Shia Personal Law Board in India Calls for Anti-‘Terror’ Campaign
Posted Nov 21, 2005

Shia Personal Law Board Calls for Anti-‘Terror’ Campaign

Yoginder Sikand

One of the highlights of the national conference of the newly-formed All-India Shia Personal Law Board (AISPLB) held in Delhi last week was a resolution that it passed sternly condemning terrorismђ. Speaker after speaker, mostly Shia maulvis, sternly denounced terrorismђ in no uncertain terms, and appealed to Muslims to join hands with others to fight it.

From the literature distributed at the convention and in the speeches delivered at the meeting it appears that terrorismђ associated with certain Sunni Muslim groups has emerged as one of the most worrying concerns of the leaders of the AISPLB, who are now issuing frantic appeals for Muslims, particularly Shias, to distance themselves from it. Indeed, it seems that the formation of a separate Shia personal law board at this juncture is not fortuitous, and that it is, in a sense, a reaction to the emergence of certain Muslim terroristђ groups who happen to be Sunni. Numerous speakers stressed the point that Shias were a separate religious and cultural minorityђ, different from the Sunnis in several respects. In an oblique reference to Sunni militant groups, they argued that unlike othersђ, whose names they chose not to mention, the Shias had nothing whatsoever to do with terrorismђ and that the Shia faith and its followers had never engaged in or supported terrorismђ. Lamenting that, owing to the activities of certain militant Islamist outfits, such as Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Lashkar-e Tayyeba (all Sunni groups), Muslims all over the worldђ had come to be looked at with suspicion and hatred, being collectively branded as terrorists and blood-thirsty tyrantsђ, several speakers insisted that it was now imperative that the Shias should stress their separate identity in order to, as they put it, show the world that they do not follow the wrong sort of Islam that the terrorists championђ. Hence, they stressed, it was crucial for the Shias to set up their own personal law board.

The issue of terrorismђ also dominated the press conference held a day before the conference that was addressed by the AISPLBs president, the Lucknow-based Mirza Muhammad Athar. In a paper circulated to the media he argued that ґOur country as well as the whole world is facing the threat of terrorism, citing the instance of the recent killings of Shia worshippers in Iraq, whose deaths have been blamed on Sunni extremists. ґTerrorism, Athar went on, ґis the greatest onslaught on humanity and it has to be fought. We resolve to fight it. The only way to tackle ґterrorism, he insisted, was to treat it like a ґkiller disease like cancer and polio and root it out completely. He added that in this regard the Shias as well as the AISPLB had an important role to play by ґpresenting the real face of Islam, which means peace and tranquility.  The AISPLB, he said, would play a leading role in this regard by seeking to improve relations with other communities. He insisted that inter-community dialogue, rather than confrontation, was the only way to resolve disputes as well as to remove the ґmisconceptions that many non-Muslims harbour about Islam and its adherents.

Athar repeated the same theme in his presidential address the next day, where he accused the Muslim leadership of ґfailure. Muslim leaders have, he claimed, ґcreated problems for the Muslims rather than solving them. ґSome misguided people as well as some extremist mullahs, he added, ґhave, through their deeds, helped brand peace-loving Muslims as a terrorist community the world over. ґSpreading hatred breaks hearts but does not mend them. It is necessary that Muslims and other communities living in India come closer to each other, and that Islams true message of peace and harmony be clearly conveyedҒ, he stressed. He lamented that it has become a habit for Muslims to blame enemies of Islam for their own shortcomings and thereby try to prove that they are innocent. We have totally lost the habit of introspection and the ability to recognise our own weaknesses, which are the real cause of our problemsђ. He regretted that some Muslim newspapers are playing a major role in fanning anti-Muslim hatred by denouncing virtually all non-Muslims as enemies of Islamђ. He advised them to focus their attention on the economic and educational conditions of the Muslims instead, to encourage Muslim organisations to work along with agencies of the state to promote Muslim welfare and to counter anti-Islamic propaganda by promoting knowledgeђ about trueђ Islam. The appropriate way to counter anti-Islamicђ forces, Athar said, was not to confront them and thereby further exacerbate inter-religious rivalry. Rather, he said, In accordance with the practice of the Prophet and his family, Muslims must present to them the message of friendshipђ.

Turning to the Indian context, he argued that while Hindu fundamentalism had played a crucial role in the genesis of Muslim communalism, Muslims should now take the initiative and seek to convert hatred into loveђ. For this he suggested that the AISPLB should organise public meetings all over the country to promote friendly relations with other communities and to disabuse them of their misconceptions about Islam being an inherently violent religion. He appealed to Muslims to reach out to Hindus to convince them that trueђ Islam, or, indirectly referring to the Shia version of the faith, what he called the Islam preached by the Prophet and his familyђ, stressed good relations with people of other faiths. He contrasted this with what he called the false Islamђ as propagated by groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfitsђ.

In this battle against terrorismђ, Athar stressed, Muslim clerics or ulema as well as Muslim newspapers have a crucial role to play. I appeal to the ulema that, for Godђs sake, dont force Muslim youth to be hated by others by branding the rest of the world as enemies of IslamҒ, he said. Preaching blind hatred of non-Muslims, he argued, was not only un-Islamic and unethical but would also spell doom for Muslims themselves, by leading Muslim youth towards terrorismђ and thereby further promoting anti-Muslim sentiments among non-Muslims. It was the responsibility of the ulema, he explained, to promote proper Islamic moralityђ among the youth to make them good human beingsђ and to encourage them to relate to non-Muslims through friendship and tolerance. All Muslimsђ, he went on, should unite and so forcefully condemn terrorism that all Muslims are convinced that Islam is opposed to itђ. If, despite this, some Muslims do not refrain from terrorismђ, he added, they should be branded as enemies of Islamђ. Groups that take the name of Islam and engage in terrorism should be clearly declared as non-Muslimђ and un-Islamicђ, he stressed.

Shias, Athar argued, have a particularly crucial role to play in combating terrorismђ. Appealing to the Shias he declared, In fighting terrorism you have the greatest responsibility and right because you have been victims of terrorism for the last 1400 yearsђ. This is, of course, an oblique reference to the long-standing oppression that Shias have suffered under various fanatic Sunni rulers, being condemned by most Sunni ulema groups as infidelsђ. Being victimised by terroristsђ, Athar said, was an integral part of the history and identity of the Shias, starting with the murder of their first imam, Ali, and the martyrdom of several of their other imams, including and especially Imam Husain, son of Ali. In addition, Athar added, Shias have consistently resisted terrorismђ. The victimisation of Shias by terroristsђ Athar added, is no mere historical legacy. He cited the killings of Shias in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria as evidence of the continued persecution of Shias by terroristsђ, who, although he did not mention them by name, are generally thought to be associated with extremist and fiercely anti-Shia Sunni groups. Hence, he claimed, Shias today must again take up the struggle against terrorismђ, which, based on what he called a wrong interpretation of Islamђ, was giving Muslims the world over a bad nameђ. No one can oppose terrorism more forcefully than the Shiasђ, he insisted, particularly because, by Godђs grace, we have remained free from the sin of terrorism and never in India has a single Shia become a terrorist.

At the same time as Athar strongly denounced the ґterrorism associated with certain anti-Shia ґIslamist outfits, whom he branded as ґanti-Islamic organisations, he appealed to the Government of India to take tough measures against groups and individuals, irrespective of religion, involved in promoting inter-communal hatred and violence as well as to honour people struggling to promote communal harmony. Referring to Hindu chauvinist groups, he argued that they should to desist from promoting anti-Muslim hatred and violence, pointing out this was counter-productive for the countryҒs welfare and image as a whole. Hence, their anti-Muslim agenda, guised in the garb of patriotismђ, was, he said, actually anti-nationalђ. They must realise, he argued, that it was impossible to kill off or force into exile the two hundred million Muslims of Indiaђ and hence they must accept them as fellow Indians. If they were to seek to promote friendly relations with Muslims, he assured them, Muslims, too, would heartily reciprocate.

While the AISPLBs stance against ґterrorism is welcome, critics will argue that it is somewhat one-sided. The AISPLB errs grievously when it appears to presents ґterrorism as a ґproblem associated solely with certain Sunni militant groups, that, while being opposed to Western hegemony and being generally anti-Hindu and anti-Indian as well, are also fiercely opposed to Shias, whom they routinely denounce as ґenemies of Islam. Although in their speeches at the conference AISPLB leaders were careful not to refer to ґSunni militant outfits explicitly, it is clear that these were precisely what they meant when they fiercely denounced ґterrorism committed in the name of Islam while at the same time stressing that Shias had no association whatsoever with these groups and arguing that, in contrast to them, the Shias adhered to what they termed as ґthe true Islam. The AISPLB is, of course, correct when it claims that Shias are not associated with these groups, and the urgency with which it argues the point reflects a concern to distance the Shias from the Sunni majority, given the erroneous tendency to tar all Muslims, irrespective of sect, with the same brush as ґterrorist-sympathisers. Yet, the view that ґterrorism is simply as an ideologically-driven phenomenon, an expression of a visceral hatred for all non-Muslims and of Shias, as the AISPLB leaders appear to argue, is hardly convincing. Appealing to Muslims to fight ґterrorism as simply an ideological phenomenon, ignoring the host of economic, political, social and cultural factors that feed it, most particularly the nexus between local despotisms and Western imperialism, is simplistic and illogical.

The AISPLBҒs opposition to terrorismђ seems also somewhat inconsistent, ignoring, as it appears to, the existence of other, non-Sunni and non-Muslim terrorist groups and forces. Its claim that no Shias have ever been associated with terrorismђ anywhere can hardly be taken seriouslythe gruesome state terror unleashed by the Ayatollahs in Iran, the worldגs only Shia state, is a brutal reminder of the fact that Shia-inspired terrorismђ is by no means unknown. Likewise, silence on Hindu, Christian and Zionist terrorism, as well as state terrorism and Western imperialist terror, can hardly be condoned. Surely, a consistent strategy against terrorђ requires that all these forms of terrorismђ, in addition to Sunni extremism, be stridently opposed and that the struggle be waged not just at the ideological level alone or simply, as the AISPLB suggests, by sectarian-inspired appeals to true Islamђ.

Background on New Shia Board

Shias form around a tenth of Indias 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 ґanti-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 AISPLBҒs 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 formedђ.  Another reason, he added, was the irresponsibleђ statements by some leaders of AIMPLB which had insultedђ 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 viewsђ, 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 Wahhabisђ, who, although the Report does not mention this, almost unanimously hold that Shias are infidelsђ. Hence, representation of other Muslim sects, including Shias, in the AIMPLB had, the Report adds, always been nominalђ. 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 communityђ. 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 Gujaratђ, because of which, it alleges, the its support among Muslims is now almost totally destroyedђ. 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 ґlaughing-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 ImranaҒs 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 rationalђ, 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 Muslimsђ. 

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 Boards President went so far as to claim that ґOur jurisprudence is totally different from the Sunni personal law, arguing that, ґtherefore 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 ґtalked 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 ґdefend Shia Personal Law and to also stress that ґShias 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 ґevidence 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 ґOne 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 ґulama 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 terrorismђ, generally go ignored.