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The world of fatwas

May 05, 2011

WHEN the Quran was revealed it was assumed that all Muslims would read it to seek guidance for their problems and hence no class of priesthood was needed. But as Islam spread far and wide and Muslims from other cultures spoke different languages, they could not do so.

The Quran was in Arabic and many did not know that language. Hence the need for scholars. Thus, the people approached Islamic experts, who came to be known as ulema, with their questions. The ulema would seek for followers answers from the Quran and Hadith, sometimes making their own interpretations and also in the light of their own cultural background. These answers began to be compiled, and the ulema of the later generations would refer to these compilations to answer similar questions asked by their followers.

This is how the institution of fatwa came into existence. Thus fatwa was the opinion given in the form of an answer to a question or a series of questions posed by the layman. Though the earlier ulema were more creative and tried to exercise their brain more, the later ones followed the rulings given by their predecessors. A lot of the time the ulema simply refer to these texts evolved by their predecessors in answering questions. They hardly bother to apply their own minds. Not only that they simply refer to the texts of the schools of law they belong to i.e. Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali, Jafari and so on. Such fatwas contribute to making Islamic society stagnant and create difficulties in bringing about creative and much-needed social change. To this day, the fatwas issued in mediaeval ages are referred to in order to answer modern-day problems.

For example, in an answer to the question that if a father of a daughter jokingly says to a father of a son that he gives his daughter in nikah to his son, would the nikah be deemed to have taken place, the answer given by the Darul Ulum, Deoband, was ‘Yes, the nikah shall take place’ (quoting (Durrul Mukhtar — Bab al-Nikah). This fatwa was issued in the 20th century.

Thus, one can understand what kind of fatwas are issued by such important centres of learning. Here we want to discuss a fatwa recently issued by some muftis of Saudi Arabia in view of a rebellion taking place in the Arab world. These muftis have said that the rebellion is haram as it is taking place against a properly constituted authority and it is a western conspiracy.

Obviously, the rebellion is against the monarchies and despotic rulers, hence the official muftis have obliged the rulers without caring how impermissible the fatwa is even from an Islamic point of view.Let us examine the content of this fatwa and its implications for the Arab world. Before we proceed further it should be noted that throughout history, two types of ulema were associated with giving fatwas, i.e. ulema-i-su (false ulema who issued fatwas to suit a ruler’s interests) and ulema-i-haq (righteous ulema), who issued fatwas as per Islamic teachings without caring for the consequences. Imam Abu Hanifa and other notable ulema had even refused to assume the office of qazi (chief justice) for fear of being forced to issue such fatwas.

But among the ulema-i-haq were also many who took a static view of society and continued to issue fatwas as per the earlier texts without taking in view changes taking place in their own time. The ulema backing despotic rulers with their fatwas cannot be ulema-i-haq. They just cater to the interests of the rulers.

Let us take into account the basic principles involved here and what the Quran has to say on the subject. The Quran stands for just rule and disapproves of oppression, exploitation and corruption. The Quran makes it abundantly clear that its sympathies are with what it calls the mustadifun (weaker sections) and it denounces the mustakbirun oppressors).

Thus we can easily conclude that the Quran stands only for just governance and opposes oppressors and corrupt rulers. It gives the people the right to replace their ruler if the ruler is oppressive, unjust or corrupt. The Quran also prohibits giving bribes to win loyalties. What has happened in Morocco, Iran and Egypt and what is happening in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria is the violation of the right to stage peaceful opposition to dictatorial regimes.

The rulers in most of these countries are dictators or monarchs. Most are utterly corrupt and ruthlessly suppress peaceful opposition. Even the Prophet (PBUH) was asked to consult his people in worldly matters (shawirhum — i.e. consult them).

When the Prophet had been asked to consult people in secular matters who are these corrupt rulers to deny any democratic processes or ruthlessly suppress them? The people demand transparency and democracy in governance.

There will always be ulema who can argue that that dictatorship is preferable to anarchy, citing the rulings given by the ulema in mediaeval times. But often such rulings were given when there was a danger of outsiders attacking and taking over.

Presently, there is no such danger. It is the people of a country themselves who are trying to overthrow corrupt rulers and replace them with just and democratic ones. Instead of anarchy it would result in better governance that the Quran endorses.

Today’s ulema need to free themselves from the rulings found in mediaeval texts and adopt Quranic values. This can be done only by learning more about the changes taking place around them.

The writer is an Islamic scholar, who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai