The difference of opinion among maulvis of same or different denominations has not been limited to political matters alone, as we have seen in the case of those in the early 20th century, even though taking a stand on serious political issues still divides even the Deobandi camp. One glaring contemporary example is whether to declare suicide bombing halal or haram. While the Darul Uloom of Deoband had no qualms declaring such terrorist acts totally forbidden according to their interpretation of the Sharia, the Deobandi maulvis on this side of the eastern border, especially those located near the north-western border, find it increasingly difficult to say anything straightforward about it, because they face the same danger to their life as Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi did when he decided to oppose the supposedly popular movement in favour of the Ottoman Khilafat. While Thanvi thought nothing of sacrificing his life for a stand that he considered correct in the religious sense, today’s modern (or shall we call them postmodern?) maulvis think otherwise.
However, the chaos created by this multitude of conflicting religious fatwas — each fatwa-giver considering his own to be the only correct opinion — crosses the boundaries of politics and terrorism and enters people’s everyday lives. It tries, quite successfully, to confuse the minds of individuals facing big or small decisions affecting their lives.
There is an interesting, though a little anachronistic, remark by Khwaja Azizul Hasan, the official biographer of Thanvi in his Ashraf-us Sawaneh, which points to a recurring theme in the circle of the maulvis of the modern era since its beginning: whether to consider certain new technologies and resources halal or haram. While describing Thanvi’s personal traits, Khwaja mentions his murshid’s impressive voice and remarks that although technological advancements had made voice recording possible, Thanvi’s voice could not be saved for posterity because recording human voice is not allowed in the Sharia.
However, later maulvis, including Thanvi’s devoted followers, saw no problem in allowing their sermons to be recorded using modern technology. Having oneself photographed was considered absolutely haram until recently, not to mention the moving image of celluloid and television screen. Now one hardly finds a TV channel not blessed by the presence of maulvis of all descriptions. Another example is the loudspeaker, which was initially considered haram, but later became not only halal but an integral part of every mosque. Radio, motion pictures, TV, VCR, dish antenna — all have had their rightful place in the list of means of Satanic communication that were haram, but sooner rather than later got their status changed to halal. These days you may find in Karachi’s Urdu Bazar pamphlets such as CD ki Shar’i Haisiat (‘The Status of CD according to Sharia’) and the internet is still being considered by maulvis as the latest source of Satanic technology. One wonders what fatwa will greet the all-pervasive, almost omnipresent communication tool of the present age — the cellular phone — but the astonishing thing is that in the same Urdu Bazar one can find booklets advocating against the teaching of English language to young Pakistani Muslim girls, because it is going to take away their modesty — haya!
From turning the mission of teaching religion into a regular worldly profession in the face of unambiguous decrees against it in the Holy Quran, Hadith and categorical opinions of respected experts of Islamic jurisprudence, to the above decisions regarding new gadgets and ideas, one could appreciate the ease with which the modern maulvi swims this way and that in the familiar waters of fatwa. However, when it comes to matters such as changing his attitude towards women, he finds it extremely difficult to do so.
For Thanvi this was a matter settled permanently, as he considered women naqis-ul aql wal-iman (deficient in reason and religion). He wrote the classic treatise called the Bahishti Zevar to guide the deficient women of the shurafa background in every aspect of their limited, secluded and segregated lives. He did not allow a woman any power to make a decision even when it concerned such highly personal issues as marriage and divorce. A woman, according to Thanvi, has to follow the dictate of her wali (guardian) — typically, her father, but in his absence any male closest to her in blood relation from a brother to an uncle, a cousin or even a nephew — while being married off. In the matters of divorce, Thanvi interpreted the scriptures in such a way that the husband had absolute power to divorce his wife, while the woman had no right whatsoever to make a decision in this regard, as she is considered incapable of making a reasonable and religiously sound decision.
In the 1930s, Allama Iqbal pointed in one of his lectures, included in the book Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, to a pressing problem of that era, mainly in Punjab, concerning women who either wished to break out of their unpleasant marriages or wanted to have their marriages declared annulled because their husbands (probably serving in the British colonial army) had been missing for several years. The Hanafi fiqh required the wife of such a person to wait for 70 years before finding another husband. The Allama — whose devotees gave him the title of Hakeemul Ummat, just as those of Thanvi suggested that maulvis could use their great powers of ijtehad (re-interpretation of religious scriptures) for once to ease the severe problem of those women, some of whom had started declaring themselves Christian in the courts of British law in order for their painful marriages to be declared void. Thanvi wrote a book called Heela-e Najeza on the subject, without acknowledging either the Allama or the real issue of the time, and found a way of apparently giving such women a right to take their case to a male qazi (religious judge) who had the absolute power to make a binding decision on the matter.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2011.