Featured image by AFP PHOTO/ISHARA S.KODIKARA via Asia Times

Why is it so difficult for the All Ceylon Jammiyathul Ulama (ACJU) to acknowledge 18 as the minimum age of marriage?

What is interesting is that the Qur’an does not specify a minimum age for marriage; however it links the age of marriage with the age a person is able to make sound judgment. This is a crucial distinction, for the age of marriage cannot be static for the simple reason that it changes from time to time and culture to culture depending on various social factors. The Qur’an says;

“And test the orphans [in their abilities] until they reach marriageable age. Then if you perceive in them sound judgement, release their property to them. (Chapter An-Nisa 4: 6)”

Jasser Auda, an internationally renowned scholar of Islamic jurisprudence writes,

“In the Shariah, a girl’s starting her menses is not enough to establish that she is an ‘adult’ and hence fully responsible for her decisions, including consenting to marriage. Allah in the Quran (verse 4:6) linked reaching the age of marriage with rushd (sound judgement or maturity). This maturity, especially in today’s world, is certainly not reached by the girl simply starting her menses, but comes several years later as she matures physically and mentally. Again, there is a degree of relativism in this age from person to person, time to time and culture to culture. That is why the jurists of the past differed over the age of maturity and its signs. Today, however, the law of the land in each country should express the general sentiment in the society about this age. This is a definition that falls under the responsibility of legitimate leadership (siyasah shar`iah) and not fixed for all times. ”

But who can decide this age of sound judgment?

Certainly not a traditional priest, who lacks knowledge in social sciences and psychology and refuses to acknowledge that the world is evolving. Therefore, deciding the age of marriage according to Islam is not the monopoly of priests. Rather it falls within the purview of legislators, psychologists and social scientists.

For this simple reason, ACJU’s childlike stubbornness around the issue of the minimum age of marriage is unqualified, unjustified and unholy.

While God in his infinite mercy has left the age of marriage open for interpretation by stating the only qualification as ‘sound judgment’, why are these white robed thick skinned men refusing to let women decide for themselves? Why are they so adamant that they know better what women want?

Unless we understand the nature of these men who enjoy absolute power, sitting on the throne of an Islamic church, making arbitrary judgments on behalf of a people who neither elected them nor endorse them, we shall never understand why this institution and its self-appointed alpha males deserve rebuke and condemnation.

The Niqab affair

Let us begin with ACJU President M.T.Rizwe, who time and time again reinforced his position about female attire. He unapologetically claims that the face veil is wajib – a divine obligation. That the Niqab is a divine obligation was even published in the official website of ACJU as a fatwa – religious injunction. This is also the position of the bureaucratic religious organisation of elite self-declared Muslim religious leaders –ACJU- of which Rizwe has been the president for more than two decades.

This is the same man who two years ago said, “The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) is perfect in its present state” even while it contained explicit provisions that went against the principles of the Qur’an like ‘kaikooli’ – dowry.

In a recent event organized by the Masjid federation of Colombo and Kandy District on August 4, under the theme ’Safeguarding the rights of the Muslims’ one of the vice presidents of ACJU, Abdul Khaliq said that the face veil is a Qur’anic injunction. He quoted the 31st verse in Sura Nur (Sura is roughly translated as chapter) in Arabic – a language the general public does not understand – and shamelessly misinterpreted it as a divine obligation to cover the face. Following are three popular translations of the verse which he didn’t quote.

“And tell the believing women to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests” (Saheeh International)

“And tell the believing women to draw their veils over their bosoms” (Marmaduke Pikthall)

“And say to the believing women that they should draw their veils over their bosoms” (Yusuf Ali)

Where does it say that they should cover their face?

These men enjoy the luxury to convert into religion what is not religion. In Arundhati Roy’s words, “That’s the great thing about all religious texts. You can find anything you want in them – as long as you know what you’re looking for.”

It is these men who sit on the throne of ACJU and interpret or rather misinterpret religion to the public; exploiting and feeding into their spiritual fear of divine punishment.

They run a religious mafia.

Imagine the consequences of this imposition on a devout Muslim woman, who is a victim of the corrupted education system of Sri Lanka! She suffers from imposed ignorance and lacks critical thought and regards anything and everything that comes out of the mouths of these ‘(un)holy men’ who claim to be the descendants of prophets as divine revelation.

It is a fact that our current Sri Lankan education system is heavily exam oriented and has miserably failed to inculcate the essential skills of analytical, critical and independent thought, which are the bedrock of wisdom. In the case of women it is not only the deprivation of these fundamental skills that makes her vulnerable, but the male patriarchy and the misogynistic culture that strips her of equal opportunities and treats her like a second class citizen. In the case of a Muslim woman this dilemma is compounded with racial and religious discrimination that oppresses her from the outside; and the patriarchal, misogynistic, sexist oppression that stems from the inside, which deprives her of her fundamental rights of freedom of expression and choice and at worst her right to education, leaving her with only scraps of her humanness.

Added to this complex dilemma is the fact that the majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka are indoctrinated to believe that a Muslim priest is a man of God and therefore he is always right.

M.A.M.Mansoor, a graduate of Jamiah Naleemiah and the only scholar from Sri Lanka who has written an exegesis of the Qur’an, writes in his book ‘Unveiled’ how only a few Imams – religious scholars – are of the opinion that the whole body of a woman should be concealed, whereas the majority of scholars, including the companions of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) have argued to the contrary saying that a woman’s face and hands could be revealed. He constructs a sound argument by quoting verses from the Qur’an and supporting them with hadith literature – the recorded words, actions and approvals of the Prophet (Peace be upon him).

What then happens when these priests arbitrarily declare that Niqab is a divine obligation ignoring a plethora of scholarship that argues to the contrary?

They impose a clear division between the God-fearing and the sinner. All those who adorn the Niqab become the God-fearing, while those who aren’t become disobedient sinners. Now, which religiously devout woman would wish to earn the wrath of God for explicitly disobeying his command?

On the one hand these women are deprived of education; and on the other the Islamic church propagates the myth that only priests are qualified to interpret religion and religious texts. Therefore the laymen or rather women naturally turn out to be uncritical consumers of religious (mis)interpretation by a group of men who lack the fundamental skills to read and interpret the religious texts.They fear questioning religious authority for they believe that disobedience to the church is disobedience to God. This twisted mass psyche is once again a construct of the Islamic church.

But that is not the only reason why I call them members of a religious mafia.

Male only Mosques

Their stubborn refusal to open the Mosques to women is a manifest sign of their refusal to abide by the values of the Qur’an and the tradition of the Messenger of God, Muhammad (Peace be upon him).

Mosques in Sri Lanka are exclusively for males, says ACJU. Females are prohibited from praying inside them. If at all they are allocated a downgraded, largely neglected praying space which is external to the main mosque premises, but only in selected mosques. Their legitimate right which is granted by Islam to pray in the house of God has been usurped by the male patriarchy. Whatever the reasons may be, this is a blatant infringement on their fundamental rights to practice their faith. To do so is to challenge God and his Messenger (Peace be upon him), for this right to exercise their faith is God given. Hence the Qur’an says,

And who are more unjust than those who prevent the name of Allah from being mentioned in His mosques and strive toward their destruction. (Al-Baqarah: 114).

But when the contemporary Muslim culture is predominantly patriarchal and hostile to women, the only means to judge between that and the essence of Islam is by turning to the Qur’an and sunnah – words, actions and approvals of the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him).

The verse quoted above is a clear indication of Qur’an’s stance with regards to withholding the legitimate rights of the people to visit the Masjid. However, when we turn to the sunnah of the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him) we find that it is in complete harmony with the above verse.

Women, during the time of the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him) were not only allowed to visit the Masjid, but pray alongside men, remain in its vicinity; and actively participate alongside men in social affairs, even in the middle of a red hot battlefield; and the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him) imposed no general restrictions on them.

Following hadiths clearly illustrate how women were allowed to exercise their God given right to worship God in a public space standing equally alongside men at a time when equal rights were unheard of.

It is narrated that Ash-Sha`bi said: We entered upon Fatimah bint Qays, and she said, “It was announced publicly that the people should gather for prayer, and then I was among those heading for the Mosque.”

She added, “I was in the front row of women, which was behind the last row of men, when I heard the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) say while he was on the pulpit, ‘Indeed, paternal cousins of Ad-Dary sailed the sea…

(Muslim’s Sahih, the chapter on ordeals, 205/8.)

It was narrated from Asma’ bint Abu Bakr that she said:: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) stood up amongst us and preached to us, mentioning the trial a dead person suffers in the grave, and thereupon the people clamored in a manner that prevented me from perceiving the concluding words of the Messenger of Allah. When they calmed down, I asked a man near me, “May Allah bless you, what did the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) say concluding his sermon?” He answered, “It was revealed to me that you would be tested in your graves in a manner almost similar to that of Ad-Dajjal’s trial.

(Al-Bukhari’s Sahih, chapter on Funerals, 479/3, till the word “clamored”, and then An-Nasa’y narrated the rest in his Musnad, 200/7, through the chain reported by Al-Bukhari.)

Quoted here are only a few selected hadiths. They demonstrate how the sunnah of the Prophet (Peace be upon him) is in contradiction with the restrictions imposed on women by the ACJU. The Muslim patriarchy has deliberately and systematically excluded Muslim women from their rightful place in the public sphere. How can this oppression against women be Islam, when Islam, during its most prosperous era granted women the freedom to enter the Masjids and treated them as equal subjects with men? Undoubtedly, the actions of ACJU in this context are clearly anti-Islam and this fundamentalist version of Islam paints a very dark contrasting picture of an otherwise peaceful, pluralistic, inclusive religion.

The mainstream media exploits this intolerant fundamentalist version of Islam that is propagated by the Apex body of so called Islamic intellectuals and presents it to the public as the religion of the extremists.

ACJU imposes these laws arbitrarily on women without any consultation or concern; it drives them out of the social sphere completely, stripping them of their right to participate in social affairs and then has the audacity to say that we, the people, have failed to impart the message of Islam to non-Muslims. They have the audacity to commit the crimes yet shift the blame.

Therefore, it is futile to expect this male dominated organisation, which is driven by male chauvinistic values to treat their female counterparts as equal citizens deserving of equal treatment. The problem is not that they lack empathy; the problem is not even ignorance but a burst of egotism. They’re blind to the truth for they’re looking for what they want in religion rather than looking for what is in the religion.

It is apparent because the very persona they claim to idolise and follow, that of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is contrary to their proclamations and actions. From a very early stage in his life, even before he was granted Prophethood, Muhammad’s (Peace be upon him) life was dedicated to uplift the weak, vulnerable and marginalised of his community. At a time when women were treated as mere chattel and sex objects, when female infanticide was common place, when terms like equal rights and feminism were unknown and unheard of he was a champion of equal rights, social activist and above all a feminist. And despite their claim that they abide by the Qur’an, the actions of the ACJU seem to betray their words.

They proved this in the Niqab affair by making the wearing of it a religious obligation. They refuse to make amendments to the MMDA by claiming it is Islam when they’re clearly man made laws. They refuse to let women into the Mosques while there’s ample evidence from the life of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) to show that women always had the freedom to enter and exit the mosques as they pleased.

Therefore it is now or never. Are we going to let these brave, bold and daring women of our era to fight the battle for MMDA reform alone or are we going to join their ranks, shout their slogans and fight their battle together?

The time has come for the male Muslim population of Sri Lanka to take a side.

The question is do we choose the side of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) the feminist, and the Qur’an, the divine revelation that upholds the universal values of justice and equality or team Rizwe – the oppressive institution of the ACJU?

Editor’s Note: Read more content on the call for MMDA reforms here