These days, fatwas are much-talked about in the media. Some recent fatwas have provided the ulema (Islamic scholars) and Islamic institutions much negative media attention, winning them the opprobrium of many.
The institution of fatwas is a very sensitive one. It is said that ulema are deputies of the Prophet (naib-e rasool), in the sense of interpreting Islam. A mufti undertakes the responsibility of issuing a fatwa in the context of his claim of being a deputy of the Prophet. Any mistake or irresponsibility in his fatwa will affect the understanding of Islam and negatively impact on society. Hence the need for being very careful in issuing fatwas.
Today, there is a growing realization among Muslims of the numerous limitations and weaknesses of fatwa-issuing (ifta) institutions and their functioning. People are also keenly aware of the negative implications of these weaknesses for the name and honour of these institutions and of the need for suitable reforms so as to make these institutions more effective.
Lamentably, although the institution of issuing fatwas is an extremely sensitive one, it continues to be characterized by considerable neglect and carelessness. One grave error that continues to be made by many muftis is that they think that it is their religious responsibility to provide an answer to every question that is put to them. This, however, is an erroneous assumption. A mufti is not required by Islam to answer each and every question. Abdullah ibn Masud and Abdullah ibn Abbas, both Companions of the Prophet, relate that someone who gives an answer (fatwa) to every question is mad. Very few among the Prophet’s Companions would give fatwas. In this regard, it is instructive to note that the early Muslim scholar Ibn Abi Laila says that he met 120 Companions of the Prophet and that every one of them wanted that in place of him, some other Companion should narrate hadith reports or give fatwas.
Keeping this practice of the early Muslims in mind, if one surveys conditions today, the situation that emerges is very painful. Large numbers of muftis do not fulfill even the basic qualifications for giving fatwas. According to Imam Shafi, a person who delivers fatwas must have several qualifications, including deep knowledge of the Quran, and good understanding of Hadith and Arabic grammar. He must be familiar with the differences in opinions on various issues among Islamic scholars. Among the conditions for being a mufti that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal lays down is that one must be aware of the conditions of the people—which means having a good understanding of contemporary social realities, of the impact of social and temporal changes on social life, of issues and problems that emerge from the evolution and development of society, and so on. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was of the view that in order for someone to be qualified to issue fatwas, he must be familiar with at least 400,000 hadith reports. However, today, most of our muftis refer to fiqh, rather than hadith reports, for their fatwas.
Another issue to consider is the fact that many muftis in India today are cut off from society. They are not part of the mainstream of society—not even of Muslim society. This is one reason why they are often unable to comprehend the actual nature of various issues they are asked to deliver fatwas on. Imam Muhammad, a noted student of Imam Abu Hanifa, would walk through the market-place in order to understand it so that he could provide proper religious guidance to people on matters concerning the market. It was not that in order to answer the questions that people asked him on these issues he relied simply on predetermined views, without deep investigation of the particular case before him.
Compare this with an incident that took place some years ago. A well-known Islamic institution in India was asked to give its opinion on an issue concerning robots. In its reply, the entire panel of the institution’s muftis said that they did not know what robots were. It was this lack of awareness that drove some 18th and 19th century ulema to denounce and oppose useful inventions such as the printing press, the telephone, telegrams and loudspeakers. This same lack of awareness underlies the opposition today in some Islamic circles to things like televisions, cameras and the Internet. A highly-respected Islamic institution in India even issued a fatwa that only such television channels were permissible for Muslims to watch as were without images! (Why, one might ask, call them ‘television channels’, then, and not ‘radio stations’?!)
Such naivety is regarded as piety in some circles!
As the above instances illustrate, some sections of our religious class are characterized by extreme stagnation. And yet they complain that the ‘Jewish and Christian’ media have unleashed a global campaign to give Islam and Muslims a bad name.
On the question of photography, as well as a host of other issues, ulema in Arab countries have adopted a positive approach. Yet, the majority of the ulema in South Asia are still confused about several such issues. Their mindset is such that their major focus is on declaring this or that to be forbidden. In this regard, it is useful to note that according to Ibn Qayyim, that if the Prophet declared something to be forbidden, then, at the same time, he would indicate an appropriate substitute for it.
It is also worth considering in this context what the noted Indian Islamic scholar, Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, had to say. In his at-Tabligh, he recommended that in the present context, it was not proper to declare something halal or permissible to be haram or forbidden only on the basis of some doubt or the other with regard to it. He suggested that even issues about which there was doubt about them being forbidden or permissible should be considered to be permissible. He cautioned against rigidity in fatwas, noting that expansiveness was a feature of the Shariah. If fatwas were based on rigidity, he remarked, people might begin to believe that the Shariah itself was rigid and that it was nothing but prohibitions (la yajuz). On the other hand, if fatwas helped people by making it easier for them to follow religious commandments, this expansiveness would lead people to appreciate the Shariah as good and merciful. In this way, they would come to love the Shariah, and this would inculcate love for God in their hearts.
The Prophet wanted people to develop love for Islam, not aversion for it. He is said to have advised Yassiru wala tuassiru, wa bashshiru wala tunaffiru, which means that one should make things easy, not difficult, and one should give people good tidings and not make them hate. On this basis, it can be said with regard to fatwas that might engender restlessness and aversion among people, that might become an object of mockery and scorn, that might lead people to develop hatred for the institution of ifta and those engaged in the task of delivering fatwas, and that might give a bad name to the Shariah, that it is best to abstain from issuing such fatwas and expressing one’s opinion. This approach would be in accordance with the Shariah, and would not be said to be tantamount to concealing one’s knowledge, which is a sin. As Ibn Qayyim opines, if a mufti conceals his knowledge by not giving a fatwa on a particular issue because doing so might cause harm to Islam and its followers, it is not a sin. If the mufti apprehends that there is a greater possibility of harm resulting from expressing an opinion in the form of a fatwa than by remaining silent, then he must abstain from giving a fatwa. Hence, the Prophet refrained from restructuring the Ka‘aba on its proper original foundations as laid down by the Prophet Abraham. Likewise, if a mufti apprehends that he may not properly understand the issue put to him for a fatwa, it is necessary for him to adopt silence by not giving a fatwa.
Furthermore, the mufti must also properly understand the intention of the questioner (mustafti), so that the fatwa that he gives is not misused. These days, however, this issue is rarely considered. Very often, muftis ignore the sensitiveness of a fatwa and simply issue prefabricated fatwas, which leads to very grave misunderstandings.
There is, thus, an urgent need to re-structure the system of providing fatwas today.
A crucial issue to consider in this regard is the fact that our madrasas, where would-be muftis are trained, need to bring about suitable changes in their present methods of instruction and curriculum that, in some major respects, are not in accordance with the conditions and needs of the times. Because of this, graduates of madrasas are, in general, unable to develop scholarly skills and capacities.
Another key issue is that in many madrasas, the ifta training course for would-be muftis is just of a one-year duration, which is woefully inadequate. This period should be extended to three or four years. In addition, the way the course is handled even in the bigger madrasas (there is no need to even mention how it is in the smaller madrasas) leaves very much to be desired. In the name of training would-be muftis, almost all that they do is to ask students to copy fatwas from different texts. What they should do, instead, is to try to develop in the students the capacity to engage in ijtihad or independent reasoning and to deduce rulings on various issues in the light of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence.
At one time, people used to lament that all that students in madrasas in India learnt with regard to fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence were rules in jurisprudential texts penned centuries ago, such as Durr-e Mukhtar, Fatawa-e Tatarkhaniya and Fatawa-e Alamgiri. But now the situation is such that even graduates of madrasas do not have the ability to read and understand these books, and so they completely rely on the Urdu fatawa compendia of the ulema of the Indian subcontinent. They base almost all their fatwas on these books, and so they simply do not feel the need to go beyond them.
These days, in giving fatwas, often the Quran and Sunnah are placed at even lower than the secondary level. This is very lamentable. Even on questions related to issues for which answers can be easily provided in the light of Quranic verses and hadith reports, it is thought necessary to quote this or that medieval fiqh compendium.
There is a pressing need for fatwas to be carefully supervised. This task is undertaken in many Muslim countries by the state authorities. In countries like India where Muslims are in a minority, there should be a central Islamic institution that undertakes this task. Recently, in the wake of fatwas that expounded extremist views, Saudi Arabia and Egypt took steps to establish a mechanism to oversee the issuing of fatwas. Had this been done earlier, we would have been spared several ridiculous fatwas that led Islam and Muslims to become a laughing-stock, and the muftis who issued such fatwas would have been made answerable for them.
India is a democratic country, and so no one can stop a mufti from delivering a fatwa. Hence, it is for Muslim leaders and institutions to engage in dialogue and come to a decision as to what sort of institutions and individuals are authorized to deliver fatwas and under what conditions. In this way, the problem of the flood of unwanted fatwas can be dealt with. For handling sensitive social and political issues and issuing appropriate fatwas, perhaps a national-level Fatwa Board can be set up, with representation from various important Islamic institutions of all the various Muslim schools of thought and jurisprudence. Eminent social scientists, too, should be represented on the board, and they can provide appropriate advice.
Restructuring the system and administration of fatwa-delivery in India is today a pressing need—not simply to save us from the anti-Muslim propaganda of some sections of the media, but, basically, to enable the Shariah to play a more active role in Muslim society and to enable people—Muslims and others—to regain their confidence in fatwa-issuing institutions.
(Waris Mazhari is a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband. He did his Ph.D from the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is presently teaching Islamic Studies at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. Several of his writings can be accessed on his blog:www.warismazhari.blogspot.com He can be contacted on email@example.com)
 Ibn Qayyim, Alam al-muwaqqain an rabb al-alamin, 2/127.
 Ibid., 1/27.
 Ibid., 4/122.
 Ibid., 4/120.