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Sharia courts as family settlement forums are not completely bad

The Supreme Court verdict on Monday terming Sharia courts in the country and the fatwas issued by them as illegal is certain to generate new discussions on Muslim personal law, but the least it should do is letting zealots demonise Islam.

Neither is it an occasion to discuss Article 370 or uniform civil code.

 Sharia courts as family settlement forums are not completely bad

Representational image. AFP

The apex court reiterates a legal position held by moderate Muslims and their organisations that the Sharia courts are no parallel courts, that they have no legal standing, and that their role is only advisory in nature. The sharia courts come into picture only when two consenting parties approach it without going to a regular court for settling mostly family matters.

"We never claimed that we are constitutional institutions or we have legal powers. We are private institutions and we decide the matters as per Sharia when parties approach us," said All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) assistant secretary Mohammed Abdul Raheem Qureshi, according to reports. He also highlighted the fact that the apex court has turned down the plea to ban such courts.

But wait a minute. What are Sharia courts and where do they exist?

Sharia courts are generally forums set up by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), where "qazis appointed by the Board hear the community’s various disputes, barring criminal cases, and deliver judgements." "This court will function to settle mainly family disputes pertaining to marriage, divorce and inheritance. Marriage disputes will be settled quickly and the couples will be told to either reconcile or separate if reconciliation is not possible. It will save the community much time and money as fighting cases in civil courts is expensive and time-consuming," a Times of India report in April quoted AIMPLB secretary Maulana Wali Rahman on the occasion of the inauguration of Maharashtra’s first Sharia court.

Do they exist everywhere in the country? According to available information, they operate in Bihar, Hyderabad and Malegaon. It's not a uniform feature in the lives of Muslims across India and many are not even aware of the existence of such forums. For instance, in Kerala, where Muslims constitute about 25 percent of the population, there is not a single Sharia court. Also unheard in the state are fatwas issues by quazis, muftis and maulvis.

Not that they are extra judicial or completely useless. Since they operate within the realm of Muslim personal law and use Islamic jurisprudence, people who approach the Sharia courts seem to be happy with their verdicts, or rather “advises”. Some even argue that without being extra constitutional, they reduce the burden on regular courts, particularly on family issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

In fact, there are positive spin offs. For instance, the possibility of Sharia courts has spurned Muslim women into Sharia court activists. A Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) began setting up such courts exclusively for women in July 2013. In the first phase, they reportedly set up such forums in Dindigul, Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad to be followed up by Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa, UP, Bihar, Karnataka and Jharkhand.

One such all woman court, which had a successful run so far is in Pune according to this Daily News and Analysis report. The report quotes Saeeda Jamadar, president of the court as saying: "around 10 women approach the Pune Shariat court on a daily basis and the response has been encouraging with more and more people flocking to the Shariat court seeking justice".

Legal issues related to Muslim personal law always generate sharp responses within the community and outside. The Muslim Women Bill of 1986 was an interesting example. Contrary to the beliefs that some sought to purvey, Muslim women hadn’t taken it lying down. As a 1989 article by scholar Zoya Hassan in Economic and Political Weekly noted, Muslim women’s opposition was a significant feature of the protest against the Bill in Kerala, West Bengal, Mumbai and Delhi. Mullas were derided for converting Muslim law into an instrument of injustice. Similarly, they haven't accepted the Sharia courts unilaterally; instead they created a resistance mechanism.

The Supreme Court order is, therefore, a great opportunity to demystify many of the myths about Islam and the Muslim personal law than launching on skewed hardline attack on certain sections of our society.

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Updated Date: Jul 08, 2014 14:53:59 IST