INTERVIEW: M. SALIM ENGINEER ‘Talaq issue politicised’

Interview with M. Salim Engineer, secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. By ZIYA US SALAM

THE past month or so has not been easy for Muslim bodies. Every now and then questions have been asked about the validity of triple talaq —why the method of instant, irrevocable divorce should be allowed in India after it has been cast aside in about a dozen Muslim countries. There have been dissenting voices from among Muslim women, too. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board has argued that the government has no role to play in religious matters and that divine word is immutable. Various Muslim bodies recently came on a common platform to decry any move aimed at adopting a uniform civil code, but they did not react on the subject of triple talaq in the same unequivocal manner. While arguing that the best method of divorce is the one prescribed by the Quran, they stopped short of condemning the practice altogether. Some of them conceded feebly that it is talaq-e-biddat, or divorce with innovation not backed by the Quran or the Shariah.

Amidst the din, the cool-headed and articulate secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, Mohammed Salim Engineer, cleared the air on the subject. While admitting that there is a section within the community that accepts triple talaq and quotes a decision of Caliph Umar in its favour, he stated that talaq as such should be the last option if a marriage failed. Islam, he emphasised, encouraged believers to explore all options of reconciliation. The process for divorce is outlined by the Quran, he added. Expressing concern that there is a trust deficit between the community and the government, Engineer reiterated that a small issue had been blown out of proportion with ulterior motives. “And the media do not present the right picture,” he added. He spoke to Frontline on the sensitive issues of triple talaq, halala, jurisdiction of the courts, and interpretation of the scriptures. Excerpts:

What is the stand of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind on the subject of triple talaq as an irrevocable form of divorce?

The Jamaat does not take a stand in isolation. We are one with various Muslim bodies on the subject of triple talaq and a uniform civil code. There is no conflict among Muslim bodies. We do believe that triple talaq should be avoided. The procedure prescribed in the Quran is the correct one—each divorce pronouncement to be at an interval of a month. And before that, all avenues of reconciliation need to be explored. The two parties, boy and girl, should sit together. There should be a representative from both to overcome the differences through discussion. Only when things reach such a pass that cohabitation becomes difficult should the option of divorce be explored.

You talk of all Muslim bodies being one on the subject when Ahl-e-Hadith denounces the practice and there is a section (mostly followers of the Hanafi school of thought) that accepts triple talaq.

I understand that the Ahl-e-Hadith followers consider triple talaq or multiple utterances of talaq at a single sitting as a single divorce only. In fact, that is the stand of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board as well where Ahl-e-Hadith people are also represented. But there are some Muslims who believe that pronouncement of three talaqs annuls marriage. They give their reasons.

It has been almost 70 years since we attained Independence. Should not Muslim jamaats have sorted out the issue through discussion among themselves? Should not all the sects be on the same page on the subject of triple talaq?

In a democracy you are allowed to have a difference of opinion. And Islam does not muzzle anybody’s voice. It encourages dialogue, discussion, debate. We can’t force the opinion down anybody’s throat even if their reasons are weak or not always well founded in Islamic tradition.

On the subject of triple talaq, we all consider the Quranic procedure to be the right one, but there are some people who believe that triple talaq at one go also dissolves marriage. They do quote from the ruling of Caliph Umar, but those were exceptions rather than the norm. Having said that, we must not forget that triple talaq in some cases can be beneficial for a woman if she is trapped in a bad or violence-ridden marriage. We, and most Muslim bodies, believe that on the subject of talaq intention is paramount. If a person says talaq many times over but does not mean to end the marriage, then it is considered single, revocable divorce. No remarriage is necessary in such a case. The man and the woman concerned can go back to living as husband and wife. However, the issue has been blown out of proportion in recent times. There is complete politicisation of the issue, and people who know nothing on the subject are calling for a ban.

You talk of triple talaq being accepted by a section of Muslims, but there are about a dozen Muslim countries that have prohibited it.

There are countries that have banned it just as there are so many countries that allow it. But no country is a role model for us. Some rules are country-specific, depending on the adherents there.

The Supreme Court in the Shamim Ara case in 2003 wanted to find out if the husband had followed the correct Islamic procedure while divorcing his wife. Does it not make the subject open to interpretation by legal eagles?

The Supreme Court is not qualified to interpret the Quran, or even the Shariah. There are different schools of thought within Islam and they do a lot of good work. They have their own interpretation. We cannot say this school’s approach is correct, or that approach is totally wrong. Everybody has reasons.

The provision of “halala” is often grossly misused. Some marriages are conducted just for “halala”. What is your take on the subject?

Halala, the way it is used, is a sin. It is a gross misrepresentation of facts. The correct way is about giving a woman options in her life if she has had two unsuccessful marriages.

To conduct halala wherein there is a tacit understanding of divorce shortly afterwards scoffs at the provision. It is only to be used if a woman divorced irrevocably by her husband marries again, and that marriage, too, ends for whatever reason, either divorce or the husband’s death. Then, if she wants to marry her first husband again, it is allowed.

At a time when there is a raging debate on triple talaq, is it not advisable to make Muslim women aware of khula?

It is not correct to say khula is a woman's counterpart to talaq. In fact, if divorce is initiated by a man, it is talaq. If it is initiated by a woman, it is khula. There are set procedures for them in Islam. But be it, khula or nikaah, talaq or maintenance, there is a need for greater awareness. In the absence of awareness, the provisions are often misused. And, at times, women are victimised, just as there are occasions when men too become victims. We definitely need to have better awareness and understanding of these issues.