Medieval mindset

The decision of Muslim clerics to ban women from entering the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai is a retrograde step that will undermine severely one of the key features of Sufism – its inclusiveness. The dargah houses the tomb of the 15th century Sufi saint, Pir Haji Ali Bukhari. This is a hugely popular shrine, which for centuries has drawn women and men of all faiths from all over the world. It has been a symbol of unity and inclusion. This is now under threat. Until recently, women and men were allowed into the sanctum sanctorum. The shutting of the shrine’s doors to women is therefore unfortunate.

It appears that the dargah began excluding women from entering around a year ago. Some seven other dargahs followed suit. This came to light recently, when the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan conducted a survey on dargahs. The Haji Ali dargah’s trustees have sought to justify their decision by invoking the sharia. They have been backed by the Muslim law board and a host of other clerics.

One of the key tenets of Islam is equality. Yet clerics and others, who claim to be the guardians of the faith, have had no problems with enforcing discrimination in many ways. Mosques across India do not allow women in, although they are allowed to go to the Kaaba in Mecca. What makes the Haji Ali dargah’s decision all the more unpalatable is the fact that it is a Sufi shrine. Given Sufism’s inclusive and moderate outlook, the dargah’s decision to keep women out is a violation of one of the core beliefs of Sufism.

 The undermining of the Sufi faith’s inclusiveness is a matter of concern not just for Muslim women but women of other faiths as well. After all, this violates the right of all women to enter the sanctum sanctorum and to practice their faith. This is a right guaranteed by the constitution and the decision of the clerics violates this right. Indeed, this is an issue that should concern men too. Today, it is women who are being shut out of the dargah; tomorrow it could be men of a certain group, profession, or community that could be excluded as well. The dargah trustees must rethink their decision.  Keeping women out from places of worship because they are seen to be a ‘distraction’ or ‘evil’ reveals a medieval mindset. It is out of sync with the modern world.

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