Is there a conflict between Fiq’h and Uniform Civil Code?

In the past few weeks, we have seen a lot of hue and cry lately among many Indian Muslims, men in general and clerics in particular, including All India Muslim Personal Law Board and some socio-religious organizations claiming to represent Muslims, against “politicizing the issue of triple-talaq”. People have posted fiery lines on social media advising against “any interference into matters of religion”. “I reject Uniform Civil Code; I support Muslim Personal Law” is one of the Facebook profiles some people have adopted to register their protest. And some even went to the extent of equating attempts to publicize the matter with a “nefarious design to annihilate Islam”. In fact some so-called liberals have also jumped in to join the band wagon as advocates of “freedom of religion”. Well, I do not think Islam as a religion is so weak that its foundations will be shaken by a very welcome decision of adopting a uniform civil code that provides justice, equality and dignity for all — notions that Islam has no conflict with. Abolishing an ages-old tribal practice such as triple-talaq, which finds no authenticity in the religion itself, is indeed a commendable step in this regard.

The practice of triple-talaq is not just regressive and anti-women, it finds no historical basis in Islam. There is no evidence either in Qur’an or in the hadith (‘tradition’) that supports its validity in the religion (Note that a number of spurious “traditions” have been claimed to be of Islamic origin but these need to be questioned and rejected wherever necessary). Triple-talaq is a tribal practice inherited and adopted by certain sections of the Islamic world which was packaged in a religious garb just like a number of similar other cultural/tribal practices, such as female genital mutilation, etc. Thankfully the practice has been abolished in much of the Islamic world. Now that the Muslim women of India have finally spoken and spoken so vocally, it is high time the nation comes forward with its full support to reject this outdated practice. It needs to be highlighted that triple-talaq is among several other lies that were propagated by many clerics over generations in the name of “Shariah” and “Islamic law” to keep Muslim women permanently subjugated and deprive them of a dignified life that would otherwise be guaranteed to them had the very essence of the idea of Ijtehad – continued reform and reinterpretation – been implemented in practice as one of the central tenets of Islam.

It is no surprise that the Islamic world often gets mired in controversies in the context of women’s issues, when their role in the public domain is very restricted. Women find it extremely challenging and near impossible to have a powerful and effective voice on matters related to social and religious practices that primarily affect them. While few steps that could allow their participation in the matters of religion are taken, gender-segregation makes things extremely worse and often impossible. Thus, their role in the fiq’h, the Islamic jurisprudence, which is literally and technically based on “deep understanding and broad consensus”, is simply non-existent. Consequently, most of the “Islamic” rules and regulations, often termed as “Shariah Law”, are neatly anti-women – both in structure and in practice.

Now, take a look at the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which claims to be representing the Muslim voice of India as far as matters related to religion are concerned. Last time I checked, all the 41 members of the Board were men, few with any formal education other than in the religious schools they follow. Furthermore, while all the AIMPL Board members are primarily from the majority Sunni community, a great majority of these belong to the Deobandi sect (notorious for its extremist interpretations of Islam), and exclude Shias and Ahmedis. I even went to do some research and checked the AIMPLB website – page-to-page. I read about a number of events, saw scores of pictures, read about the organizers of various events – not a single woman is visible anywhere. This is no coincidence but a deliberate attempt to “keep women where they belong” – behind the four walls of the house, taking care of children of their men, doing their household work, wrapped in layers of fabric concealed from any outside influence, being good wives, and serving their other needs. And it is also reflected in the shrinking space for women in religious places, mosques, and sufi shrines where more and more women feel increasingly unwelcome and often give up and stay away.

Here I don’t need a lesson on “emancipated Muslim women” – that is a personal journey and a very difficult one for every single Muslim woman who sets her foot firm and refuses to bend against social and cultural pressures. Many people will try to justify the Muslim Personal Law on flimsy groups and give some examples of women’s participation and their role in the social and political issues. But, let’s be honest. How strong is the impact? Equal rights for women are not a given but an ongoing struggle. No doubt there are many progressive Muslim men out there but more often than not they have little say on matters that affect a large number of women. Few of them are decision-makers as matters pertaining to religion are concerned. In fact, a great majority of Muslim men literally have nightmares if their women were to be their equals. This is not to imply that other men of other religions are any better in their treatment of women, but here we are talking about Muslims.

As far as Fiqh (‘Islamic jurisprudence’) is concerned “deep understanding, expansion and reinterpretation” (foundational goals of Fiqh), can only be achieved through “consensus” – the very basis of the human understanding of Shariah (the divine law). It is because the AIMPL Board is inherently pro-men (and, therefore, anti-women), not only in its composition but also in its themes and objectives that an independent body of All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board had to be created but the latter have unfortunately failed to garner any significant support from the government of India or from the Muslims (read “Muslim men”) in general. In fact, few Muslim men are willing to even treat the Board with any seriousness. Women’s voices are often muzzled and at the most ignored as far as religious issues are concerned. There can be no consensus in Fiqh on matters primarily related to women without complete involvement of women. As an all-male body, AIMPL Board loses its validity and credibility in claiming to be the voice of the Indian Muslims in general and of Muslim women in particular.

Finally, the idea of “freedom of religion” cannot supersede nor should it be in conflict with individual freedoms, justice, liberty and equality. Fortunately, there is no conflict between Islamic jurisprudence and the notion of a uniform civil code both of which are in principle based on a board consensus and aim to provide dignity for all, including women. The very fact that women aren’t given a representative voice in the Muslim Personal Law makes the body of AIMPLB unqualified to speak on behalf of Muslim women. Providing a national platform to such an undemocratic body and entitling it to determine the fate of half of the Muslim population of India is not only unfair but also unconstitutional. The Board has no moral or constitutional right to represent all the Muslims of India. As an informed Muslim woman and as an Indian national, I support uniform civil code and reject Muslim Personal Law in its current form. I also reject any such law which legitimizes loopholes that can be used as tools to continue women’s subordination and subjugation. Any attempt to scuttle the much awaited effort of providing justice and dignity to all Indian women amounts to pushing them in a path of continued hardship and heartache, and should be strongly resisted by every responsible citizen of the country. A healthy discussion on this topic will be the way forward.
© Sadaf Munshi

(Versions of this article appeared in the daily Rising Kashmir (Oct. 20, 2016) and (Oct. 24,2061). The URLs are for these are: )



Unveiling the Hijab: a Socio-historical Overview

Does Qur’an mandate a specific dress code for Muslim women?

Hijab has been a topic of much debate and controversy both within and outside the Muslim world. In Islamic countries where a Shariah (Islamic) Law is enforced, women are required to follow a strict dress code. There are also many countries where millions of Muslims live and where women are not obliged to follow the Shariah dictates, yet many of them are forced into a strict dress code owing to social compulsions. Many women, however, do tend to wear a certain type of outfit as a matter of personal choice, believing that they are mandated or required to do so by the Holy Qur’an and that they might go to hell if they show their hair or their body to a stranger (mahram). Here, it is important to distinguish between cultural practices and the tenets of Islam, which are not really, strictly defined anywhere.

Critics argue that hijab (interpreted as a dress code) is a symbol of oppression. Some western countries have even imposed a ban on its use. But many people claim that it is a matter of personal choice. Both of these statements are true and false depending on various factors. Advocates of hijab will claim that it is mandated by Qur’an for Muslim women to wear a piece of cloth over their head and cover their body in a certain way – a position unattested by historical evidence. Many Muslim women are forced to wear hijab against their will because of the legal repercussions in countries where hijab is enforced by law, or because of the constant pestering by family or by the self-appointed moral police in the society. Many women, however, wear hijab as a fashion statement or style, or simply under peer pressure. In a recent trend, some young Muslim women in western societies have resorted to donning headscarves over sexy western outfits as a political statement against racism and Islamophobia.

Many people erroneously associate the wearing or not wearing of hijab with the oppression or emancipation of women (respectively). But not wearing hijab does not automatically entail women’s emancipation. There are educated hijab-wearing Muslim women who are able to integrate seamlessly in different cultures, work in public spaces in mixed gatherings, and take no gender-driven nonsense. And there are hijab-less (Muslim and non-Muslim) women who are victims of gender-discrimination, domestic violence and constant abuse at the hands of their male partners but do not have the guts to stand up for their rights regardless of where they live. As far as women’s rights are concerned, sexual objectification of women is no better than the obsessive urge to protect women into invisibility. Gender-based discrimination is not limited to clothing; it is expressed in a number of different ways.

Often the distinction between the tenets of Islam and cultural customs is lost when we are faced with a world of ignorance and misinformation. Socio-historically speaking, there are a number of contexts to the use of a head covering. In many societies, a headgear (e.g., a scarf, a turban, a cap, or a hat), was used by both men and women simply as a protection against extreme temperatures, viz., heat, cold, or other climatic changes. In a number of cultures, however, since head was considered to be the most important and perhaps sacred part of the body, a special headgear was used to cover or adorn it. You couldn’t imagine a bride or a groom without a special headgear at the wedding ceremony. In many cases, headgear was a mark of one’s social class, an indication of a privileged social background. Thus, in many societies men and women of higher social status would (partly or completely) cover their head in formal situations or in public. These include members of royal families, religious figures (e.g., priests and nuns), etc. Often people of lower status would follow suit in their quest for upper social mobility and acceptance in the elite classes. This trend is still in practice in many societies where a certain type of headgear is symbolic of one’s status rather than a religious binding. Often adorned with decorative trinkets, a headgear in such a situation has little to do with the concept of morality or women’s oppression and more with social superiority. Pulling a person’s headgear off could be the most disdainful and disrespectful of an act one could commit against anyone irrespective of gender.

The concept of a face veil, such as, naqāb, burqa, or ghoonghat in the Middle East or South Asia, as also observed in the conservative western societies of the yore where women would draw a net under a hat over their face, could be viewed as a special extension of the headgear. Historically, women have often been concealed in closed-door cabins and carried over by male escorts from place to place (c.f. pālki in northern India, or zāmpān in Kashmir). In a socio-cultural context, such a covering could be perceived as an extreme form of protection of the sacredness of a woman of higher social status where the rest of the world is barred from even looking at her. But the same does not apply to women of lower status who were often taken as “slave girls” or concubines by men of higher status. In a purely religious context, however, it could be experienced as an extreme form of protection of morality where a woman must completely conceal herself lest she should attract attention in a sexual way. Thus, whereas man is some sort of a powerless character incapable and absolved of being in charge of his own chastity, a woman is entitled with an extraordinary power to seduce or corrupt a man, and must, therefore, be disempowered.

Thus, Hijab becomes a symbol of oppression when it is associated with morality, when a woman’s character is evaluated by the society on the basis of whether or not she covers her head (besides her body) in a piece of cloth. It becomes a symbol of cruelty against women when they are punished – either physically or psychologically – should they violate the practice. In the most bizarre cases, some people will argue that the hijab “protects women against lustful men” – a claim that is not supported by any empirical evidence. Many Muslims, especially the menfolk, will argue that the Qur’an makes hijab mandatory for women. Little girls are tortured into believing that they will go to hell and that their bodies will be covered with snakes as they burn in hell fire if they do not “cover”. Such radical positions are based on ignorance and misinterpretation of certain verses of Qur’an and are rubbished by many scholars and experts of Islamic thought.

Historically, the term hijab is not found in the Qur’an or Hadith in the context of dress code or women’s hair. The word hijab, as it is used in the Qur’an, means a ‘screen’, ‘partition’, or ‘barrier’. It appears in a total of about five instances in the text. In a loose sense, it is closer in interpretation to a ‘curtain’ than anything else. The word is used to mean a ‘screen’ or ‘barrier’ in a number of instances, e.g., between Muslims and non-Muslims (Chapter 7 Al-A’raf: verse 46, and Chapter 41 Ha-Mim: verse 5), between Maryam and her family (when she “withdrew” from them and conceived Jesus; Chapter 19 Maryam: verses 16-17), and between the wives of the Prophet and the nāmahram male visitors of the family (Chapter 33 Al-Ahzab: verse 53). It is also used to refer to a ‘veil’ or ‘screen’ from behind which “Allah could speak to a human” (Chapter 42 Ash-Shura: verse 51).

The words that do refer to ‘(type of) covering’ and ‘headdress’ are jalabib (Singular jilbab) and khumur (respectively), independently used at two separate instances in the Qur’an. The words are pre-Islamic; while khumur was used by both Arab men and women as a headgear (to protect the head from weather and dust/sand), jilbab was probably only used by women to cover the body. The occurrence of jalabib is found here (Chapter 33 Al-Ahzab: verse 59):

“O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their jalabib close around them; it is more suitable that they should be known (recognized) and not harmed (annoyed). And Allah is ever forgiving, and most merciful.”

If we pay attention to the words “known (recognized)” and “harmed (annoyed)”, it is very clear from the verse cited above that being “known (recognized)” is “more suitable” (than not being known (recognized)). Therefore, a face veil or naqab is simply out of the question as far as the Qur’an is concerned. Further, women are advised to cover their body so men are unable to (physically) harm them (i.e., touch or grab on their naked bodies). There is no mention of hair or hell-fire in this verse or the adjacent verses. Both men and women are advised to “reduce their gaze (or cast down their glances) and guard their private parts” (Chapter 24 Al-Nur: 30-31). Women are further advised (not necessarily mandated) to “draw their khumur over their bosoms” and “not display their zinat (beauty/adornment)” to strangers (i.e., men other than their “husbands, fathers, fathers-in-law, sons, husband’s sons, nephews, male attendants having no physical desires, and children”) (24:31).

In this context it is very important to draw one’s attention to the type of clothing that Arab women wore during the Prophet’s time in the early 7th century Arabia. In absence of properly stitched clothing, the idea of “drawing the khumur over the bosom” or the “jilbab around the body” is to cover a woman’s nakedness as opposed to wrapping herself in an all-concealing (black) shroud or the modern-day abaya – a word that does not appear in the Qur’an. The word hijab as a ‘screen’ is used in the Qur’an to cater to the sense of privacy in a society where it was very common for male visitors to show up any time uninvited and violate the private space of the hosts, especially women (and more specifically the women of the Prophet’s household in the context of the Qur’anic verses; See Chapter 24; 27-29 where men are advised to “not enter houses other than their own without permission”, to “go back” when asked, and not linger around unnecessarily). During those times, houses had very little privacy, with no separate compartments. There were no covered toilets and no specific means of sanitation. With utter disregard for women’s personal space, menfolk would often indulge in socially undesirable activities and harass women. Oftentimes, during the night, when womenfolk of the Prophet’s tribe went out to relieve themselves (away from the household), they would be attacked by men of other tribes. Furthermore, in the absence of modern facilities and sanitary napkins, menstruating women, had to be temporarily “screened” (separated) from the rest of the people with limited interaction with the public. Thus, for instance, when they hesitated to come out even after his invitation one day, the Prophet advised the screened (menstruating) women that they could have themselves “covered” by jalabib and participate in the upcoming Eid elebrations; one of the (screened) women who did not possess a jilbab, was asked to “borrow one from a companion.” (Sahih Bukhari, Book 8, #347).

Here I would like to make a note of an account of the 13th century Arab women in Tarikh-al-Mustabsir by Ibn-al-Mujawir, a Persian traveler to Mecca. The upper class womenfolk of the sacred city, Mujawir notes, “wear bonnets” (perhaps akin to khumur). In an account of the poor women in a town about two miles from the sacred city, Mujawir writes: “the woman takes two pieces of leather and stitches them together, cuts a round hole in it and puts it on. When she walks, the whole of her body can be seen, above and below” (quoted from Sardar 2014: 157). In such a context, going backwards to the 7th century Arabia when fewer women would know how to stitch clothes in absence of the modern tools, it makes perfect sense to have to “draw” the jalabib “around the bodies” or the khumur “over the bosoms” to cover the nakedness. Note also that none of these verses indicates the use of both khumur and jilbab at the same time.

To conclude, the primary question that I wanted to delve into in this article was whether or not the Qur’an mandates any specific dress code for Muslim women and whether they are entitled to wear layers and layers of certain type of clothing as a religious binding. As revealed by the available historical evidence, it turns out that that is not the case. The recommendations in the Qur’an are clearly contextualized and ought not to be interpreted in the extreme sense as a strict dress code observed in the modern day, as many people would erroneously tend to believe or argue. The imposition of hijab in its more recent connotation as a strict religious dress code for Muslim women is an innovation; it seems to be an outcome of the puritanical canonization of the Islamic tenets that occurred centuries after the death of the Prophet.

© Sadaf Munshi, December 28, 2015.

Traditionalist Islam and the death of inductive intellect

One of the characteristic features of most reverential legends is that they obfuscate more than they reveal about religious personalities. When the Prophet of Islam returned to Mecca, his point of origin, in January 630 and consummated what Ziauddin Sardar (a scholar/writer/critic specializing in Muslim thought, in his seminal work “Mecca: The Sacred City”, 2014) calls “the moral heart of his mission”, his most important message at this moment of his most complete triumph was the assertion that peaceful coexistence is not only possible but the essential basis for doing good, for enacting ways for justice and equity as living realities for all. There are obvious references, which clearly indicate the necessity of such coexistence among people of different communities, more specifically, Muslims, Jews, Sabians, Christians, Zoroastrians (“Magians”), and polytheists as mentioned in the Qur’an (Cf. Qur’an 2:62, 5:69 and 22:17).

At its inception, the idea of “Islam” (literally ‘submission’) was a call for justice, a protest of inequity. It was a demand for inclusiveness, for unity and equality for all under the umbrella of one god. Aside from the politics of the times, the original community founded by Muhammad in Medina was a multi-religious community comprising Muslims, Jews, Christians, and polytheists. It was this kind of heterodoxy that thrived in some of Islam’s greatest cities, such as, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Marrakesh, Cordoba and Tehran for long. Yet, ironically, the city of Mecca, the very “portal of paradise”, was to be closed to all but Muslims. This was a particular legacy of the Umayyad dynasty, which receives little mention by religious scholars of Islam – a legacy, which, in effect, led to a certain closing of the Muslim mind.

When Baghdad was a center of Muslim thought and learning in the 8th and 9th centuries, Mecca turned into a haven for anti-rationalists. This was partly due to the influence of the Kharijites, the puritans obsessed with the idea of keeping the religion “pure” and uncorrupted by what they called bid’ah (‘innovation’, or ‘foreign thought and ideas’). This view expressed itself in the form of an utter distaste for philosophy which was perceived as a product of human reasoning, and, therefore, as bad as “associating partners with God”. Under this view, taqlid (‘imitation’) of the Prophet’s companions, their successors, and the successors of the successors, was to become the norm. The latter, as would be expected, was likely to suffer an enormous misinterpretation, and that is what happened.

In continued tension with the idea of taqlid was the notion of Ijtehad – the principle of movement, which gave birth to inductive intellect in Islam. Here, in order to achieve full consciousness one must finally be thrown back on one’s own resources. Ironically, under the most traditionalist and regressive views of Islam, this beautiful concept of Ijtehad is condemned as “heresy” and “innovation”, and has been more or less completely ignored by the modern Muslim world, with some exceptions which are often debarred from claiming the faith by the traditionalists.

Note that it was during the 9th century that the old idea that “only what was stored in memory was truly known” was replaced by a new emphasis on writing down hadith and legal judgments. And it was now that the traditions of the Prophet were being compiled, collected and canonized by various scholars. Consequently, the degree and extent of the authenticity of some of these compilations is rather questionable (Recall that the holy Qur’an itself was revealed in disjointed verses and chapters over a period of twenty-two years, i.e., between 610 and 632 C.E. The Prophet recited the verses to his companions who, in turn, were instructed to memorize them. The verses were “collected” later on and compiled and organized in the form of the chapters of the manuscript that we see today).

What was sacrificed in the exercise of the canonization of the hadith was the idea of complete authority in legislation. Hence, the significance of change and continued reinterpretation of the Islamic Law was gradually erased from its history, giving way to the ever-strengthening radical ideologies, which are not only primitive in their nature but also extremely regressive and anti-humanitarian. Until and unless the notion of Ijtehad is reclaimed, the Muslim communities across the world are highly vulnerable to radical ideology and, hence, susceptible to intellectual degradation.

© Sadaf Munshi. Dec. 10, 2015. (Updated on Dec. 27, 2015).


(Ref. Ziauddin Sardar. 2014. “Mecca: The Sacred City”. Bloomsbury, India.)



Male hypocrisy and the lies about Islam

Given the touch-me-not attitude one experiences in Kashmir, I have observed that many rational voices steer clear of indulging in talking about controversial topics, especially those related to religion and politics. Several months ago during my annual visit to Kashmir, I had expressed an objection to the extensive use of loud speakers for broadcasting religious sermons or Qur’anic recitations at night, at which occasion I was dubbed as an “anti-Islamic” and “westernized” non-resident Kashmiri by a friend without giving an explanation of as to why it was necessary to do so. The primary reason for my objection being my two-year old daughter who was unable to sleep, not to mention the inconvenience this might have caused to many other people wanting to sleep for various reasons. Since religion and politics have become so intertwined, if not synonymous, over the many years of political turmoil in Kashmir, it is extremely challenging to talk about these topics in the public domain without apprehensions. One is bound to face extreme amounts of criticism even when there is a compelling need to question and respond to matters of social injustice and oppression. I am writing this article keeping in view the risks of disappointing certain conservative schools of thought.

An article recently published in a Srinagar-based daily (November 20, 2013, Rising Kashmir) cited a mufti objecting to the visit of a noted Muslim women’s rights activist Amina Wadud to the Kashmir valley. Wadud, an accomplished scholar and social activist of international repute, was condemned for her advocacy for the Muslim women’s right to lead prayers in mixed gatherings in mosques. Indeed, what a blasphemy! The mufti had further stated that, “such people should not be allowed to visit the masjids, khankahs and shrines in Kashmir”. As a woman of Kashmiri origin, who was brought up in a fairly conservative Muslim family, and who has repeatedly suffered the male-dominated oppression of many kinds back home, I took the opportunity to respond and register my protest in the form of this article.

As I write this piece I am reminded of many incidents of Kashmiri male hypocrisy and misogyny but I will cite only one here: an incident that happened around February 2013 when three young Kashmiri Muslim girls had decided to pursue music as their career and a fatwa (‘a religious decree’) was extended by the afore-mentioned mufti about music being “un-Islamic”. Hordes of young Kashmiri netizens, mostly males, had come out in severe criticism and condemnation of the young girls in the name of Islam. Amidst all the controversy, the girls eventually decided to quit for “the happiness of all”. What their critics failed to recognize was that if music were actually harām (‘prohibited’) in Islam, it should be equally so for both men and women. It is no news that there are scores of men’s musical groups and bands in Kashmir thriving and performing for millions of Kashmiris who regularly listen to and enjoy different kinds of music. No such religious decrees were extended to these men. Incidentally the same mufti had, at a later point, been spotted on camera at a musical performance.

As far as the question of whether music is harām in Islam is concerned, there has been a long debate over this subject over centuries. In fact, many extremist Muslims may say that the increasing popularity of music “poses a tremendous danger to Islam”. Interestingly, there are a number of references in historical texts, which claim that Prophet Muhammed and his wife (Ayisha) had, in fact, at various occasions, enjoyed, encouraged or expected musical performances. Different kinds of music were part of the festivities of various kinds even during those medieval times. The best ever music that we enjoy and appreciate today originates from some of the important Islamic countries and Muslim cultures of the world. From the best recitations of the religious scriptures to the qawwāli and na’at (songs of devotion), poetry and music have been an important and intrinsic part of the Islamic cultures of the world. Yet Muslim women of Kashmir are largely deprived of this blessing on the basis of unsubstantiated claims in the name of religion and Islam.

Now, going back to the earlier question of whether women can in fact “lead” prayers in mosques. For those who subscribe to such patriarchal and outdated views, it needs to be clarified that there is neither such a theological restriction in the Qur’an nor any attested statement made by the Prophet where women have been particularly prohibited from leading prayers, or where men have been specifically prescribed to do so. Such restrictions were placed about 300 years after the death of the Prophet when Islamic law was encoded, depriving Muslim women from this position by a majority rule that was put to practice for centuries up until this date. As also maintained in many important Islamic texts, praying is perceived to be a very direct and personal relationship between an individual and (his/her) God; there is no requirement for any third person to intercede between the two. Thus, a Muslim woman is entitled to a direct relationship with God as much as a Muslim man is. In other words, the question of “leading” does not even arise. However, the act of “leading” is a mere functionary practice of organizing the prayers and not a leadership role per se. The latter of course is another controversial issue in the context of the women’s role in social and religious practices in the public domain, as well as the their role in the fiq’h, the Islamic jurisprudence, which again, is based on consensus, and which in turn is male-dominated, not surprisingly.

To conclude this article, I would like to barely touch upon the notion of taqlid (lit. ‘unthinking imitation’) as being propagated by the Muslim Ulema all across the world (including Kashmir) and blindly followed and adopted by the general masses as opposed to any emphasis whatsoever on the concept of Ijtehad which should rather be highlighted as the need of the time. Ijtehad, which literally means ‘to strive to make efforts to solve a problem’, or more broadly, the concept of change and reform in organized religion, has unfortunately taken a backseat in the development and evolution of Islamic thought and thus led to various decadent and deteriorated practices which are not only old-fashioned but oppressive in character. There is an imminent and increasing need for a feminist re-interpretive schema that revisits the scriptural sources in an effect to address the gender-based discrimination in social and political rights vis-à-vis Islamic law, or Shari’a.

About the author: Dr. Sadaf Munshi is an associate professor in Linguistics and an affiliated faculty in the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute at the University of North Texas. For feedback email the author at

(This article appeared in the daily Kashmir Observer, Dec. 20, 2013. URL: )


Music in Islam: Religious matter or cultural taboo?


Language is the only trait that differentiates a human from a non-human. Poetry and music are the ultimate artistic form of expression; a society that denounces it, denounces life and human existence. Religious scriptures are a testimony to the fact that there is no objection to this art even in religion.

Many years ago soon after my arrival in the United States, I was showing some of my pictures from Kashmir to an American friend of mine. Suddenly she asked me a question: How come all men wear western clothing and women are in traditional dresses? I was taken aback. Despite being a Kashmiri woman myself, I had never before realized this stark difference in the way men and women of Kashmir dress. As of today, to think of a situation where a Kashmiri woman, especially if she is a Muslim, comes out in broad day light in a pair of jeans and western tops sounds like a blasphemy. Such a behavior is an open invitation for numerous angry and insulting remarks even if it completely covers her body. Many thekedars of the Kashmiri culture and tradition will come out in extreme wrath and declare this behavior as un-Islamic, immoral, shameless, and so forth, not to talk about the opposition from her own family. What will people say? This is what a girl has to hear every time she chooses to question the norm. But why are women to be the torchbearers of our culture and tradition? What about men?

A little while ago, it so happened that a group of three young girls in their teens decided to pursue a dream of learning and playing music, much to the despair of many a jealous eye. Their family was brave enough to encourage and support them in pursuing this dream against the social norms. But suddenly their dream was shattered. Hordes of young Kashmiri netizens came out in severe criticism and condemnation of the group on the Internet in the name of Islam. Many even showered them with loads of verbal abuse and personal threats. This continued for days until the matter caught the attention of the media. Politicians, religious leaders and separatists were invited on the national television in preparation for sensational debates. The girls caught the attention of many government and non-government bodies, social activists and women’s organizations. The ruckus became very exciting and culminated in the form of a fatwa (religious decree) against the trio extended by a certain religious leader, a “grand Mufti”, whose political affiliations still are a matter of concern. The separatist leadership, as usual, came forward with their moral policing and talk of the “tradition” while the politicians pounced upon the opportunity to criticize them. Amidst all the controversy, the girls eventually decided to quit for “the happiness of all”. Now, after all the news hype about the matter, one could only predict that it would remain the talk of the town for some more days before people would eventually forget it.

For the priests, mullahs and their supporters regarding their unsolicited advice, here is something to ponder about. If music were actually haram (‘prohibited’) in Islam, it should be so for both men and women. Music and singing by men and women has been a normal practice in the Kashmir of the days bygone. In the present day, there are scores of men’s musical groups and bands in Kashmir thriving and performing for millions of people who listen to and enjoy different kinds of music on a daily basis. Given these numbers, how many more fatwas should be extended? As far as the question of whether music is actually haram in Islam, there has been a long debate and a lot of controversy over this topic. There are a number of references in historical texts where it is claimed that the Prophet and his wife (Ayisha) had, at various occasions, enjoyed and in fact encouraged or expected musical performances. Certain types of music were recommended for festivities of various kinds even during those medieval times. The best ever music that we enjoy and appreciate today comes from some of the important Islamic countries and Muslim cultures of the world. From the best recitations of the scriptures to qawwali and na’at (songs of devotion), music has been an important and intrinsic part of the Islamic cultures of the world. Yet Muslim women have been more or less deprived of this blessing on the pretext of music being “haraam”.

But perhaps the objection was more likely for the particular genre of music and the attire chosen by these girls? The question is why does the Kashmiri society become so nervous and panicked when women adopt western cultural values? Isn’t it absolutely unfair on part of Kashmiri men to suppress or restraint women from adopting the change that they themselves have embraced? Why is the burden of tradition to be carried only by women?

Modernization brings certain changes in the way of our life and it affects men’s and women’s thinking and behavior alike. Our cultural values, our way of speaking and our clothing, all are influenced and determined by our attitude towards various things happening around us. Globalization has brought in various changes in our life-style. Our language, our dress, our cultural traits, our literary and fine arts have all been influenced and enriched along with the changing world. In general, people tend to get a certain kind of excitement in trying and exploring new things. Even in the west, more and more people are trying eastern ways of clothing, music and food. This kind of change is continuing and it is inevitable. It is naïve on part of the extremist and nationalist ideologists to expect anything on the contrary that will be healthy for the development and survival of a society and its culture.

© Sadaf Munshi

(Note: This article appeared in the June 4, 2013 issue of the daily Kashmir Observer)