A Flurry of Fatwas from Misogynist Mullahs
For over a decade now, I have been writing on the hotly-debated subject of madrasas or Islamic seminaries that train Islamic religious specialists. What ignited my interest in the subject was what I considered to be the wholly unfair charges against the madrasas of being 'factories of terror'.
Over the years, I have read much material by and about the madrasas, and have visited several dozens of them across India and even abroad. Although charges about Indian madrasas being involved in training terrorists are unfounded and unfair, the allegation that, generally speaking, they teach, preach, and foment obscurantist and ultra-reactionary beliefs on a wide range of issues in the garb of Islam certainly cannot be dismissed easily. Nor can the assertion that, under certain circumstances, such beliefs can indeed lead to extremism and even violence, as the case of Pakistan so tragically illustrates, be ignored. Likewise, the argument that such beliefs, projected by the mullahs as normative and binding, constitute a major hurdle to Muslim progress and that they play a vital role in keeping Muslims shackled under the sway of a class of self-serving, patriarchal narrow-minded clerics, largely ignorant of the demands of the contemporary world, has to be recognized as legitimate.
Based on my reading of madrasa-related literature and personal observations, I must unhesitatingly state that certain views widely-shared among the ulema regarding such matters as women's rights and relations with non-Muslims are simply unacceptable in any civilized society, and constitute a major challenge to Muslim advancement and to efforts to promote decent relations between Muslims and people of other faiths. Reformist Muslims might argue that these views represent a complete distortion of 'true' Islam, that they are based largely on fake stories wrongly attributed to the Prophet or patriarchal inventions of the fuqaha, specialists of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence, but the ulema have a ready answer to shut them up: In accordance with a hadith which they attribute to the Prophet, it is they, so they insist, who are the 'heirs of the prophets' (waris-e anbiya), and, hence, entitled to speak on and about Islam. The madrasas that they run are, as they put it (note the militant metaphor) 'the fortresses of the faith' (deen ke qile). Hence, they pompously insist, they have the sole right to arbitrate on Islamic affairs. This they do through their pronouncements and a steady stream of fatwas, which, although technically only opinions, are taken as gospel Islamic truth by the hordes of their unthinking followers.
Probably the largest traditional madrasa not just in India but, indeed, in the entire world, the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband styles itself as the Umm ul-Madaris or 'The Mother of the Madrasas', having birthed several thousand madrasas associated with the Deobandi school of thought across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and in various countries home to sizeable South Asian Muslim diasporic communities. The Deobandis are the most organized of all ulema groups, running a vast number of maktabs, madrasas, and publishing houses. They also control tens of thousands of mosques and other community institutions. In Pakistan and Bangladesh they are organized as political parties, while in Afghanistan they are represented by the Taliban. They present themselves (in the same manner as all the other, rival Islamic sectarian communities) as the sole upholders of what they regard as 'true Islam', considering other Muslim sects as deviant or, quite simply, outside the Islamic pale. Political parties vie with each other to appease the mullahs of Deoband, recognizing the immense political clout that they command among the largely illiterate Muslim electorate. In India, the Congress Party has for years enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Deobandis, and some Deobandi mullahs have even become Members of Parliament on Congress tickets. The All-India Muslim Personal Board, which styles itself as the authoritative body of all the 200 million or more Muslims of India, is almost completely under Deobandi hegemony.
Surfing the Internet last night, I chanced upon the website of the Dar ul-Ifta, the 'House of Fatwas' of the Deoband madrasa (http://darulifta-deoband.org). This fatwa-dispensing site hosts almost 4000 fatwas in English issued by the official Muftis of Deoband. The fatwas cover a wide range of topics. A special section of the website is devoted to fatwas about 'Women's Issues'. That there is no similar section for 'Men's Issues' is hardly surprising. After all, men are not seen to need to be minutely monitored and carefully controlled.
A random search of the almost 90 fatwas listed in this section reveals some blood-curdling 'gems' of Deobandi 'wisdom' (the nauseatingly pathetic English of both the questioners and the Deoband Muftis may please be excused):
Question 1: Asalamu-Alikum: Can Muslim women in India do Govt. or Pvt. Jobs? Shall their salary be Halal or Haram or Prohibited?
Answer: It is unlawful for Muslim women to do job in government or private institutions where men and women work together and women have to talk with men frankly and without veil.
Answer: If a young lady comes in front of ghair mahram with open face there is fear of fitnah, hence it is necessary for her to cover her face.
Question 3: Can a man along with his mahram travel with a ghair mehram? If yes, upto what distance? Can a women travel with a male servant (driver) who is a ghair mehram in the city for educational reasons etc..? If yes, upto what distance?
Answer: She can travel within 78 kilometres observing hijab. She is not allowed to travel alone with non-mahram driver, even if it is within 78 km, then also it is unlawful; since she will be in privacy with a non-mahram.
Question 4: (a) Is it permissible for a woman to leave her house while unaccompanied by a mahram? (b) Is it permissible for a woman to drive a car?
Answer: (a) She can go in nearby places without a mahram observing hijab provided there is no fear of fitnah (evil/mischief). But for a journey, she should be accompanied by any mahram.
(b) It is not allowed.
Question 5: Is covering the face compulsory for women while wearing burqa?. In Malaysia it is a hot issue. Please give a detailed reply.
Answer: If she fears fitnah she should cover her face. In this age, there is no doubt that it causes fitnah, therefore it is regarded necessary.
Question 6: Is it compulsory to observe purdah when with another Muslim woman? Is it compulsory to observe purdah when with a non-Muslim woman?
Answer: It is necessary to observe purdah with the women whether Muslims and non-Muslims.
Question 7: Assalamualaykum. Please can you tell me is it fardh (compulsory) to cover the face of females when they go out? Or, if relatives come home, do they have to cover the face as well? I am confused on that. Wassalam.
Answer: When outside, it is absolutely obligatory; since the face is centre of attraction, the verses of the Holy Quran (Surah Ahzab 33:59, Surah Noor 24:31) indicate to the same. What do you mean by relatives? The non-Mahram relatives have the same ruling as mentioned in No 1.
Answer: It is allowable for you to do job observing full hijab (with covering face) and provided you do not talk and mingle with non-mahram men unnecessarily.
Answer: Women have bee prohibited to speak loudly, read out something in melody and talk softly. The scholars of Fiqh say that voice of a woman is also satr [something that needs to be 'covered-up' or 'veiled'—YS]. That is why women have been stopped to call Azan and recite talbia loudly in Hajj. Yes, in cases of necessity, they can talk as they can have some words with a doctor etc. However, without any need, it is not right for women to broadcast news at radio stations as well it is not permissible for non-Mahram men to hear their voice without a need.
Answer: The Quran and Hadith have commanded women to cover their faces due to fear of mischief. This is what Hanafis believe. If you are a Hanafi then it is unlawful for you to follow other Fiqhi schools.
Answer: It is not a good thing for women to do jobs in offices. They will have to face strange men (non-mahram) though in veil. She will have to talk and deal with each other which are the things of fitna (evils). A father is committed to provide maintenance to his daughter and a husband is asked to provide maintenance to his wife. So, there is no need for women to do jobs which always pose harms and mischief.
Answer: A woman should cover her entire body except her face, palms and feet, the matter of treatment is exceptional.
Question 13: How far is it permissible for a woman to go without a mehram? Can she go?
Answer: The Prophet (صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم) said: "Any it is now allowed for a woman who has belief in Allah and His messenger that she travels to a destination of more than 78 kms alone. Yes, she can travel this distance or more with a mehram (immediate relatives like father, son, husband, nephew). Some traditions refer to a distance of only three miles while some absolutely prohibit from traveling. All these traditions differ as per the worsening conditions of different ages and times. As much the fitna (mischief, evil) will prevail as much the cautiousness will be required.
Family planning is haram and unlawful in Islam. You should apprise your wife of the commandment of Shariah and get her head injury treated. If she faces unbearable pain due to conception or she fears her life or the life of the baby in case of pregnancy then in such conditions she can adopt any contraceptive measure temporarily.
Faced with mounting protests from women (including Muslim women, too) against the torrent of anti-women fatwas they have been churning out over the years, the mullahs of Deoband have the temerity to insist in their defence that [their peculiar version of] Islam not just guarantees women's rights but, more than that, stands for the best and most perfect form of gender justice. If imprisoning women in their homes, grudgingly permitting them to step out only under very severe conditions, compelling them to spend their entire lives simply manufacturing children, forcing them to veil from head and face to toe, 'veiling' even their voices and thereby totally silencing them, insisting that they observe purdah even in front of other women—in short, reducing them to invisiblised, servile, repressed and hyper-sexualised beings—is Deobandi-style 'Islamic justice', is it any wonder if hardly any educated Muslim women take the Deobandi mullahs seriously? That non-Muslims, in general, are forced to think that Islam stands for raw, untamed patriarchy and male chauvinism? That increasing numbers of Muslims now consider the mullahs are a heavy burden on Muslim society and the major cause for Muslim backwardness the world over? That a whole new class of Muslim women (and some men) believe that they need to study and interpret Islam from a distinctive feminist perspective, cleansing it from the deep-rooted patriarchal, indeed misogynist, tradition of mullah scholarship?
Being now a hardened skeptic in all matters of religion (for which I must thank the mullahs, in particular) I am not in a position to opine on whose version of Islam as it relates to women—that of the mullahs or that of the progressive Islamic feminists—represents the sole 'true' or 'authentic' version or vision of the faith. As far as I am concerned, that question simply cannot be answered at all. For me it is meaningless, although, still, academically interesting. The same holds true with regard to the larger question of the Deobandi mullahs' claims (as reflected in the numerous fatwas in the section on the Dar ul-Ifta's website titled 'Deviant Groups and Sects' that brand other Muslim sectarian groups, both Sunni as well as Shia, as deviants or even as out of the Islamic fold) that they alone represent 'true' Islam. The Deobandis and their Muslim sectarian rivals will, one expects, continue to hurl fatwas of infidelity against each other and bandy about their respective claims of being the sole true Muslims till the Day of Judgment comes upon us. Given the nature of their absolutist claims, no consensus as to what precisely 'true' Islam is, and what exactly this 'true' Islam has to say about Islam, is ever possible.
Be that as it may, I would still argue that it is vital for Muslims concerned about their faith and its image and also about their co-religionists and their ability to function in the modern world to take the mullahs by their horns and immerse themselves in the discursive battle to promote more meaningful, humane and just understandings of Islam. There is simply no other way.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.