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Door opens to Muslim family debate
- Section of minority leaders feels scholar should not have gone public

Bhopal, Sept. 14: Maulana Syed Kalbe Sadiq's initiative for family planning in the community has triggered a debate within the Muslim leadership, a section of which is sceptical if the practice can be imposed from the top.

A spokesman for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board described Sadiq's comments as personal. Qasim Rasool Illyas said the board's primary job was to protect and oversee application of Shariat law in civil matters. 'In other spheres, we have an advisory role with no legal apparatus to ensure implementation,' he added.

Sadiq, the vice-president of the board, said yesterday: 'We will take up the issue in the next meeting of the board in December and discuss steps to promote education and family planning among the downtrodden in the community.'

The background to the statement is the 2001 census report that shows the Muslim population growing at a faster rate than Hindus.

BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu welcomed Sadiq's proposal. 'I am really happy with his initiative,' he said.

A section of Muslim leaders, however, sees Sadiq's statement as a 'kneejerk' response in the context of efforts to turn the census report into a communal weapon. 'While we acknowledge him as a renowned scholar and an important cleric, he seems to have rushed things a bit,' Kamal Farooqui, a board member, said.

Although Sadiq did not mention adopting a two-child norm, in the Indian context his statement that a consensus be developed on a 'model of family planning' is being seen as such.

The influential Barelvi sect is planning to approach board chief Maulana Rabey Nadvi seeking clarification of Sadiq's remarks. A number of muftis, ulemas and imams said while Islam permits use of 'temporary methods' of family planning such as condoms, it does not favour a 'model' family size.

Nadvi denied that the issue was on the board's agenda. 'In Islam, children are the gift of god,' he said. So it is in other religions where family planning is practised.

There are some leaders who believe that efforts such as Sadiq's could have been launched quietly.

Illyas, for instance, said the board is already working on 'islah-e-maishra' (reforms in society) which is looking at all issues, including taking better care of young children.

Privately, some board members felt the cleric had unwittingly made their task tougher. 'The Muslim community is witnessing social change. There are several mosques and madarsas which are preaching a smaller family size. The pace of reforms may be taking time but the trend has begun. But once these issues take political colour, vested interests take over,' a board member said pointing at the 1975-77 experience when family planning became a major political issue resulting in Indira Gandhi's defeat.

Some others have been left speechless by the enormity of the task. A board office-bearer said: 'Working out a consensus among scores of sects and sub-sects will be a nightmare. In the past few years, we have not been able to come up with a seemingly insignificant model nikahnama (marriage contract). Imagine convincing all Shia, Sunni, Barelvi, Deobandi, Ismayli, Agakhani, Hambali, Shafai and their sub-sects about a two-child norm. They are not even one on some of the core issues of the faith. How will they come together on this'Sources close to Sadiq, however, said the leading Shia ulema (scholar) hailing from a learned family of Lucknow aired his views after considerable thought. His supporters pointed out that this is not the first time Sadiq spoken out on his own.

The doctorate from Aligarh Muslim University had played a leading role in charting a new course for the ulema by establishing schools imparting both modern and Islamic education to boys and girls. He is an outspoken advocate of Shia-Sunni unity as well as Hindu-Muslim dialogue.Sadiq is largely credited with the improved Shia-Sunni relations that brought an end to bloody sectarian conflicts in Lucknow, confrontations that continue to tear Pakistan asunder.

In contrast to many other Shia scholars, Sadiq uses the traditional institution of the majlis (gathering), held in the month of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, to repeatedly stress the need for better relations between Shias and Sunnis.

Despite the mixed reaction, some hostile and some sceptical, this time, too, he has succeeded in at least opening a debate, particularly among those who link a high birth rate to lack of education and economic backwardness.

Farooqui said Muslim scholars, demographers and theologians were unanimous that there is a direct relation and that there was little point in blaming religion for it.

He said data shows a clear divide between the rich and poor states. 'For instance, among Muslims, adoption of family planning norms is on the rise in states like Karnataka (64 per cent) and low in Bihar (14 per cent). Bengal stands mid-way with 45 per cent,' he said.

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