Colombo Telegraph

Muslim Women’s Lib & Liberal Islam

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

The women’s lib (liberation) movement, which in the West had been gathering momentum in the first half of the twentieth century, became much more dynamic and also acquired a global spread in the second half. That is true as a generalization, but the Islamic world as a whole has been an exception. There it has been a case not of progress but of regress in women’s lib, back to the Middle Ages and even to pre-Islamic times. The regression has been seen most spectacularly in the widespread adoption of a female dress code that is utterly unIslamic. Strangely, the regression shown in the ghastly subjugation of women in a substantial part of the Islamic world has been accompanied by loud boasts that Islam gave equality to females as much as one thousand four hundred years ago, long before the West did. But the West and the rest of the world have been profoundly unimpressed.

The question of women’s lib in Sri Lanka has acquired a sudden urgency. A Commission appointed seven years ago to recommend revision of Muslim personal laws has failed to come up with anything at all. Now the EU wants as a condition for the renewal of GSP + a revision of Muslim personal laws to make them consistent with UN instruments on human rights which have been acceded to by Sri Lanka. That requires changes in Muslim personal laws affecting vexed questions such as child marriage and so on. Presumably a failure to make the requisite changes would lead to a failure to secure renewal of GSP+. That can certainly be expected to add fuel to the ongoing anti-Muslim hate campaign the proponents of which clearly hope to engineer another 1983 holocaust, this time against the Muslims. The supposition up to now has been that the present Government unlike the previous one is not covertly supporting the hate campaign, but we cannot ignore the fact that it has been refusing to take adequate counter-action to stem it. Now veteran Muslim journalist Latheef Farook has brought out a chilling fact in Colombo Telegraph of December o8: the President invited the BBS General Secretary, Gnanasara Thera, to a meeting of religious leaders on December 6. Apparently the President does not share the widespread Buddhist view that Gnanasara Thera is a deviant Buddhist who is dangerous to this country. Anyway we must bear in mind one fact: it is that since 1948 most of our Governments have been world-famous for a mind-boggling stupendous stupidity in managing ethnic relations. Obviously our Muslims should, in their own interest, now give priority to changing their personal laws.

Recently several articles have appeared showing clearly enough that some of the personal laws and the malfunctioning of the Qazi courts amount to a system of oppression of Muslim women: paradoxically they have been suffering injustice under the very institutions set up to secure justice for all including women. I will not repeat the facts and arguments in those articles. Instead I will focus on the underlying reason why it is proving so difficult to change Muslim personal laws. It is that the liberal Islam which sprang from the reform movement started by Jamaldin al-Afghani in the late nineteenth century came to be checked firstly by despotic Muslim leaders who favored conservatism in religion and later, from the 1970s, by the spread of Saudi-backed Wahabism. It became increasingly difficult to adapt Islam to the needs and aspirations of twentieth century Muslims and to evolve an Islamic form of modernity. I believe that the way out of this impasse has to include a challenge to the notion that the Sharia is the Divine Law, as it is that notion that is at the core of the Muslim resistance to change.

In this article I will be partly summarizing and paraphrasing some of the contents of a paper that I presented sometime in the first half of the ‘nineties at a seminar held by the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum. It was published by them in booklet form together with another seminar paper in 2000 under the title The Need for Ijtihad or Intellectual Reasoning. The MWRF was headed by Jezima Ismail and has had among its most active members Faizun Zackariya and Anberiya Haniffa, all of whom and others have to be recognized as pioneers in the movement for Muslim Women’s liberation in Sri Lanka. Their success is attested by the fact that there are many more Muslim women like them today.

I will now give a brief account of the critique of the Sharia from the standpoint of the proponents of liberal Islam. I must emphasize before proceeding further that any ad hominem attacks on me on the ground that I am not an Islamic scholar and so on will be out of place because I am doing no more here than expounding the liberal critique of the Sharia as developed by Islamic luminaries of the order of Mohammed Abduh, Ameer Ali, and Iqbal. There are four sources of the Sharia, the first of which is the Koran. The following is from my seminar paper: “We should also consider the implications of the fact that out of 6,000 verses in the Koran, only 600 deal with legal obligations, and the majority of them with religious matters such as prayer, fasting, or pilgrimage. Strictly legal matters are dealt with in only about 80 verses, most of them about women, marriage, and laws of inheritance”.

Those facts must surprise the non-Muslim reader who must ponder over the implications of the fact that the Koranic verses with a legal import are so meager. Surely God could never have intended to prescribe a comprehensive legal system – such as the Sharia – valid and immutable in all places and for all time. I continued as follows: “According to Malise Ruthven’s Islam in the World (1984), Muhammed Azad has argued that the limited scope of ordinances both in the Koran and the Sunna was not due to an oversight. It was meant to avoid legal and social rigidity. The common sense of the matter is that the law has to be adapted to the conditions of time place”.

In a later part of my paper I wrote, “Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan, in the nineteenth century, used the argument of Shah Walliullah of Delhi in the eighteenth century that there are two dimensions to the Koran, one of which was eternal and universal, and the other temporary and locally specific. The Koranic verses with a legal import obviously belong to the latter category. Ahmed Khan proceeded to declare polygamy and slavery forbidden as all laws are subject to change according to circumstances, unlike the five pillars of Islam”. Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan was the famous founder of Aligarh University who, I must point out, continued to hold his exalted position in the Islamic society of his time despite his apparently heretical views.

I continued as follows: “Crucial to the argument of the liberal Muslims are the abrogated verses of the Koran. Watt in Bell’s introduction to the Koran (1970) writes of the doctrine of abrogation, ‘The idea underlying the doctrine is that certain commands to the Muslims were only of temporary application, and that when circumstances changed they were abrogated or replaced by others’. An example is provided by the stages through which the drinking of wine was prohibited – Suras 16:67, 2:219, and 5:90. Wine was apparently first regarded as permitted, then as an evil which had to be tolerated, and finally it was prohibited”. Bell was the Oxford scholar who wrote a path-breaking book on dating the Suras of the Koran. I believe that it has not been established which of the Suras was the final one about drinking wine.

To be continued…

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