Muslim Personal Law Board was set up with blessings of Indira Gandhi: Shia Board head

By Yoginder Sikand,,

Lucknow-based Maulana Mirza Mohammad Athar is President of All India Shia Personal Law Board (AISPLB). Born in 1936, he is the son of late Maulana Mirza Mohammad Tahir, a noted Shia Muslim scholar. He received a traditional Islamic education at the Sultan ul-Madaris in Lucknow, and then got a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Persian from Lucknow University. He served as Head of the Department of Persian, and, later as Principal, at the Shia Degree College, Lucknow. Yoginder Sikand of met him at the recently-held third annual convention of the AISPLB in New Delhi and interviewed him about the AISPLB and its activities.

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The recently-held convention of the AISPLB hardly dealt with personal law issues at all, while the name of your organization suggests that Shia personal law should be its principal concern. Instead, the focus of the convention was on stressing a separate Shia identity, demands for reservation or representation of Shias in government services and legislative bodies and so on. This seems odd, doesn’t it?

Actually, our Board’s mandate is not limited only to personal law issues. It also deals with the social, educational, economic and political issues of the Shias of India. We are of the view that the 50 million Indian Shias have been heavily under-represented in all spheres of life, including even in Muslim organizations. We are a marginalized minority within another marginalized minority. Since at present Shia personal law is not a problem and faces no challenges, our convention focused mainly on other community-related issues. One such issue is that of lack of political representation of the Shias. There are hardly any Shias in the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha and the state assemblies, because of which our voice does not receive any attention at all. The same is true for Shia representation in government services.

Maulana Mirza Mohammad Athar

Some critics argue that your Board is a ploy to divide Muslims. What do you have to say about this?

We certainly do not want to divide the Muslims. Those who claim that this is what we are doing do not give any space to the Shias in their own organisations.

I believe Shias and Sunnis (as well as all other Indians—Hindus and others)—must live peacefully together. They must have good social relations and close personal and social interaction. We are all for Muslim unity till this level. At the same time, we cannot deny that the Shias and Sunnis do have certain theological or doctrinal differences. It would be absolutely unrealistic, indeed impossible, to deny these differences or to seek to impose any artificial and unwanted homogenization, which will definitely not work.

You claim that the Indian Shias number 50 million. That sounds an exaggeration to me.

Not at all. I believe that the Muslim population of India must be around 250 million, but the figure has possibly been considerably under-estimated in the census reports, perhaps due to political reasons and communal biases. Of these 250 million Indian Muslims, Shias would number around a fifth—or around 50 million. These include the different groups of Shias—mainly the Imami Shias, followers of the twelve Imams, as well as others such as Khojahs and Bohras.

Do you see the AISPLB as a rival to the Sunni-dominated All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, which styles itself as a representative body of all the Muslims of India, and in which there are also some Shia representatives?

The AIMPLB certainly does not represent all the Indian Muslims. As far as I know, it was set up with the blessings of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who wanted to use it as a means to maintain her hold on her Muslim vote-bank. One of the leading members of the Board, Asad Madani, the head of the Deoband madrasa, was very close to Indira Gandhi. He was even a Congress Member of Parliament.

One reason why we decided to set up our own Shia Board was because the AIMPLB was heavily dominated by Wahhabis—Deobandis particularly—who are known for their visceral hatred of Shias. Qari Tayyeb, rector of the Deoband madrasa, served as the first President of the AIMPLB. Another Wahhabi, who was known for his anti-Shia views, who served as President of the AIMPLB was Ali Miyan Nadwi. However, it must be said that he also included a few Shia ulema as members of the Board.

All along we kept quiet, but, increasingly, some Shias grew restive about the lack of proper representation of Shias in the AIMLPB. Some years ago, the AIMPLB published a compendium of what it called Islamic personal laws, but; although the AIMPLB was meant to reflect all the schools of Muslim jurisprudence, the compendium was based on the views of the Hanafi Sunni school. Some of these Hanafi laws were plainly against women, and, incidentally, are quite in contrast to the prescriptions of the Shia Jafari school. The AIMPLB sought to present this compendium as reflecting the authoritative Islamic opinion, so, naturally, many Shias were upset. This dissatisfaction gathered further momentum because of the hue and cry about triple talaq on one sitting, which the Hanafis believe in but which the Shias oppose. According to Sunni law, a man can divorce his wife without any witnesses, but in our Shia law you need two witnesses for each time the word talaq is uttered, over a course of three iddat periods.

The AIMPLB continued to defend the patently anti-women practice of triple talaq in one sitting, presenting it as an ‘Islamic’ law, and the mass media gave this considerable publicity. Consequently, the general public began imagining that if Islam allowed such a practice it must be anti-women. We Shias do not support this practice at all, which we believe is un-Islamic, and so we wanted a forum from where we could stress that this practice had no sanction at all in our own school of Jafari Shia jurisprudence. In that way, others would know that the Shia position on this matter, as on several other issues, was quite different from that of other Muslims, and that, therefore, they should not confuse us with them.

Dissatisfaction with the AIMPLB mounted further after it began taking up issues that were strictly outside its purview, such as the Babri Masjid controversy, in which, I regret to say, it did not provide Muslims with proper leadership.

It was not us who first thought of setting up a separate personal law board. Rather, it was a section of the Barelvis, who are Sunni Hanafis, led by Maulana Tauqir Raza Khan, who decided to set up their own board as they rightly felt that the AIMPLB was heavily Deobandi-dominated. Like the Shias, they regard the Deobandis as Wahhabis. The Wahhabis treat the Barelvis, like the Shias, as virtual heretics.

It was only after that that some young Shia ulema from Lucknow contacted me and demanded that we, too, should have our own body. Thereafter, Shias from various parts of India began contacting me, insisting that we have our own organization to voice Shia demands and concerns. This body came into being in 2005, and I was nominated as its President. I suggested that we call it the All-India Shia Personal Law and Welfare Board, to stress that Shia community issues, in addition to personal law affairs, were its concern, but many others opposed this, and insisted we call it simply as the All-India Shia Personal Law Board. Perhaps this was because they wanted to stress their distinct identity, as separate from the AIMPLB, which was wrongly projecting itself as the representative of all the Muslims of India.

What practical efforts has your Board undertaken to protect the rights of Shia women in accordance with Shia law?

I travel a lot, addressing Shia gatherings or majalis in different parts of India and abroad. During my travels people come to me to discuss their personal matters, particularly related to marriage and divorce. These interactions with people from a wide cross-section of Shia society made me realize that, very often, patriarchal culture and social influences, rather than religion as such, are responsible for much of the oppression that women are subjected to. Hence, to safeguards the rights of Shia women, in 2007 our Board came up with a model marriage-contract or nikahnamah, drafted by a seven-member committee of Shia ulema, which was approved of by Ayatollah Seistani, renowned the Iraq-based Shia scholar who commands a large following among the Indian Shias.

This nikahnamah specifically provides for numerous rights for wives. According to this nikahnamah, women have the right to delegated divorce or talaq-e tafwiz, and, if they use this right, they will not lose their mehr or dower. The spouses can also include in the nikahnamah any conditions that do not violate Quranic teachings. The nikahnamah specifies that in case of divorce the former husband has the duty to maintain his divorced wife even after the three-month iddat period has passed until she manages to secure a sustainable source of survival. The nikahnamah also provides for a system of arbitration before the divorce can be put into effect. Already, several marriages have been conducted using this nikahnamah.

A major issue stressed by numerous speakers at the recently-held convention of your Board was the Shias’ opposition to terrorism, to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Lashkar-e Tayyeba. Numerous speakers also repeatedly stressed the Shias’ loyalty to, and love for, India. Why this need to prove one’s patriotism?

We Shias love India and are patriotic Indians. When Imam Husain, the grandson of the Prophet, whom the Shias deeply revere, was at the battlefield in Karbala, he addressed the army of the tyrant Yazid saying that if they permitted him he wanted to leave for India. We are sons of this soil and are devoted to our country. However, as long as Hindu communal and fascist forces in India continue to claim that Muslims are anti-national we are forced to counter their poisonous propaganda by insisting that this is completely false. Sadly, Muslims in India will continue to feel forced to prove their patriotism till Hindu communalism remains.

As for the repeated denunciation at our convention of the terrorism of groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Lashkar-e Tayyeba and so on, is concerned, it is our Islamic duty to speak out against them. We Shias believe that what they call ‘Islam’ is not Islam at all. Nor are their actions that of true Muslims. They are giving Islam a bad name. They are enemies of Islam. They are also viscerally opposed to Shias—they have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Shias in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Those who were behind the terror attack on Bombay last year claimed to be Muslims, as did those who were responsible for so many other such attacks elsewhere. By denouncing their acts and their ideology we Shias want to stress that we are different, that we and our understanding of Islam, the Islam of the Prophet and the Imams, have nothing to do with such evil people. We want to tell the world that we Shias, who denounce terrorism as anti-Islamic, are Muslims, but are the opposite of those who claim to be Muslims but yet engage in such evil deeds, ironically in the name of Islam.