Mumbai: The management of the Mumbai religious shrine, Haji Ali Dargah, has banned women from entering the sanctum sanctorum of the complex housing the tomb of 15th century holy man Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari.

Located in the Arbaian Sea — 500 meters away from the shore in south-central Mumbai, the dargah (mausoleum) is visited by thousands of people from all regions throughout the year.

Announcing the dargah management’s decision, one of the trustees of Haji Ali Dargah Trust Rizwan Merchant said: “Women are not allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Dargah .… They [women] can read their prayers, do namaz [prayers] and offer shawls and flowers. All that we are requesting to our sisters is not to enter inside the dargah.”

Maintaining that the trust had not banned women from entering the Haji Ali dargah complex that houses Bukhari’s tomb and a mosque along side, Merchant said: “The ban is restricted to the sanctum sanctorum … If Islamic scholars have issued a fatwa, in accordance with the Islamic law of Sharia, and have demanded that women not be allowed in dargahs, we have only made a correction and limited the restriction to sanctum sanctorum.”

Justifying the restriction imposed on women from entering the inner precincts of the dargah, Suhail Khandwani, another trustee of the dargah, said: “The Sharia law claims that no woman can visit a cemetery or a grave. We allow women in dargah sharif but not at the astana (sanctum sanctorum) where a saint is buried.”

Khandwani, who is also the managing trustee of Makhdoom Shah Baba’s dargah at Mahim in north-central Mumbai, said: “Eighty per cent of women agree with our decision to restrict the entry to the sanctum sanctorum.”

However, Muslim women groups have not taken kindly to the Haji Ali dargha management’s decision.

Dubbing the ban on women from entering the dargha’s sanctum sanctorum as “unIslamic”, founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a Muslim women’s group, Noorjehan Safia Niaz, said that her organization would be taking up the issue with the Maharashtra government.

“During a recent survey of 20-odd dargahs in the city, we found that the Haji Ali dargah trust has imposed the new restriction on women, We were told by the trustees that they had decided to impose a ban after a woman came inappropriately dressed last year,” Niaz said.

The dargah was constructed in 1431 in memory of Bukhari — who was initially a merchant but gave up his worldly possessions before making a pilgrimage to Makkah. Hailing from Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan), Bukhari travelled around the world in the early to mid 15th century, and then settled in Mumbai.

In two political reactions that came soon after the restriction on women, Congress leader Digvijay Singh and his counterpart from the BJP Mukthar Abbas Naqvi made a strong case for the Haji Ali management to reconsider its decision.

Taking a strong exception to the management’s decision, Singh urged Muslim liberals in the country to oppose it, while Naqvi said: “Discriminating people on the basis of caste, creed and sex when into comes to entry into a place is not right.”