “talaq” (divorce) three times.
In most Muslim countries, the triple-talaq has been declared un-Islamic. According to al-Nasai’s hadith book, Prophet Muhammad has condemned it. The Prophet has said that of all things permitted, divorce is the most detestable in the sight of God. The Quran has several verses which warn against women being harassed in the marital union and during the divorce process.
For instance, the Quranic chapter Mujadilah speaks about a woman who pleaded her case with God after her husband divorced her through Zihar, a pre-Islamic method of divorce. The Zihar divorce involved a husband declaring that his wife was like his mother. A woman divorced under this method was denied maintenance and the freedom to remarry. She would be a lifetime slave. God strongly repudiated the Zihar Talaq.
By extension, any type of divorce should be denounced if it brings injustice to women. The Quran itself urges the Muslims to follow the best meaning of the text. “Those who listen to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided, and those are the ones endowed with understanding.” (39:18). We need to reflect on this verse and understand that the best meaning is one of justice.
In the Indian example, there is a lesson for Sri Lankan Muslims, who are embroiled in a debate over Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) reforms. The reforms are called for because the law and the lacuna in it bring misery to Muslim women, instead of offering them the law’s protection. If the Muslim leaders do not support the reforms, they are only paving the way for the government — the custodian of the people’s freedom — to intervene and ensure that women’s and children’s rights are not violated. Britain, for instance, has enacted a Forced Marriage Protection Law. Early this week, the Dubai ruler’s wife, a princess no less, invoked this law to protect herself. One can imagine the worse situations the ordinary Muslim women have been in.
We need to ask ourselves as to on whose side God is: Is He on the side of a government that frees Muslim women from oppressive laws or on the side of the mullahs preventing justice to women, who cry out to their Lord seeking a speedy end to their suffering.
The time has come to sidestep the irrational religious scholars, the types of whom come up with ludicrous fatwas. One such scholar created controversy in 2007 in Egypt when he urged women to breastfeed their male colleagues and make them their foster sons to circumvent the rule on the segregation of sexes.
It is unfortunate that dimwitted mullahs are able to mislead the religiously illiterate people with their asinine fatwas. Agree; Sri Lanka’s moulavis are not as illogical as the one who gave the outrageous breastfeeding fatwa. Most Sri Lankan moulavis are civic-minded and realise that the MMDA needs reforms. Yet, some are adamant. We have learned from the prophet’s discourse with Muad ibn Jabl, who he chose to appoint as governor of Yemen, that Islam permits ijtihad or decisions based on independent reasoning within the confines of the Islamic principles.
Sri Lanka’s Muslim women activists campaigning for MMDA reforms say the MMDA is in consonance with neither the Islamic principles of justice and compassion nor Sri Lanka’s laws, including the Constitution. These women activists appeared more enlightened than the ulamas who tried to delay the reforms.
Islam should be seen as a feminist movement. The prophet’s mission was to reform a society which buried its girl children alive, for they were regarded as a symbol of shame. Prostitution was widespread. Women did not have inheritance rights.
Islam gave the girl child her honour. Women were given the property rights and equal status in judicial matters.
Sadly, though, simple-minded mullahs, resorting to a selective reading of the Quran, claim that the strength of a woman’s testimony is half that of a man, whereas the Quran makes it clear in 24:4-9 that a woman’s testimony is equal to that of a man.
Women, thus freed and dignified by Islam, once again find themselves in yokes. The feminist movement Islam started must continue until women are freed from oppressive customs, laws and male chauvinistic interpretations popularized by latter day imams. We need to rediscover Islam. Even Imam Shafi, whose jurisprudence is widely followed in Sri Lanka, had changed many of his rulings as he honed his religious knowledge. Blindly following an imam (taqlid) and holding his interpretation over and above the Quranic command for compassion and justice is blasphemy.
The Muslim scholars who entertain fears about MMDA reforms must realise there is nothing un-Islamic about setting 18 as the minimum age for bride and groom. Overhauling the corrupt Quazi court system is also an Islamic duty. They need to realize their opposition to reforms is in conflict with the country’s constitution and several progressive laws. In support of child marriages, some Muslim scholars cite the prophet’s marriage to Aisha while she was still a child. But modern day Hadith scholars insist that Aisha was an adult, when the marriage took place.
The MMDA reforms are an urgent need. Thousands of modern-day Mujadilahs cry for justice. Almost on regular basis, Muslim women victimized by corrupt Quazis or Muslim personal court judges come on television channels to share their tragic experiences, although they know the intent of these tv channels is to bring Islam into disrepute. This shows their desperation.
The government must listen to the affected Muslim women and pay heed to the call of the Muslim women activists, whose reform package is perfectly in order with Islam and the country’s laws.
Muslims must not be seen as a community that gives girl children into marriage before they become physically, mentally and intellectually strong enough to understand the responsibility of family life. Every girl should be given education at least up to Advanced level. That is government policy.
The Muslim religious scholars who oppose reforms would do well to keep in mind what happened in India.

This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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