THIS letter is in response to Asghar Ali Engineer’s article, ‘Women, ulema and fatwas’ (Jan 30). Much as many would be expected to be lauded for a modernist reading on Islamic law and fiqh, one cannot disregard classical interpretations and rulings on Muslim personal law as he did in his article.
Given his role as a scholar with both religious and secular education, and his crucial work in promoting tolerance and synthesizing contemporary issues with theology, he should be more careful in running down institutes of orthodoxy, especially when those institutions have no political agenda and are revered as the bastions of religious knowledge in South Asia.
Mr Engineer rightly pointed out that ‘Quranic formulations are quite compatible with modern-day marital disputes.’ and that women’s movements (he forgot to mention women who do not subscribe to any women-lib organisations and men in general) must be more aware of what the Quran has to say about Muslim personal law.
However, even though juristic readings by different schools of thought might be different, one cannot advocate people with layman knowledge of Islamic legal rulings to not turn towards ulema, muftis, scholars and akaabir of their own schools of thought.
One can especially not advocate that the ulema Â‘give more importance to a mediaeval interpretation by jurists over (Quranic) formulationsÂ’ because that may not necessarily be true.
The ‘mediaeval’ interpretations are also based on the Quran and Sunnah.
For some one with a limited knowledge of the process of knowledge preservation and juristic rulings in the different schools of thought present in Islam (as in any other religion), it may be downright misleading.
I am not defending the ulema that propagate intolerance and hatred towards different religions or even different schools of Islamic thought, but I still do not see the logic behind writing off the role of the ulema in totality in understanding the Muslim personal law.
Mr Engineer has been lauded for his work promoting tolerance for religious diversity and should no doubt be acknowledged, especially in a modern context where Islamic scholarship is greatly misunderstood.
However, the position that he has comes with a greater responsibility, and an acceptability of the possibility that orthodoxy may still be useful in the modern context.