Indian Shias Stress Separate Identity. By Yoginder Sikand


Shias form around a tenth of India’s Muslim population of more than 150 million. Although Shias have played an important role in Indian history, because of their relatively small numbers they are often ignored in discussions about Islam and Muslims in India. This, however, might change now with the formation of the All-India Shia Personal Law Board (AISPLB) in Lucknow earlier this year, followed by its well-attended first national convention in Delhi last week, which brought together Shia activists and ulema from different parts of India.
The setting up of a separate Shia Board reflects an effort on the part of influential sections of the Shia community to stress their identity as separate from the Sunni majority. While some Sunni critics brand the AISPLB as a puppet of ‘anti-Islamic’ forces bent on dividing the Muslims, its founders strongly refute this charge. In a press conference held in Delhi a day before its national convention, the AISPLB’s President Mirza Muhammad Athar argued that the decision to set up a separate Shia Personal Law Board was forced on the Shia ulema following the refusal of the Sunni-dominated All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) to consider Shia views and sensitivities. The AIMPLB, he claimed, ‘had never uttered a single word regarding Shias. It just took us for granted and that is the main reason why this board was formed’. Another reason, he added, was the ‘irresponsible’ statements by some leaders of AIMPLB which had
‘insulted’ the Shia community, forcing them to set up their own parallel Board. At the same time, Athar insisted that the formation of the Board was not aimed at other Muslims, stressing that the Board could work with Sunni organisations, as well as non-Muslim groups, on issues of common concern. Rebutting allegations that the setting up of the Board would fan Shia-Sunni conflict, he argued that he just as the Shias and Sunnis have their own separate mosques and madrasas, there was no reason why they could not have their separate Personal Law Boards. ‘We want to have good relations with all other communities, while preserving our own identity. True unity cannot be had if this means denying our own separate identities. Shias and Sunnis have had their differences for 1400 years, and we must learn to live together respectfully while still maintaining our own views’, he stressed.
In its Report of Activities, copies of which were distributed at the conference, the AISPLB put forward other reasons for the need for Shias to have their own Board, separate from the AIMPLB. The Report claims that because the AIMPLB had been established and led mainly by Deobandis, it has been ‘consistently under the influence of Wahhabis’, who, although the Report does not mention this, almost unanimously hold that Shias are ‘infidels’. Hence, representation of other Muslim sects, including Shias, in the AIMPLB had, the Report adds, ‘always been nominal’. Claiming to speak in the name of Islam, the AIMPLB has sought to present Hanafi Sunni law as synonymous with Islamic law or shariah, ignoring the serious divergences between Shia and Hanafi law on several issues. Furthermore, instead of confining itself to its mandate of protecting Muslim Personal Law, the AIMPLB, the Report claims, ‘has gradually begun seeking to usurp the political leadership of the entire Muslim community’. However, the Report adds, the AIMPLB could not provide ‘proper guidance to Muslims, as is evident from the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat’, because of which, it alleges, the ‘its support among Muslims is now almost totally destroyed’. Hence, the Report argues, many Shias felt the need to set up their own Board, no longer having any confidence in the AIMPLB.

Controversies over matters related to the interpretation of Muslim Personal Law in recent years seem to be another factor in the setting up of the AISPLB. Numerous speakers at the conference argued that on some contentious issues, such as divorce, Shia law differs significantly from the Sunni Hanafi law that the AIMPLB upholds. Yet, they lamented that the media as well as the AIMPLB had presented the latters’ interpretation of Islamic law as somehow representative of all Muslims, because of which Shias, too, had been made a ‘laughing-stock’. For instance, they pointed out that the media, along with the AIMPLB, had argued that three talaqs uttered by the husband in one sitting or in jest or in a drunken state automatically dissolves a marriage and that if the divorced woman wants to remarry her husband she would first have to undergo the humiliating practice of halala, marrying another man, having intercourse with him, and then getting divorced by him. All this is, however, is not accepted by the Shia or Jafari school of law, the speakers stressed. Another equally contentious issue they raised related to the fatwa issued by the Deoband school and supported by the AIMPLB on the alleged rape of Imrana by her father-in-law, declaring that Imrana’s marriage had been divorced. The Jafari school does not consider a marriage to be dissolved if a woman is raped by her father-in-law, speakers pointed out. Given these significant differences between Jafari and Hanafi law, they argued it was imperative that the Shias set up their own Board so that on such contentious issues the Shia position, which they presented as more ‘rational’, be made clear, particularly, as one speaker stressed, ‘to save Shias the ignominy of being mocked at by others who do not make any distinction between them and other Muslims’.

In order to further justify the need for a separate Shia Board, some speakers at the conference sought to magnify the differences between Shia and Sunni law quite out of proportion, whereas, in fact, the two streams of Islamic jurisprudence share much in common. In his press release the Board’s President went so far as to claim that ‘Our jurisprudence is totally different from the Sunni personal law’, arguing that, ‘therefore we have every right to specify, demarcate and to highlight the differences of the two schools of personal law on different legal and quasi-legal issues’. Similarly, Syed Agha, General Secretary of the AISPLB, lamented that the AIMPLB only ‘talked about the four schools of Sunni law and was not prepared to recognise the Jafari school as the fifth school’. Hence, he insisted on the need for a separate Shia Board to ‘defend Shia Personal Law’ and to also stress that ‘Shias are different from others, that they are the followers of Ali, and are the true Muslims’. In his defence of the Jafari school he claimed that it alone genuinely represented the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and argued that the other four (Sunni) schools did not enjoy that status, pointing to the numerous differences among them as ‘evidence’ to back his point. In a similar vein, Mahmudul Hasan, principal of the Shia Nasariya Arabic college, Jaunpur, claimed that no other school of Muslim law could stand before the Jafari school. He announced, greeted by loud applause by the audience, that ‘One can finish studying the four schools of [Sunni] law in two years but even if you spend forty years studying the teachings of Jafari school you would not have even learnt a bit of it, so deep is it!’.

Much of this is hot rhetoric, of course, and not calculated to promote serious dialogue with other communities, which the AISPLB insists is its mandate. Yet, the desire to distinguish themselves from the Sunni ‘ulama and the Sunni Deobandi-dominated AIMPLB is understandable, reflecting the general lament of Shia leaders who spoke at the conference that because the separate identity of the Shias within the larger fold was not recognised, particularly by the state and the media, their own concerns and voices, including their different interpretations of Islamic law on contentious issues related to Personal Law as well as their views on ‘terrorism’, generally go ignored.

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