Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bangladesh: Supreme Court Seeks Opinion on Fatwas

by Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

In a fatwa, issued last month during arbitration by the clergy, Hena, a 14-year-old rape victim, was ordered to receive100 lashes, while the alleged rapist was at large. The girl fainted halfway through the flogging and later died. The Bangladesh Supreme Court has reopened this case.

Taking up a 10-year old pending appeal, Bangladesh Supreme Court has sought the opinion of Islamic scholars on the status and application of fatwa or Islamic religious edicts. The Director General of Islamic Foundation in Bangladesh has been asked by the court to table the opinions of the Muslim scholars by March 21, 2011. The Muslim scholars can appear in person if they prefer to give verbal statement on the issue.

The Supreme court passed the order on an appeal challenging a Jan 1, 2001 high court verdict that declared all punishments imposed in the name of fatwa illegal. Since independence, Bangladesh has witnessed several cases of priests at mosques issuing fatwas trying to deliver informal justice. Judges Mohammad Gholam Rabbani and Nazmun Ara Sultana in the landmark 2001 judgment declared that the "legal system of Bangladesh empowers only the courts to decide all questions relating to the legal opinions on the Muslim and other laws as in force in Bangladesh."

The 2001 judgment was stayed, however, following a Supreme Court order. The Supreme Court passed the stay order against the backdrop of the killing of seven people in violent clashes between police and demonstrators, who took to the street following the verdict.

The eminent jurist Dr Kamal Hossain said some people, for personal gain, are involved in illegal practice of issuing fatwas in the rural areas of the country.

Punishment in the name of fatwa is against the Constitution, Hossain said during the hearing of a long overdue appeal against a High Court verdict that earlier declared fatwas illegal.

No barbarism in the name of fatwa should be allowed in the society, Dr. Kamal said. Fatwas are ilegal, as per the Bangladesh Coinstitution.

According to reports, more than 503 women in Bangladesh have been subjected to flogging through Fatwas since 2000. The issuing of religious edicts has not yet been banned. The high court declared in 2001 that Fatwa is illegal; speakers said at a roundtable titled "No More Fatwa" in Dhaka on March 6, 2011.

Meanwhile, Muslim women have been banned from traveling more than 48 miles from their homes without being chaperoned by a male relative, according to a fatwa issued by one of Islam's leading universities. The ruling was made by the Darul Uloom Deoband, the leading Islamic university founded Iin 1866 in northern India. The University has thousands of followers from Bangladesh and Pakistan in Muslim communities in Britain

The latest Fatwa was issued after a female follower had asked: "Is a married woman permitted to travel to another country with her female sibling?"

In a reply on the Deoband website, she was told: "She cannot travel without a 'mehram' [male relative]. It is mentioned in the Hadees that a woman should not travel for more than 48 miles except in the company of a 'mehram' relative."

This response, which was delivered on International Women's Day, provoked anger among Muslim women activists, who said it was based on conditions in the Arabian Peninsula more than 1,400 years ago and no longer relevant in the modern world.

The decision was defended by a Deobandi spokesman, however, who said the increase in violent crime against women in India showed it remained relevant. "No Muslim family should have any objections," he said.

Although Bangladesh claims to be a secular state, Islam still continues to be the state religion, as per the constitution. Any comment against madrassas, the clergy and activities inside madrassas are considered to be blasphemous, an offense punishable under the law. On the other hand, Bangladesh continues to lift the ban on the religious publications of Ahmadiyas as some of the fanatic Muslims issued Fatwas against this sect of Muslims as "non-Muslims." Anti-Ahmadiya groups demolished a number of mosques of the Ahmadiyas in Bangladesh during 1996-2006, and hundreds of Ahmadiyas were tortured by groups of the Muslim clergy in various parts of the country.

The trend of Fatwas is, in fact,increasing in Bangladesh as the number of Koranic madrassas has crossed the 73,000 mark, and there is mushrooming growth of Kindergarten madrassas, funded by dubious Afro-Arab sources. Taking the advantage of this situation, Jihadist Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Hizb-ut-Towhid, and others, were able to gain tremendous strength in the country. Even though the government banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir a few years back, Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Towhid are still continuing their activities.

Fatwas are also encouraged and promoted by Tablighi Jamaat, which has already spread tremendously within Bangladesh. The annual congregation of Tablighi Jamaat, where millions of people attend from around the country and abroad, has recently started holding two sessions instead of one to house the increased number of participants. At Dhaka's Kakrail area, Tablighi Jamaat has established its headquarters at Kakrail Mosque, which also is another epicenter of promoting Fatwa and radical Islamist ideology.

In rural Bangladesh, Fatwas are very much in practice: societies there are under the control of local elites, who prefer forming Sharia Committees, or Islamic Societies, with the objective of establishing unquestioned dominance over the local population. Aside from the flogging of men and women under Sharia law, there is also practice of Hila marriage in rural Bangladesh as well as other Muslim nations. In English it could be translated into an "interim" marriage or a marriage in between two marriages. According to a Fatwa issued by the Muslim clergy, when a Muslim man divorces his wife by uttering Arabic word "Talaq" three times, his wife must be married to another person, even if he later decides to withdraw that pronouncement would like to reconcile with his wife -- jeopardizing the majority of reconciliation plans.

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Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

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