Top reformist Shari’a judge eyes women’s rights, liberal approach

Iyad Zahalka: Islam calls on us to connect to other religions

Iyad Zahalka, Shari’a courts national administrator, Jerusalem Shari’a Courts chief (photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
Iyad Zahalka, Shari’a courts national administrator, Jerusalem Shari’a Courts chief
(photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
When Hana Mansour-Khatib was named as the first female judge on Israel’s Shari’a courts on April 25, the modern, reformist vision of one leading judge moved forward again on a steady path he has been working toward for years.
Iyad Zahalka, Shari’a courts national administrator, Jerusalem Shari’a Courts chief, author and general renaissance man, has been making waves and advancing a liberal approach to Islam through the courts for some time.
Zahalka became a lawyer in 1995 having attended the Tel Aviv School of Law, and started modestly with his own small law firm in Hadera.
He had always supported and appeared in the Shari’a courts and invested time in learning Shari’a law in Jordan and in institutions around Wadi Ara in Israel, and as a religious man, had always prayed five times per day and strictly observed the relevant religious laws.
Since becoming the Shari’a courts national administrator in 2003 to his first judicial appointment in 2009 to promotions and a current candidacy for the Shari’a courts top appeals body, he has stood out.
He has also authored widely read books on applying Shari’a in the Israeli context, including he says formulating the first systematic methodology on the issue, and spoken in conferences worldwide about how Islam and modernity are compatible.
From Zahalka’s perspective, Habib’s appointment was not nearly as shocking as outsiders find it.
He emphasized that Habib’s appointment stemmed from, “a change in society. Also, more female candidates applied and passed the written exam” on Shari’a law required for being considered as a judge.
Zahalka said that, “many of the hadiths of Muhammad [second only to the Koran in developing Islamic jurisprudence] he received from his wife Isha. In Muslim history, there are women who were leaders, and it was not prohibited.
It is true that in practice most legal scholars have been men, but Islam gives women equal rights to men.”
Mostly, he said the problem was “with custom and culture which derides women. There is no problem though under the law, which does not deride women. Many times there is a tension between the custom and culture on one hand, and the law on the other hand.”
His liberal approach to Islam starts with how he defines marriage.
According to Zahalka, “Muslim marriage is a contract between a man and a woman – two equal sides, based on an offer and an acceptance. There is no religious acquisition by the man” as is part of Jewish Orthodox religious ceremonies.
Unlike many Orthodox Jewish marriages, where only the man speaks, he said that both sides speak at the wedding ceremony and say “I engage myself to you.”
Challenged that many outsiders see Shari’a law as backward because it permits polygamy, Zahalka answered that Islam “only permits polygamy in marriage for the purpose of caring for the needs of widows and orphans.”
Portraying Islamic polygamy as a humanitarian gesture, he explained that “in earlier times, if a woman lost her husband, she also lost her source of financial support.”
More important, he noted that in more liberal circles, polygamy is eliminated in practice either by modern norms or by the woman conditioning the marriage contract on prohibiting the man from exercising his polygamy rights.
Zahalka also added that even in earlier times, a man was prohibited from marrying a second wife merely for love or infatuation, and that if a man could not properly treat an earlier wife, he was bound to divorce her.
Another issue where he took a strong modern stance was in criticizing other less modern Shari’a courts. “We have very harsh criticism of the east Jerusalem Palestinian Shari’a courts which permit the marriages of minors.
“Their approach to this is not correct and harms minor girls, who are marrying too young. I have voiced my criticism in different forums.
Based on the legal circumstances today, we cannot permit a minor girl and boy to marry. We must let them develop as individuals so they can learn and make educated decisions about their future,” he said.
Zahalka also opposed coercing people into observing religious practices. His wife has both covered her hair with a hijab and not at different points in life, and he has deferred to her decision regardless of his personal views.
On the other hand, he warns that secularists can also be intolerant and that European countries must not restrict women from wearing the hijab who freely choose to wear it.
Finally, Zahalka views the Shari’a courts as a bridge between Israel’s Arab and Jewish sectors to the extent that their work overlaps with that of the High Court of Justice and the Justice Ministry.
He said that his court and the High Court both work hard to avoid interpretations that will lead to conflict, and that none of the tension between haredi Jews and the High Court exists among Israeli Muslims, since the Shari’a courts do not relate to broader cultural wars like the rabbinical courts do.
For example, the High Court’s and the Shari’a Court’s legal principles for settling child custody disputes are different, but both have tried to take into account interpretations of what is in the child’s “best interests” to bridge those gaps.
Zahalka explained that “I think religion... can bring people together.
The Muslim faith calls on us to connect to other religions. The Islamic religion comes to better humanity.”
He concluded by saying that “extreme groups and fundamentalists do not represent Islam. Rather, the opposite. They deviate from our religion... the majority of Muslims in the world want to be part of the modern world.”