Patriarchal interpretations of Quran and the need for community reforms

By Birendra Ram Mishra, Ramprashan Singh, Santosh Kumar Pradhan, Sonu Khan, Gatha G Namboothiri*

Most of the women in Panso gau (‘village’) gathered at a common place in their village. Situated in the Gumla district of Jharkhand, Panso is a Muslim dominated village. The Rehnuma Law Centre team started the gau mulaakat (‘village get together’) with a seemingly simple question; what do we need in society for women to be happy? Amidst responses revolving around education, livelihood opportunities, implementation of government schemes and so on, several conversations also took place on women’s rights and the problems affecting Muslim women.

While talking about polygamy in the Muslim community, discussions around triple talaq naturally crept into the discourse. Amidst this, one of the women present tried correcting a Rehnuma team member and stated that men are allowed up to seven marriages under Muslim personal law. The woman who answered and engaged with the team is married to a maulana (a Muslim religious scholar).

In actuality, while the Quran sets the maximum number of wives a man can have at a time as four, the holy text also mandates men to have only one wife if they cannot treat all wives with equal fairness. 

On being asked how she came to believe so, she conveyed that the religious leaders and the men in their families had passed this information on. She is not the only woman to believe so; there is much misinformation and misleading credence closely held by the women.

Misconceptions about personal laws rife among Muslim women

The patriarchal and selective interpretations of Islam on women, especially by conservative men from the community, has resulted in much harm being caused to them. Lack of education among women is a factor that precludes them from reading and learning the Quran directly. This automatically gives men the exclusive right to interpret religious scriptures, thereby allowing them to interpret them in a way that serves their needs.

In recent times, many women have been working to remove such patriarchal interpretations of the Quran. They analyse the religious texts of Islam and compare them with the interpretations of the text. Such comparison lays a foundation for analysing how the original text’s interpretations have transformed over time to work against women, and leads to calls for more inclusive interpretations of the religious text. For example, Asma Barlas’s “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an examines the text of the Quran to conclude that it advocates for equal rights of both men and women.

Women have fought many battles against conservative and patriarchal interpretation of religious texts. They have won some such as securing women’s right to worship at the Haji Ali Dargah, and outlawing the practice of triple talaq. They are in the process of fighting many more, such as the one against the practice of female genital mutilation, while a lot more are yet to take birth. 

To ensure that the future battles are won and patriarchal interpretations of the Quran are replaced, there must be active measures instituted to educate people about these holy texts. For this, there need to be reforms within the community.

The education level of the Muslim community continues to be among the lowest in India. It is even lower for Muslim women than men. With stringent barriers to accessing education and employment, much of the knowledge passed on to the women is through informal sources within their community, such as men in the families or the community and local religious leaders. Hence, there is an urgent need to ensure that not only the women but these men, too, receive a good education in the first place.

Reforming madrasas and maktabs

In India, madrasas are an integral part of the Islamic learning system, and the institution where Muslims attain religious and regular learnings. These religious schools are either community-based or run by private sects, religious boards or the government. The publicly-funded madrasas are recognised as equivalent to the conventional schools whose curriculum is governed by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in states such as West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, which have instituted State Madrasa Boards to similarly standardise the teaching at madrasas.

As the institution of madrasa is one of the most critical thought-influencers in the community, more attention needs to be paid to ensure the quality of these spaces and the pedagogy followed. Due to a shortage in funds, they face several hurdles: the number and competence of their teachers are inadequate, and there is no timely revision to curriculum, among other things.

Many madrasas today have been reduced to institutions where young boys memorise the Holy Quran without any space for understanding the learning and its interpretations, let alone raise questions. They would be unaware many times of what the Quran actually preaches. 

Ensuring the quality of madrasa education is also vital as it produces the ulemas and the imams, the religious experts and leaders, of the community.

In 2019, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind decided to initiate steps to improve the madrasa education, motivated by its role in the community’s overall socio-economic progress. The Justice Rajinder Sachar-led High Level Committee’s report has also highlighted the need for good quality education to uplift the status of the community. Several suggestions have been put forward to improve the system, such as standardising the madrasa education curriculum, and creating an autonomous body to aid this process. However, none of them have worked out yet.

It is hoped that the community members themselves recognize the transformative impact a well-functioning and adequate educational system can have on their overall socio-economic development as a community. Only active efforts spurting from within the community to reform and modernise madrasas can bring secular academics within their ambit. This must, of course, be complemented by state intervention to introduce a space for scientific education and secular studies, and provide funds. Any state intervention, though, must respective community sensitivities, and ensure not to be seeing as intruding on their religious curriculum.

Madrasas are not the only place where reform is needed. It is a widely held belief that most Muslim children attend madrasas for their education. This was refuted by the Sachar Committee Report that pointed out that only a small proportion (4%) of Muslim children attend madrasas.

Many children from the community go to the local neighbourhood maktabs, which are schools attached to mosques that only impart religious education. They are not a substitute for conventional formal schooling, but only complement it. Hence, it must be ensured that children attending maktabs must also attend a conventional school.

In the absence of affordable private schools and a high-quality and adequate public education system, the State needs to work with existing forms of learning systems within the community such as madrasas and maktabs, and focus on their holistic development.

*The authors associated with the Jharkhand Unit of the Centre for Social Justice and are actively involved in providing legal representation to marginalised communities in Gumla. They may be contacted at rehnuma.jharkhand@gmail.com. Views are personal. This article was originally published on The Leafletand can be viewed here

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