For the past few years, journalist and author Ziya Us Salam has been releasing books at a surprisingly rapid pace.
Seen from the perspective of commercial success, nine titles in some 24 months — not counting the ones translated into several Indian languages — would definitely be considered an enviable pace. But then this is no list of potboiler novels.
Salam’s works are not just topical but frequently searing: the rise of fundamentalism in India; chronicles of the shocking mob lynchings of defenceless citizens in the name of cow protection and championing of Hindutva; an analytical look at madrasas today and yesterday; the fraught issue of welcoming women worshippers into mosques; the scriptural and legal angles of ‘instant triple talaq’; and the topic of the book under review, nikah halala, a notorious practice.
Though written more from a journalistic than a scholarly angle, these books will likely be studied by historians when they trace India’s transformation as the 20th century lurched uncertainly into the 21st. What was once a diverse and highly flawed but vociferously vocal democracy, with fierce political debates common even among the illiterate, is today a country of polarised communities where disinformation has been sharpened to a degree of weaponisation and fear of political reprisal is a tangible deterrent to free speech. In this downward spiral, perhaps no group has been more relentlessly attacked, both metaphorically and literally, its very right to existence questioned, than India’s Muslim citizens.
So Salam’s impressive run of new releases, a few of them bestsellers, even as he holds down a full-time job as a journalist, has no doubt also been an intensely personal and troubling journey too, an aspect occasionally touched upon in his writing.
How can Indian politics today be anything but a deeply personal tumult for any of us, as our individual choices in clothes, food, entertainment, colours, in ways to pray and live are hauled up and judged under the ugly glare of a frenzied mob mentality? But information and knowledge counter the downward spiral, and Salam’s body of work is an inspiration to the resilient.
Salam has a journalistic penchant for finding a story that needs telling along with a reverence for Islam, which he tirelessly strives to explain and decode for an array of readers – both those belonging to other religions and those of the Muslim faith. His frank critique of traditions that have crept into the day-to-day practice of Islam, particularly in India and the rest of the subcontinent, ensures that the oversensitive sometimes take offence at his ‘raking up’ of unsavoury topics, such as why so many mosques don’t create facilities for female worshippers, when the faith is already at the receiving end of so much bad propaganda.
But if this author is devoted to Islam, he is as devoted to saying what needs to be said, and perhaps it is his stature as a devout, practising Muslim – I have come to know this after working with him for close to two decades – that qualifies him to speak about the subject, with a more persuasive voice than a mere intellectual scholar or a more pragmatic modernist.
The somewhat provocative subtitle of Nikah Halala is emblematic of the author’s scathing view of a practice that he explains has no sanction according to the Quran or the hadiths but is nevertheless prevalent throughout many parts of the subcontinent and is a gross distortion of women’s rights in marriage. Through examples taken from both legal cases and personal interviews of men and women off the public radar, Salam shows how women are first convinced that they have been divorced by their husband, and then forced to literally “sleep with a stranger” to become ‘eligible’ to reunite with the husband who is now repentant and hopes for a reconciliation.
Say a man divorces his wife (by saying ‘talaq’ out loud three times), but he regrets his words in a day or two, and the two decide to reconcile. The couple is frequently told that the woman can no longer just carry on being his wife, nor can she even formally marry him again, until and unless she first marries another man, consummates the marriage and then gets a divorce from the second husband.
Such a marriage is arranged for the woman by helpful relatives, sometimes by a maulana, and often by the frustrated husband himself, in the misguided belief that this experience will serve as his chastisement for losing his temper. A temporary groom is found, merely for the sake of going through a sham nikah, followed by sexual intercourse. Thus, the woman who had become ‘haram’ for her legally married husband, becomes ‘halal’ for him once she has slept with another man.
The author, drawing a parallel to prostitution, describes how money is frequently a part of this transaction, the groom being generously ‘compensated’ for his services. If all parties stick to their word, the procedure is over within a few days. But sometimes the new husband is loath to give up his new bride, leading to further anguish. The reason many women submit to this abuse of their right over their own body, with no legal safeguards, notes Salam, is that they may have children from the first marriage and be desperate to get back together with the father. Husbands, brought up to believe that a wife is a possession that can be stolen and retrieved, too may shudder through this grisly turn of events for the sake of future stability.
Nikah Halala makes it amply clear through references to verses and interpretations of scholars that this procedure has no sanction in the Quran and is a distortion of the Prophet’s intention. In the third chapter, “The Islamic Perspective”, the author, referring to Surah Baqarah, verse 229, writes, “The Quran says, ‘Divorce can be pronounced twice: then, either honourable retention or kindly release should follow.’”
Further on in the same chapter, we learn that these two pronouncements of divorce are to be separated by at least a month. The wife’s menstrual cycle is taken into account when prescribing the times when the husband can pronounce divorce, presumably because, in Islam, a divorce cannot take place while she is pregnant.
Elsewhere, the author writes:
“After the first divorce, if he realises his mistake, and his wife agrees, he can either annul his divorce through word or action or marry her again with a fresh nikah after the expiry of the iddah period; no third person’s involvement is needed. It is the same if he divorces her for the second time. She does not need to marry anybody else and it can be a direct reunion of the erring couple.”
If the intention to divorce is repeated a third time however, the divorce becomes irrevocable. In this case, the couple does not have the option of indulging a change of heart. The woman officially becomes ‘haram’ for her former husband and is free to choose another partner. Should she marry again, and should she by chance become a widow or divorcee, she is once more a woman free to choose a husband. In such a scenario, the first husband is allowed to be a prospective suitor too, says the author. In these circumstances, she has become ‘halal’ for him once more.
It is this provision regarding the possibility that the woman’s second marriage might end too, allowing the former husband to be a suitor, that has been grossly misinterpreted to force women into nikah halala in so many instances in India. Instead of being considered an incidental circumstance that may — or indeed may not — lead to a woman remarrying her former husband, nikah halala gets turned into a precondition for a marriage to the first husband!
Knitted in with the sham marriage is the sham divorce. Once it is clear that a couple may get divorced twice and revoke it twice, but the third divorce is irrevocable, there seems no scope to accept that “talaq” pronounced thrice in the same sitting also signifies an irrevocable divorce. However, this is regularly happening due to ignorance. And is followed up by the equally erroneous and unfair demand for nikah halala. The author states on page 40, “In fact, the misuse and distortion of the halala practice in the Indian subcontinent stems from the practice of instant triple talaq. Halala takes place after an instant triple talaq and ends with an instant triple talaq.”
Even after the Supreme Court ruled instant triple talaq as unconstitutional, and the government followed up with the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act of 2019 with provisions for a jail sentence for men divorcing their wives in this way, the practice has not ended. This is simply because legislation often has little effect on entrenched traditions — as in the case of dowry, as the author points out. What is needed is social awareness and genuine empowerment of women so that they cannot be cheated of their rights as wives and are able to avoid being coerced into a sham marriage for the sake of halala.
Salam’s easy prose is quick to carve into the hypocrisy of a situation where under-educated maulanas serve as interpreters of the scriptures for a gullible, even less informed public.
“Understandably, when such clerics get down to interpreting the religious texts for the masses, the message is clear and always the same: the masses are teetering on the brink of hell! And when they are through with their fearmongering, they interpret the Quran to suit the convenience of men,” he writes with characteristic candour. It is easy to recall he spent the early part of his career as a features journalist and cinema critic and headed the North India features editions of The Hindu for sixteen years.
The book is full of eye-openers. Some denial in the community notwithstanding, nikah halala is sadly prevalent around much of rural Bharat, if not so much urban India, as the author points out. He also introduces us to perspectives in Pakistan, the US, UK and countries of West Asia. Although there is some amount of repetition that actually confuses instead of enlightening the reader, it is a useful text.
Like Salam’s book on divorce, Till Talaq Do Us Part: Understanding Talaq, Triple Talaq and Khula (Penguin Random House), Nikah Halala too can help dispel many a fallacy regarding Islamic injunctions relating to marriage, divorce and women’s rights. Its accessible prose can also serve to empower potential victims of misinformation.
The conclusion ends on a note of caution, reiterating that reform is essentially a social phenomenon. Expressing faith that the apex court, like the other courts when handling matters of divorce and inheritance in Islam, followed “the letter and spirit of the Quran and hadiths”, he conjures a possible scenario that could be overlooked: What if a woman genuinely wants to remarry her first husband after her second husband has either divorced her or died?
“If she is not allowed to marry her first husband again, would it not be an infringement of the Muslim community’s fundamental rights, as protected by the same constitution?”
The question is a reminder that there are no easy solutions.
Anjana Rajan has been writing on the arts, literature and society for nearly twenty years. She is a former deputy editor of The Hindu, a dance exponent and theatre practitioner.