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India: Muslims Divided Over Issue Of Instant Divorce

A debate about whether the Koran allows men to instantly divorce their wives through the "triple talaq" is dividing Muslim communities in India. On one side is the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. It is followed by about 60 percent of India's 120 million Muslims. In India, the Hanafi interpretation of Shari'a law says that a marriage immediately ends if a man tells his wife "talaq" -- or, "I divorce you" -- three times in a row. But other Muslim schools of thought in India argue that the Koran requires a waiting period after each utterance of "talaq." The dispute has been highlighted recently by reports of several Indian Muslims who instantly divorced their wives by mail, over the telephone, and even through mobile-phone text messages.

Prague, 27 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The life of 29-year-old Bombay housewife Shabana Syeed Rizvi changed dramatically in August when she and her husband argued over the telephone.

In the heat of the moment, the Muslim couple's marriage came to an abrupt end when Rizvi's angry spouse repeated three times the word "talaq" -- or, "I divorce you" -- and then hung up the telephone.

Since then, the jobless Rizvi has been living in a single-room apartment with her elderly mother and her 4-year-old daughter:

"According to Shari'a law, I also agree that we have been divorced. But this practice should not be there in Shari'a that divorce can be given on the telephone to destroy somebody's life. The men are misusing this nowadays. People are misusing Shariah. Whenever they feel they don't like their wife anymore or are angry with us, they will leave us. My six years of married life is finished. And I have children also."

Mohammad Rafiq Razvi is the general secretary of the Raza Academy, a fundamentalist Islamic group in Bombay. He is among the conservative Islamic leaders in India who defend the practice of instant divorce under the personal laws of Muslim India.
"New laws cannot be included in [the personal laws] because these are not personal laws [from the government] -- but rather, the law of Shari'a. They have been in practice for the past 1,400 years. We have to follow them." -- Mohammad Rafiq Razvi, general secretary of the Raza Academy, a fundamentalist Islamic group in Bombay

"New laws cannot be included in [the personal laws] because these are not personal laws [from the government] -- but rather, the law of Shari'a," he said. "They have been in practice for the past 1,400 years. We have to follow them."

Maqbool Ahmed Siraj, the executive editor of the Bombay-based newspaper "Islamic Voice," said the different views on instant divorce in India reflect the divisions within the country's Muslim communities: "Of late, the [All India] Muslim Personal Law Board -- which decides over such jurisprudential matters and tries to unify the opinion among Muslims -- has also been divided on this issue. A section of the Ulema [Council of Islamic Scholars] -- who are mostly from northern India -- have been bent upon not revising, but reviewing, this particular Islamic edict. They had a difference of opinion with the rest of the body of the Ulema in India."

Siraj explained that three schools of Islamic thought in India do not approve of instant divorce: Maliki, Shafai, and Hambali. He said the main defenders of instant divorce are conservatives within India's Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence.

"This particular school has been of the view that 'talaq' -- the divorce -- has to be given in three different sittings," Siraj said. "But if a Muslim [man] tries to divorce his wife in one particular sitting by uttering triple talaq -- 'talaq, talaq, talaq' -- it becomes binding, and there cannot be any more union between the Muslim husband and the Muslim wife. It will be totally binding on the couple."

Siraj said divorce laws should follow the Koran -- and he disagreed with interpretations that allow instant divorce. To support his view, he cites verses in the Koran that speak of the need for patience, as well as time for reconciliation and arbitration between a man and wife.

"There has been a lot of resentment over this issue among Muslims -- particularly the women. They have been raising their voice that it is a totally unfair and unjust means of giving the divorce. There should be a review in the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence," Siraj said. "It should be made mandatory that a husband who wants to dissociate himself with his wife should divorce her fairly in three different sittings -- and each sitting should be made with a gap of 40 days -- in order that there is a scope for reconciliation and arbitration."

One woman on the All India Muslim Personal Law Board -- Uzma Naheed -- also argued passionately against instant divorce. She noted that the practice is unlawful in several countries where the Hanafi school is predominant -- including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and even Iraq, where many members of the Sunni minority are Hanafi followers.

Instant divorce also is illegal in Malaysia and Indonesia, and it is not recognized by the Shi'a sect of Islam.

But religious conservatives on India's Ulema Council have warned that any attempt to change India's version of Quranic law will be met with stiff resistance.

Ulema Council Vice President Maulana Abdul Quddus Kashmiri told reporters recently that those who misuse the triple "talaq" should be condemned for acting against the spirit of Islam. But he said that still does not give anyone the right to declare a divorce invalid just because the word "talaq" was uttered three times in quick succession.

(Reuters contributed some audio to this story.)