Arif Mohammad Khan was just 35 when he resigned from the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet in 1986, lashing out at the Congress Government for yielding to Muslim clergy and for failing to protect the right of Muslim women to maintenance following a divorce. Khan had delivered a passionate speech less than a year earlier, defending a Supreme Court judgment awarding alimony to Shah Bano, a mother of five children, from her former husband. He wrote his resignation letter in the Lok Sabha when then Law Minister Ashoke Sen introduced a bill to reverse the court verdict. Khan, still a champion of progressive Muslim thought 30 years later, speaks to Executive Editor Ullekh NP on a range of issues, including the ongoing tussle over triple talaq, polygamy, Muslim insecurity and Constitutional propriety. Excerpts:
What is your message for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which wants to retain the triple talaq divorce option for men, which is illegal in Muslim countries?
The Muslim Personal Law Board is a body of clerics mostly associated with leading madrassas. If you look at the curriculum of these, you would find that their focus is mostly on religious laws as laid down during the period when the Muslim empire extended from Baghdad to Sindh [in Asia] and Spain in Europe. An empire, or for that matter any government including a democratic one, needs force to compel obedience. On the other hand, the religion is essentially a moralising phenomenon and it appeals to the better angels of human nature and abhors the use of force and compulsion.
This explains why the Board does not talk of Islamic values like compassion and mercy and focuses on laws that need to be enforced through an agency, and the clerics view themselves as the enforcement agency. All through Muslim history, the clerics were accomplices of Muslim kings and despots as interpreters of the law. Maulana Azad has powerfully described this state of affairs: “The Islamic history is replete with the misdeed of Ulema (clerics), who have brought humiliation and disgrace to Islam in every period.” According to a Prophetic narration, ‘a Muslim is her own priest’, and then there is another narrative that asserts that in Islam there is no priesthood. But strangely, today we have more Muslim clerics than any other religious community in the world.
Today the right to triple divorce is available to Indian Muslim males alone. This practice was outlawed by Egypt in 1929, Sudan in 1935, Jordan in 1951, Syria and Iraq in 1953, Morocco in 1958 and the then Pakistan in 1961. They admit this practice is bidat (an ‘innovation’), which finds no sanction in the Qur’an or Sunna, yet insist on its retention. If they ignore the Qur’an and Sunna, what other message will they heed?