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Islamic Ideology Council (IIC) and family/personal laws of Pakistan

This is a guest post by Assia Bandukda

As an ordinary Muslim of Pakistani origin I am baffled by the recent recommendations of Islamic Ideology Council (IIC) to the Pakistani legislature to remove the current minimum age of marriage as well as the limitation on polygamy because the present restrictions are deemed un-Islamic. Currently the minimum age of marriage is 18 years and a man is allowed to take a second wife only after consent of the first wife. IIC is a non-elected advisory body ensuring that all laws conform to Quran and Sunna i.e. the way of the Prophet (pbuh). There is some ambiguity on IIC’s role as the constitution of Pakistan requires all laws to be in accordance with Quran and Sunna in any case. IIC is made up of 16 non-elected members representing different Islamic schools of thought, who are appointed by different political/religious parties.

In the current power struggle between conservative and liberal forces within the country it seems that this latest activism by IIC is part of the creeping Talibanisation of Pakistani society, an attempt to claw back and curb the public space for women and children.

In the last 30 years Pakistan’s social and political progress has been repeatedly disrupted by unconstitutional military take over as well as the Afghanistan wars and the fallout from the ‘War on terror’. In ‘the war on terror’ more than 60,000 civilian and military personnel were killed or injured, with 100’s of attacks on security forces. Scores of mosques and churches, schools, hospitals, railway tracks and gas supply lines were bombed by terrorists. Whilst the government of Nawaz Sharif is tentatively moving towards dialogue and apparently trying to reach a political solution, IIC’s latest pronouncements will cause further divisions. Pakistan is currently facing an existential threat from the many headed monster of religious extremism which can only be defeated through building consensus and unity.

A quick straw poll would reveal that most ordinary Pakistanis are concerned about poverty, lack of basic facilities such as clean water, adequate nutrition, access to health and education, rampant corruption, high inflation, power shortages. At the international level Pakistan is struggling to meet its development goals including poverty reduction, infant mortality, maternal mortality, literacy and education. It beggars belief that according to IIC the most pressing problems of Pakistan require further draconian interpretation of personal and family law. Whose priorities and agenda does IIC serve?

The media continues to highlight cases of women and children, who are abandoned in shelters across Pakistan because the father/husband has taken on another wife and is unable to fulfil the economic needs of both families. That is the real issue that IIC should be focusing on rather than trying to portray that men are at a disadvantage because the law requires them to discuss with their existing family members the suitability of taking on another wife.

Besides how can our Islamic leaders/ scholars continue to remain oblivious to the suffering of the poor and illiterate masses whilst repeating the mantra of Islam being a ‘complete way of life’.  Surely   the so called religious experts and scholars realise that Islam was revealed to fulfil God’s plan for the development and uplift of mankind and to alleviate the suffering of the poor rather than just a ticket to paradise? If we believe that Islam is a religion that offers eternal guidance for mankind then surely we need to apply our best and most appropriate understanding of our faith to solve current social and economic problems. Otherwise there is a real danger of continued fossilising of our creator’s guidance and increasingly making our faith irrelevant in the age of modernity.

A close analysis of Quran makes it clear that almost all the revelations relate to the social, economic and political problems confronted by the early Muslim community. There is a strong tradition of looking to the original texts as a source of spiritual guidance to formulate answers for current problems. So for example, majority of scholars do not have any problems with laws relating to family planning etc… In similar way there is sufficient research evidence to show that high population growth can be reduced through encouraging people to delay marrying as it is likely to reduce the potential number of births per family. So IIC’s recent recommendations totally go against the spirit of what is in the best interest of the Muslim communities.  Besides it is unclear whether the proposed lowering of marriage age is only for girls or would it also apply to boys. Otherwise it will go against the inherent justice and fairness of Quranic laws. This would also throw the legal validity of the nikah which is a social contract into question and raises the issue of whether Muslim children can enter into other contracts too such as taking bank loans, buying property and be charged zikat (religious taxation for the benefit of the poor) etc. Furthermore in Islamic marriages traditionally men are expected to take on the financial responsibilities – how would male children perform such duties.

In the recent months the international media has highlighted cases of paedophilia in many countries, thus recommending a change in law will most definitely show our faith in very poor light indeed. In the current interconnected and interdependent world we cannot afford to further isolate ourselves. Pakistan is signatory to the UN conventions on gender equality as well as protection of minors and so we are bound by these mutual contracts and treaties. Members of IIC must be aware of our international agreements as well as the importance Islam places on upholding contracts and treaties, including with non-Muslims or even with our enemies.

My humble suggestion for the IIC members is to assist the government in ensuring peace, justice and equality of opportunities for all members of Pakistani society regardless of gender, age, religious affiliations. IIC should be following the Prophetic tradition of becoming a voice for the downtrodden and vulnerable members of society rather than creating fitna (chaos) through such irrelevant pronouncements.