An Under-Appreciated Advocate of Gender Rights

A woman worshipper remembers Syed Jalaluddin Umari’s words

By Uzma Ausaf

For the last decade or so women in India have been clamouring for their right to enter houses of worship. While some Hindu women have sought permission to enter Sabrimala Temple in Kerala, some Muslim women have gone to Supreme Court, seeking their place in dargahs and mosques. However, if there were more enlightened scholars like Maulana Syed Jalaluddin Umari, who passed away recently, no Muslim woman would have been denied her right to pray in masjid. Maulana Umari was that under-celebrated scholar of Islam who understood the letter and spirit of faith. A man of few words, he chose his words well and used them to powerful effect.

For long years I used to go to the headquarters of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind in Delhi to listen to his khutbah. As a little girl, I used to hold my father’s hand to go the masjid. As a mother of pre-teen and teenage daughters, I have guided them to offer Friday and Eid prayers at Masjid Ishaat-e-Islam at JIH headquarters. The enlightened khutbah has been the main attraction. For years, my thought process was formulated by what he said in his sermons.

The opportunities for a personal interaction were precious few but his public discourses were enough to make a woman aware of her rights in Islam. For instance, he used to ask women to come to masjid for prayers. On Eid he used to ask even the women undergoing menses to join in Dua after namaz. Similarly, he asked both men and women to pay Zakat. This was an important contribution toward gender equality. In our society, many men tend to pay Zakat for their wives also. So, he drew attention to the need for women to pay their own Zakat. Maulana Umari believed that Zakat was not meant just to help the needy but was meant as a cure for love for material riches.

In recent times, many Muslims have felt insecure because of increasing violence against them in our country. Many have sought to migrate to the U.S, Canada and Australia. When asked for his advice on the subject, the Maulana said, “You cannot run away from death. If you are destined to die, death will follow you to Canada and U.S. So, it is important to stay put here and face the challenges. This is our country.” That was the sound advice for a generation of Muslims looking to migrate after a spate of lynchings, riots and ban on hijab, etc. Without making any noises about it, Maulana Umari was an advocate of gender rights and patriotism. His limited words packed a punch.

For tens of years, women like me used to go to Jamaat-e-Islami Hind Markaz to listen to his talks. We often offered prayers in the side corridor of the main hall of the mosque. Today Masjid Ishaat-e-Islam has a separate mezzanine floor for almost 2000 women. The beginning of this section came during Maulana Umari’s presidency of JIH. He was a true scholar of Islam who wrote more than four dozen books.

However, for hundreds of women like me, Maulana Umari’s value lay in his encouragement to women to offer namaz in congregation. And telling us all that we belong here. His departure is a loss for all women seeking their rights in Islamic society.

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