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The ulema’s marriage preoccupation

By: Ayaz Amir

The one progressive piece of legislation passed in our history was Ayub Khan’s Family Laws Ordinance, 1963. It proclaimed the birth of no women’s revolution but merely put some brakes, very weak ones, on the right of divorce and multiple marriages…the latter known otherwise as polygamy.

For divorce to become effective a man had to inform his union council and wait for a period of three months. During this time the parties could reconcile with each other, in which case the original divorce notice became ineffective. The male’s right to divorce was not withdrawn, it was only qualified to a small degree.

To contract a second marriage the male had to seek in writing permission from his first wife. In case he did not, and a second marriage was contracted, he could spend up to a month in prison (if I remember the law correctly).

As is to be seen, these were mild qualifications, the barest minimum that could be put in place to curb the male’s absolute sovereignty in the matrimonial field. But it was too much for the ulema, the learned in the faith, who were aghast, denouncing the Family Laws Ordinance as against the tenets of Islam. This law continues to bring the froth to their lips.

It therefore goes to the credit of successive Pakistani governments that this pressure has been resisted and the law remains on the statute books, continuing to provide some small protection to the nation’s mothers and sisters.

But the present Islamic Ideology Council headed by Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani of the JUI-F – the party headed by Pakistan’s leading political gymnast, Maulana Fazlur Rehman – seems agitated by nothing so much as this law. Earlier this year, after solemn deliberations, it opined that a girl as young as nine years of age was eligible for marriage if the onset of puberty was visible. The requirement in the Family Laws Ordinance stipulating that only a girl attaining the age of 16 could get married was, according to the learned Maulana, against Islam.

In March this year, after another meeting of the council, the Maulana gave this as his considered opinion: “Shariah allows men to have more than one wife and we demand of the government to amend the relevant laws (again the Family Laws Ordinance) where a person has to seek prior permission from the existing wife/wives.”

Just this week the Maulana returned to the attack with a fresh exegesis, saying that a second, third or fourth marriage by a man could be no grounds for a woman to seek divorce from her husband. She could seek divorce on grounds of cruelty, etc, but the husband’s unfettered right to polygamy did not constitute a valid reason in Islam.

Child marriage too in the Maulana’s opinion is justified but only if solemnised by the father or the grandfather of the girl in good faith and not as part of any ritual. However, such a marriage could be consummated – that is, the girl could proceed to her in-laws – only on attaining puberty. On such finer points of principle modern Islamic theology, in the hands of such men of learning as the Maulana, seems to turn.

Other nations and other races are welcome to explore the cosmos and rack their minds about the age of the stars and the universe. But we are into dealing with basic principles first. The stables of science and knowledge may be closed to us for the most part but it should be heartening that as regards marriage and the procreation of the species we can be so creative.

Indeed, from the way the Maulana and his tribe go on about second, third and fourth marriages any outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that polygamy constitutes the most important pillar of the faith, all others being of secondary importance. There can be no greater disservice to Islam.

For what proviso does the faith lay down for the exercise of the matrimonial arms? That venture into this field only if you can treat everyone, which means your wives, equally. This is easier said than done. Who would be our leading authorities on the gender question? I think most of us would agree that by dint of their extensive researches in this field none would count greater than a) Malik Ghulam Mustafa Khar, former Loin (sic) of Punjab, and b) Imran Khan. Put to the rack they would testify that keeping one woman happy was hard enough, let alone treating two or more equally, with the same amount of physical and emotional stimulus.

Women no doubt would say the same about men – that putting up with one was fulltime business. It is not a question of giving an equal amount of dinars to each of your wives. For equality means more than dinars.

In every Mughal harem there were hundreds of concubines and many wives but at any given moment the favourite was one…Noor Jahan or Mumtaz Mahal or Lal Kanwar (the last the dancing girl who became queen to Jahandar Shah). All lived in the palace but were all treated equally? In the presence of a Noor Jahan or a Mumtaz Mahal could the others be treated equally? Love is a jealous master and a jealous mistress. Its kingdom is not to be divided.

So the Islamic injunction is not as facile as it looks. It cuts to the heart of the matter. Treat them equally – the implication being that if you can’t, then the doors of polygamy are closed on you. Why are we so flexible with the concession but so much less strict with the condition?

It is like the Islamic injunction regarding adultery…that in order to prove its occurrence the evidence of four witnesses of unimpeachable integrity is required. And then the punishment for adultery is stoning to death. Barbaric, you will say. But look at the requirement. Whence will come your four witnesses of unimpeachable integrity who must render evidence not on hearsay – no, that is unacceptable – but who with their clear and naked eye must have witnessed the act. If any adulterer makes a spectacle of himself in front of four witnesses he deserves to be stoned, less for adultery than for his criminal lack of circumspection.

In the golden age of Islam, when the Abbasids held court in Baghdad, Islamic civilisation meant knowledge and understanding, culture and refinement, even song and dance. But anyone listening to our present interpreters of the faith would come away with the impression that Islam was about male domination, the segregation of women and the meting out of savage punishment. No wonder, the holy warriors of Swat could not abide Malala Yousafzai and sent a team of assassins to get rid of her. For some reason, yet to be adequately explored, fear of woman seems ingrained in the minds of the pious.

The Islam that moves Maulana Sherani and the Council of Islamic Ideology is so selective. Isn’t Islam also about the egalitarian society, the eradication of poverty, the spread of knowledge and learning? Did not the Holy Prophet, himself unlettered, say that to seek knowledge go far and wide if you must?

In today’s Pakistan we know of instances where mothers have drowned themselves and their children because of poverty. Is ours a welfare state? Do we have those provisions for the less fortunate that are to be found in the developed societies of the west? Has the Islamic Ideology Council ever discussed these issues? Has it ever recommended to governments that they spend more on health and education?

Cuba is in the forefront of countries fighting the Ebola menace, by its efforts putting even the United States to shame. It is a godless country but for its emphasis on health and education it is, in essence, a more Islamic country than all the world of Islam – save the Turkish republic and perhaps Malaysia – put together.

The renaissance of Islam will begin, if it ever does, when the realisation finally dawns on the Muslim mind that Islam is not about ritual or outward appearance as it is about the substance of things.


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