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Image: Indian woman Sayeda Hamid officiates a Muslim marriage
AP
Indian woman Sayeda Hamid, center, officiates a Muslim marriage between Naish Hasan and Imran Ali, right, in Lucknow, India, on Aug. 12, 2008. One of the most influential Islamic seminaries in South Asia called the wedding an affront to the religion.
updated 8/18/2008 9:13:00 AM ET 2008-08-18T13:13:00

A Muslim marriage in northern India officiated by women has sparked an angry debate, with one of the most influential Islamic seminaries in South Asia calling it an affront to the religion.

Naish Hasan, the 28-year-old bride and a women's rights activist, and Imran Ali, the 41-year-old groom, were married last week in a ceremony that is believed to be the first of its kind in India.

Muslim marriages are traditionally officiated by a man, often a local community leader. The signing of the wedding contract is also witnessed by four Muslim males, two each for the bride and groom.

But the marriage last Wednesday in the northern city of Lucknow was presided over by a woman and all the witnesses were female. The only man involved in the wedding was Ali.

Women's rights activists have greeted the marriage as a symbolic step forward for Muslim women, but the ceremony sparked a firestorm of criticism from conservative Islamic institutions, especially the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in northern India.

The seminary is an intellectual hub for South Asian Muslims. Many of its theologians have publicly denounced terrorism but their work has nonetheless provided the intellectual underpinning for some of the most radical and violent Islamic movements in the region, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan.

An official at Dar-ul-Uloom, Ahmad Khizar Shah Masudi, called the marriage a “cruel joke on (Islamic) laws.”

Another Muslim group, the Lucknow Idgah Committee, has said the marriage is invalid under Islamic law.

Hasan, the bride, works for Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan, or the Indian Muslim Women's Movement, a rights group that seeks a greater role for women in Indian Muslim society.

Hasan brushed off the criticism. “I do not care. Islam says there cannot be anyone between Allah and his disciple. How come these clergymen are interfering in our matter?” she said Thursday.

India, a predominantly Hindu country with a sizable Muslim minority, allows marriage, divorce and inheritance matters to be determined by religious laws, and the couple's unorthodox ceremony was approved by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which sets the rules on Muslim religious matters.

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But Maulana Khalid Rashid Firangimahali of the board said, “I won't ask anyone to go for this kind of marriage.”

Muslim religious leaders have for decades closely guarded the powers accorded them under the so-called personal laws and have resisted any attempts to dilute their authority.

But a small group of liberal Muslims in India have made several attempts in recent years to challenge traditional male dominance within the religion.

In 2005, a group of Muslim women established the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board, saying that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board wasn't doing enough to protect women's rights.

Earlier this year, the group's leader, Shaista Amber, led a group of women in prayer at a major mosque in Lucknow, breaking with tradition, which does not allow men and women to pray together.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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