Scholars divided over allowing women in Haji Ali dargah

Hindustan Times | By, Mumbai
Oct 21, 2015 12:23 AM IST

Scholars have a diverging view on whether women should be banned from the inner sanctums of dargahs which are tombs of spiritual leaders

In reply to a public interest litigation which said that barring women from the sanctum of the Haji Ali dargah amounts to sexual discrimination, the shrine trust has told the Bombay High Court said that it was a ‘sin’ to allow women inside the tomb.

The petitioners in the case, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, have called the trust’s contention a ‘lie’. “I have always lived in Mumbai and have been visiting Haji Ali since I was a child. Till 2011, I remember going inside the sanctum along with groups of women. Suddenly in July 2012, when we visited the dargah, we were barred from going inside,” said Noorjehan Safia Naaz of the group. “The trustees are lying when they say that women were never allowed inside.”

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Scholars have a diverging view on whether women should be banned from the inner sanctums of dargahs which are tombs of spiritual leaders. Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, religious scholar and former head of Islamic studies at St Xavier’s College, said that she has been unable to find any scriptural dictum that stopped women from visiting graves.

Ali gives the example of Ayesha, the wife of prophet Mohammad, who is believed to have lived in the mosque where her husband was buried. “They were living in the mosque, and after he died and was buried, she continued to live there,” said Ali. The prophet, in fact, said that people should visit graves, at least for the reason that one becomes aware of their mortality.

Other religious scholars disagreed. “There is a religious reason for restrictions on entry of women,” said Maulana Arif Umri, an expert in religious laws. “Women are not allowed to enter a graveyard and the dargah is a grave. It is a misunderstanding that the prophet’s wife lived near his grave.”

The trustees of Haji Ali dargah, which enshrines the grave of a fifteenth-century merchant who renounced his wealth and opted for a life of piety, said they have both religious and security reasons for placing restrictions. “Under article 26 of the country’s constitution, the trustees have the liberty to take decisions about the day-to-day functioning of the trust,” said Sohail Khandwani, trustee of the Haji Ali dargah and also a trustee in Mumbai’ other popular dargah, Pir Makhdum, in Mahim. “We have never stopped them from entering the sanctum, however women have used a separate enclosure.”

Abdul Lateef Kazi, trustee of the Nawab Ayaz Ali Khan Dargah, also called the Lalbaug Dargah, said there are theological reasons for restricting the entry of women into dargahs. “Women cannot go to a graveyard, so there is no question of them being allowed into dargahs. My understanding of religious laws is not very deep but this is what the Shariah says,” said Kazi.

Ali said she was not convinced. “The sources that they provide (in support of contention that women should not enter the sanctum) do not give 100% proof that women cannot go inside dargahs,” said Ali.

The petitioners said that are not surprised at the reply given by the dargah trust. “In a way the reply was expected. They have long lied about the position,” said Naaz.

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