For the Makkah Masjid Sharia Council, housed in the grand mosque on Chennai’s Anna Salai, a profound crisis has arisen from a seemingly minor conflict over pictures posted on social media.
On Monday, a two-judge bench of the Madras High Court observed that “unauthorised” sharia courts cannot be allowed to function on mosque premises in Tamil Nadu. Observing that places of worship cannot be allowed to function as sites for extra-judicial fora, which the bench likened to “khatta panchayats”, the court has given the Tamil Nadu government four weeks to file a reply on the issue.
The court was ruling on a public interest litigation filed by an NRI working in Sharjah, Abdul Rahman, who alleged that the illegal functioning of shariats was causing the collapse of many Muslim families. In his petition, Abdul had accused the Anna Salai sharia council of using force to obtain his consent for a divorce from his wife.
At the Makkah Masjid, Assistant Imam Syed Zubair, is eager to explain the sharia council’s side of the story. Recalling the case, the Imam says that a long-running conflict had begun not only between Abdul and his wife, but also between their families, over some instances of sharing pictures of their child on social media.
As the conflict continued and exacerbated, claims Syed Zubair, Abdul came to the sharia council as he wanted to end the whole issue with a divorce. While the Imams conducted counselling sessions for the couple, in an attempt to bring about a compromise so that the husband and wife could continue living together, Abdul was set on divorce, claims Syed Zubair.
Contradicting the HC’s characterisation of the sharia council, Syed Zubair says, “We are not functioning as "kangaroo courts" and we did not force Abdul Rahman to sign the consent letter for divorce.”
Rather than forcing a divorce on anyone, he repeats, the emphasis of the Imams had been on arriving at a compromise. “We conduct counselling sessions for married couples and we did the same for them. But after the counselling sessions, Abdul Rahman was the first one ready to sign the consent papers. His wife signed the consent paper after that," he alleges.
He asserts that the counselling process is not done in contravention of any laws, and is carried out in the presence of lawyers. He points out that the council consists of one or two High Court advocates besides the Imam and the Assistant Imam, and also includes a woman counsellor for cases involving women’s issues.
The council’s decision, Syed Zubair emphasises, is purely voluntary for parties appearing before it to follow. "We only conduct counselling sessions for married couple who are facing problems in their marriage. After about six months of counselling, the council gives a verdict but it is the will of the couple to accept it or not."
While conceding that the council does intervene in case of property disputes as well, Zubair asserts that the only function the council serves is in educating people on Islamic practices. "We only work for the people of our community and we just teach them what is right according to Islam. We have solved more than 1000 marriage issues from 2003. We also provide pre-marital counselling. We just teach people what to do after their marriage according to Islam," he said.
While the sharia council is eager to represent itself as a voluntary religious body, however, R Rajaramani, a senior lawyer who appeared for Abdul before the HC, says that the sharia council has all the trappings of a legal body.
"The sharia courts first issue summons, then they force the parties to appear before their court. When the parties appear, they ultimately pass an order. They also give case numbers, and one party is called plantiff and other party is called defendant. What is the authority they have to do all these things? Whatever is done in a court, it is done in the Sharia court also. They are private parties not statutory bodies, so a private party cannot issue summons or conduct litigations. The police also stated in their report that all these things are going on there," he says.
Contrary to the Assistant Imam’s claims, the senior lawyer says that Abdul was forced into the divorce. "Abdul Rahman belonged to a middle class family and his wife belonged to a rich family. So the wife could not adjust with Abdul Rahman. She got separated on the advice of her parents. Abdul Rahman approached the Sharia court for reunification with his wife. One day when they appeared, the court assaulted Abdul Rahman's father and then forced him (Abdul) to sign a document consenting for divorce. After which, the sharia court pronounced a judgement saying they are divorced. It was just a consent form, it does not mean he had given divorce," he says.
He also points out that the council’s decision had a legal effect, since based on this the wife got married again three months later.
As the Madras High Court awaits the response of the Tamil Nadu government, Syed Zubair says that the sharia council is “highly dissatisfied” with the court’s decision, and intends to pursue an appeal in the courts.
(Edited by Rakesh Mehar)