The issue of triple talaq has occupied the public consciousness for long—in the past three years, particularly, it has become entangled in the necessity and urgency of reform within the Muslim community. By most measures, the existence of this debate itself is saddening—we are trapped in resolving a medieval question in the twenty-first century, one that even the otherwise retrograde Islamic Republic of Pakistan has dispensed with it. While the judgment that was pronounced on 22 August is celebrated and debated in equal parts, it is important to remember the historical and political context of how triple talaq came to assume this relevance, and its relationship to Muslim appeasement by political parties over the years.
The nineteenth century saw the beginning of reforms in what is present day India, when the British colonial rulers, with their own ideas of morality and governance, began questioning the existing practices. Then, the early Indian reformers emerged—among others, these included Ram Mohan Roy, who is most widely recognised for his efforts to abolish sati; Syed Ahmad Khan, a prominent critic of the Islamic orthodoxy; and Govind Ranade, who campaigned for the rights of widows and against child marriage.
These reformists faced huge reaction from the conservative sections of their respective communities, including death threats and fatwas of excommunication. Despite such opposition, some of these reformers were successful—the British government was able to bring in legislations that banned many Hindu oppressive and outdated social practices, such as sati and child marriage
Unfortunately, reform within Islam remained stunted despite aggressive campaigns by the likes of Khan and his modernist collaborators. His associate, Sayyid Mumtaz Ali, for instance, can be considered as one of the earliest defenders of women’s equality. Ali authored Huquq-i-Niswan (The Rights of Women), a book in which he used Quranic verses to advocate for equal rights for women. He championed causes such as women’s education, and rejected purdah, polygamy and forced marriages—practices he considered unjust and injurious to women. In the nineteenth century, there were many social reformers among Muslims, who, like Ali, took progressive positions and wrote and spoke with conviction about reform and gender justice within Islam. However, the orthodox sections—the many ulemas and their large followings—remained averse to change. They remained antithetical to change and perceived any prospect of reform as a threat to Islam. From a global Islamic perspective, this was likely more a threat to these entrenched Muslims than to Islam.
In India, this manifested in a curious manner. Soon after Independence, the first elected government of India decided to bring about the famous Hindu Code Bill to replace the Hindu personal law. The bill was introduced in the Constituent Assembly on 9 April 1948, and met huge uproar and controversy. The bill was subsequently broken into three different bills—a marriage bill, an adoption and maintenance bill, and a succession bill. Jawaharlal Nehru succeeded in getting the bill passed in parliament, despite severe opposition from some senior members of his own government and from Rajendra Prasad, the first president of independent India.