Kandy Forum : Supporting Muslim Personal Law Reform

Supporting Muslim Personal Law Reform in Sri Lanka
An appeal to the Muslim Ministers and Members of Parliament


By the Kandy Forum.

The demand for a substantial reform in the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) of 1951 from within the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has a long history. A number of Muslim academics, intellectuals, professionals, civil societies and women’s organizations have been demanding for this reform for more than the last forty years. Committees were appointed in 1970, 1984, 1990, 2005 and 2009 by the Government or Muslim organizations. The last committee comprising 19 members appointed in 2009 by the Minister of Justice headed by the former Supreme Court Judge Mr. Saleem Marsoof finalized and submitted their report to the Minister of Justice in January 2018.

The demand for a substantial reform in the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) of 1951 from within the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has a long history. A number of Muslim academics, intellectuals, professionals, civil societies and women’s organizations have been demanding for this reform for more than the last forty years. Committees were appointed in 1970, 1984, 1990, 2005 and 2009 by the Government or Muslim organizations. The last committee comprising 19 members appointed in 2009 by the Minister of Justice headed by the former Supreme Court Judge Mr. Saleem Marsoof finalized and submitted their report to the Minister of Justice in January 2018.

However, we find that the Recommendations -1 submitted by Saleem Marsoof and signed by 9 members of the Committee that comprises the major portion of the Report is a positive and progressive step to achieve and realize the Quranic intension of gender equality and social justice, especially in the areas of Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) of Sri Lanka which is widely felt discriminatory against women. A number of ulamas, Muslim organizations, Muslim intellectuals and Women’s Organizations were voicing for a long time for a substantial reform in the MMDA. Fortunately, at last, the Saleem Marsoof committee has submitted a comprehensive recommendations to fulfil Women’s aspiration and to establish their dignity as equal citizen, which are, we strongly believe, within the purview of Sharia.

However, the other group of the Committee led by the President and the Secretary of the All Ceylon Jammiatul Ulama (ACJU), has submitted the Recommendations II disagreeing in substantially important matters with the recommendations by Saleem Marsoof and others. They are of the opinion that ‘as far as the Muslim marriage law is concerned, the urgent need of the Muslim community is more in the nature of administrative reforms than amendments to the law as such.’ And, they are against any reform in MMDA as they believe that it is accordance with Sharia and unchangeable.

The Kandy Forum carefully studied the existing MMDA, consultation with some Islamic scholars and fined that the MMDA in its entirety is not strictly based on sharia, the Quran and Sunna, and certain section of the MMDA have to be changed and improved as they are particularly discriminatory against women and based on age old social practices in the name of Islam, and also considering the tremendous social changes the Muslim community has undergone during the last hundred years in Sri Lanka as in many other Muslim countries and also to make it in accordance with the Quranic intension of gender equality.

Equality and social justice are the two fundamental principles of Islam and it should be kept in mind when formulating and revising the Personal Laws. We wish to state that the proposed revisions are within the frame work of sharia as interpreted by several ulamas and Islamic scholars in Sri Lanka and abroad and also implemented in several Islamic countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Sharia has continuously been a subject to various interpretations by different madhabs in the past and various Islamic scholars in the contemporary world as appropriate to their socio-historical context. We the Sri Lankan Muslims should also consider the nature of our social mosaic that we live in.

In this perspective, the Kandy Forum had prepared a proposal to reform the MMDA regarding to the following 7 important aspects namely, (1) minimum age for marriage, (2) consent of the bride for marriage, (3) polygamy, (4) mahar and dowry, (5) divorce, (6) maintenance and (7) appointing women Quazis and registrars of marriage and also adhering exclusively a particular Madhab. We had send our proposals to the Saleem Masroof Committee in 2017 and it was also published in the press. Our proposals are in fact not only ours, they are concurrence with the publically demanded proposals for reform by several Muslim intellectuals, professionals, and Muslim women’s groups. We think that these proposals are vital to enhance the social status of Muslim women in particular and the development of Muslim community in general. Mr. Sallem Marshoof was pleased and encouraged by our proposals and incorporated all of our suggestions in their Report with due acknowledgement.

After the submission of the Report by Mr. Saleem Marsoof to the Hon. Minister of Justice in January 2018, the ACJU and some other conservative elements in the Muslim community continue to carry out a campaign against these proposals island wide to sabotage the proposals and the progressive move of the community.
However, fortunately at last, the Muslim Ministers and the Members of Parliament at their meeting at the Parliament held on 11th July 2019 have agreed with most of the vital aspects of the Saleem Masroof Proposals and to prepare a Bill to submit to the Cabinet of Ministers.

Unfortunately the ACJU is still adamantly try to sabotage the process of amendment of MMDA. The General Secretary of the ACJU has written a letter to the Muslim members of parliament on 18th of July 2019, inviting them for an urgent meeting with them to discuss the controversial issues of the proposals before submitting it to the cabinet. Otherwise, the letter also warns them that, it will be considered as a historical treason by them. It reveals that the ACJU will not satisfy until everyone accept their highly conservative, unacceptable interpretations of sharia in this regard.

They think that they are the sole authority and have the monopoly in religious affairs. They are against the progressive trend of the Muslim world because of their limited and conservative understanding of sharia. They are against the concept of gender equality in Islam. Their understanding of Quran and Sunna seems to be mere literal and against the spirit of Quran. They are unable to interpret certain verses of Quran in their socio historical context. They strongly believe that increasing the minimum age of marriage for girls and appointing women as Quazis, Special Quazis and Registrars are against Sharia while in several Islamic Countries the minimum age of marriage is increased to 18 and women are appointed to those positions and several learned ulamas all over the world approve of it.

Therefore, we, the undersigned members of Kandy Forum, appeal to the Muslim Ministers and the Members of Parliament to be firm on their decision to submit the Bill regarding the MMDA reform without any compromise and take all the necessary steps to enact it as an Act in the Parliament. It will be a historic event in the advancement of Muslim community in general and Muslim women in particular in Sri Lanka.

Signed by
Prof. M A Nuhman, Mr. J M Niwas, Prof. M A M Sitheeque, Prof. M S M Anes, Prof. Mawjood, Dr. A L M Mahroof, Dr. M Z M Nfeel, Dr. A S M Nawfhal, Mr. J M Mubarak, Mr. U M Fazil,