Grave issues

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Inside the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. Photo: Punit Paranjpe/AFP

Founder-members of the BMMA (from left) Zakia Soman, Nagma Sheikh and Noorjehan Niaz at a press conference. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

The Haji Ali Dargah’s decision to deny women access to the inner sanctum from 2011 is widely believed to be a retrograde step because women can pray in several dargahs in the country.

FOR 400 YEARS, THE ICONIC HAJI ALI dargah, located on an islet off Mumbai’s coastline, did not discriminate against women, allowing them to enter and pray at the shrine’s inner sanctum ( mazaar). Quite suddenly, in March 2011, a new board of trustees, citing several reasons, decided that women would be given access only up to a certain point inside the dargah but not to the inner sanctum containing the grave. A grill was erected as a boundary close to the grave, and women were told they could pray from the other side of the grill.

Interestingly, this issue did not come to light until June 2012. When a group of women from the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) went to visit the dargah, they were barred from the inner sanctum and it caused an uproar. BMMA representatives said they tried to reach out to the trustees and the State Minority Commission, appealing for a removal of this restriction. It evoked only negative responses, and they decided to file a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Bombay High Court. The court is waiting for the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Sabarimala temple case before deciding the Haji Ali judgment.

Frontline spoke to several people involved in the issue, only to find that opinions varied on the entry of women into the Haji Ali Dargah, or any dargah for that matter. The liberal opinion is that any form of discrimination is unacceptable and that it is patriarchy, not religion, which has imposed these restrictions. But many women in the community, who believe that there are different forms of worship, say that it is all right with them if religion forbids them from entering a shrine.

“The Haji Ali controversy raises several issues,” says Noorjehan Niaz of the BMMA. “Not only is it unIslamic, it is unconstitutional. Moreover, the negative and patriarchal attitude towards women in the community stands out with this move.”

Noorjehan Niaz says the Haji Ali Dargah is run by a public charitable trust and it cannot be exempt from following the rules of the Constitution. She says that when the trustees finally consented to meet the BMMA, the reasons they gave for barring women from entering the shrine were absurd and illogical. The trustees told them that the decision was taken in the interest of women’s security. Hundreds of people visited the shrine every day and they thought it would be better to have a separate enclosure for women so that they felt safe. They did not want women mingling with men as Islam only allowed a woman to pray with her husband, father or brother. And the most ridiculous reason the trustees gave was that some women did not know how to pray appropriately at the site. Their clothing was often inappropriate and this was disrespectful, said the trustees.

“We could not accept these reasons and decided to take action. Unfortunately, the state only supported us to some extent via the Ministry of Minority Affairs. Hopefully, we will get a favourable judgment soon,” says Noorjehan Niaz. “Some people say that we should fight for bigger issues within the Muslim community, particularly those concerning women. However, we believe that all issues are important. There cannot be a hierarchy among issues as each one of them is connected. We cannot allow male dominance over these matters,” she says.

“It has to be very clear that this is not about religion. It is about women having the right to equal access to a sacred space,” says Javed Anand from the Muslims for Secular Democracy, and the Committee for Justice and Peace. “We must understand that custom cannot override the Constitution.”

Just as in the case of many temples, some dargahs allow women and some do not. For instance, the famous Ajmer Sharif Dargah in Rajasthan does not have these rules. Some of the trustees of the Haji Ali Dargah belong to the Makhdoom Baba Dargah in Mahim in Mumbai, which does not impose such restrictions on women. Unless they are trying to keep out non-Muslims, Haji Ali’s move has no logic, says Javed Anand.

Another issue that has emerged from the controversy is whether Muslim women can visit dargahs to pray. Zeenat Shaukat Ali, a scholar and professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Mumbai, says categorically that there is no authentic historical data to say women cannot pray at dargahs.

No legal or religious basis

Zeenat Shaukat Ali, author of a paper titled “Women and their entry in the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah”, says: “This attitude, besides bringing to the forefront misogynistic attitudes and patriarchal assertions of male domination, is surprising for a secular democracy like India where the Constitution lays down that there could be no discrimination on the basis of religion, caste or gender. Islam endorses this constitutional right. There is no authentic scriptural injunction in Islam against equal rights for women or against the entry of women into the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah.

“Perhaps visiting graves was not permissible for men and women alike in early Islam as attachment and supplication to the dead were widespread. In Islam, worship is meant only for God and there is no second opinion on that. Thus, grave worship was not allowed, only as a preventive measure. But once the teachings of Islam were well established, visiting graves became permissible since they were reminders of death and the thereafter. This applied to women as well because when the Prophet prohibited his followers from visiting graves, it was meant equally for men and for women. Therefore, when he lifted the prohibition, he did so for both men and women.”

It is important to note that the grave of Prophet Muhammad is inside a room of the house of Hazrat Ayesha; the grave of Hazrat Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of Islam and father of Ayesha, is in another room ; the grave of Hazrat Umar al Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam, is also in a room of the house of Ayesha.

Zeenat Shaukat Ali says those who object to women visiting graves cite three hadiths in support of their view: (a) “Allah curses the women who visit graves” ( la‘ana Allàhu zà’iràt al-qubur); (b) “Allah curses the women who visit graves and take them for places of worship ...”; and (c) “Allah curses the women who frequently visit graves” ( la‘ana Allàhu zawwàràt al-qubur).

Islamic scholars say it is important to understand why offering prayers at a grave or shrine is important. Zeenat Shaukat Ali says these prayers were for the peace of the departed soul and for its salvation. “It is also what we call an ibrat—when we go to a grave, we understand who we are, where we come from and where we end. It’s a form of catharsis.”

The beauty of the Haji Ali Dargah is that it is open to people of all faiths. Built in 1431, the shrine is an exquisite example of the Indo-Islamic style of architecture, say history texts. The shrine was constructed in memory of a wealthy businessman, Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, who eventually renounced his worldly possessions and took to spreading Sufism. Its unique location and the mystic element associated with it as the shrine of a sufi saint attract thousands of people from across the world.

In order to preserve the universal and secular fabric of the dargah, organisations and activists in Mumbai have gathered under the umbrella group known as “Haji Ali Sabke Liye” (Haji Ali for all). The group, which includes organisations such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the Mrinal Gore Interactive Centre for Social Justice and Peace in South Asia, Muslims for Democracy, and several well-known Muslim intellectuals including the film-maker Saeed Mirza, and Zeenat Shaukat Ali, wants to create public awareness about the facts relating to the issue as there is a risk of the issue becoming communal. “In the current climate, issues are twisted to suit political agendas and we must prevent that,” says Javed Siddiqui, a well-known screenplay writer.

At a meeting of Haji Ali Sabke Liye, women activists felt that after having gained so much in the struggle for women’s rights, it was a pity that temple and dargah problems have set them back yet again. “These are regressive rules. We have to move forward. I don’t care if a ghost will haunt me if I go to a grave [one of the reasons given by the trustees]. If a woman can be buried in a grave, why can’t she visit it?” asks Varsha Vilas from the Sadbhavana Sangh, a non-governmental organisation.

The trustees did not want to comment on the issue as it was sub judice.