By Saba Naqvi
23 April 2017
Irreverence is a finely honed tradition in Urdu. Yet there is a mass of Indian Muslims who cannot take recourse to elegant verse and are anxious not to commit any sin
IF you want a hysterical debate on any given day, find a stupid mullah and ask him for an opinion. Sometimes you don’t have to ask him; he’ll give it anyway. The Sonu Nigam episode was great Paisa Vasool entertainment for one day but at the heart of it were the words of some cleric from Kolkata who announced a reward of Rs 10 lakh to anyone willing to tonsure the singer -- who complained about the noise volume of Azaan -- and garland him with old shoes.
A bald Sonu now goes around martyred by a hysterical mullah while some of us flinch in acute embarrassment. But that’s only after we have stopped laughing. The great Urdu satirist, Akbar Hussain Rizvi, known as Akbar Allahabadi, who died about 100 years ago, had come up with these witty lines (he constantly mocked the mullahs). “Qaum Ke Gar Paas Baitho, Qaum Ki Gali Suno/ Qaum Se Gar Door Baitho, Taana-E-Hali Suno/ Maro Goli In Saboh Ko, Dat Ke Qawali Suno” (If you sit with your people, hear their curses/ If you sit away, hear their taunts/ shoot them all and just listen to qawalis).
The great Faiz had said: “Sheikh Saheb Se Rasmo Raah Na Ki/ Shukr Hai Zindagi Tabah Na Ki (I did not engage with the religious sheikh/ Thank god I did not destroy my life).”
Irreverence is a finely honed tradition in Urdu. Yet there is a mass of Indian Muslims who cannot take recourse to elegant verse and are anxious not to commit any sin in their journey to a promised paradise. A few place their concerns before the local mullah. They ask a question; the mullah ponders and gives a reply, sometimes in writing. That is a fatwa in Sunni Islam, which is followed by the majority of Indian Muslims.
Any Muslim can ask for a fatwa. Years ago, while working on a story, I approached the Islamic Fiqh Academy in Delhi's Jamia Nagar, where more educated Maulanas monitor fatwas and are authorized to issue them. The question was: As a Muslim woman is it appropriate for me to work and to use cosmetics like lipstick when I go to office? The reply was: “In Islam, a woman's expenses are first to be borne by her father and then her husband. But if there are mitigating circumstances, she may go out to work. She can dress in a manner outlined in the Sharia — only the face, hands and feet can be exposed. The head should be covered. A woman can adorn herself and use cosmetics at home. But if she looks provocative outside, she will only invite trouble for herself. You are therefore advised not to use make-up outside the house and to dress simply while fulfilling your responsibility at work.”
There has always been the dilemma of shutting the mullahs up as it would encroach on their freedom of speech, but there is little doubt that the right to offer theological opinion has ended up as a free-for-all. The problem also emerges from the fact that Islam does not accord a formal status to the Ulema though some communities do see them as guardians of Islamic law. In some Islamic countries there are ministries that monitor Fatwas. In a society such as India, the clerics are also searching for their own legitimacy by issuing Fatwas, hence we have a tower of Babel. But no one can be legally stopped from issuing Fatwas unless they violate the law.
The problem in India has also been exasperated by the tendency of the so-called secular parties giving legitimacy to conservative clerical bodies. Combine that with the feeding frenzy of the media when it comes to so-called ‘Muslim issues”. It’s just more exciting to take down a stupid mullah than an equally bigoted misogynist who may be heading a Khap Panchayat.
Still, it’s best to understand that in Sunni Islam, a fatwa is merely an opinion. (Different from the world's most famous fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie).
Years ago again I had culled out some Fatwas from a 10-volume set of Fatawai Darul Uloom, issued by the preeminent Islamic seminary at Deoband. Here’s a sample to understand what it’s mostly about.
Q: What is the punishment for a man who tells his wife that having sex with her is like having sex with his mother?
A: There is no punishment for what a man says in private to his wife.
Q: Will Allah accept my prayers if I pass wind while doing my Namaz?
A: Only if you have kept the wind within you and restrained from releasing it are your prayers valid. Otherwise say your Namaz again.
Dear readers don’t laugh. Just understand what it’s mostly about. And pray that the mullahs keep their wind to themselves.