By Danish Raza for New Age Islam
21 June 2012
Every day we are greeted with a new edict. Yesterday it was the pronouncement of death of someone; today it debars a tennis player from wearing knee-length skirts. One edict prohibits husband and wife from living together as husband has uttered ‘talaq’ in inebriated condition, while the other asks a wife to leave her present husband because the previous one has returned.
The series of fatwas issued in the recent years and the debate generated on media regarding these controversial announcements have given fatwas a grey character. Never ending debates and discussions later, there remains a mystery over the credibility and authenticity of these edicts. What exactly is a fatwa and who can issue it? When issued, who all are obliged to follow it? Why there are different fatwas on the same matter?
A fatwa is a legal pronouncement in Islam, issued by a religious law specialist on a specific issue. Usually a fatwa is issued at the request of an individual or a judge to settle a question where ‘fiqh’ or Islamic jurisprudence, is unclear. A scholar capable of issuing fatwas is known as a ‘mujtahid’.
The overwhelming majority of fatwas are on mundane matters Several have declared war or pronounced death sentences, most notably the fatwa to execute Salman Rushdie issued in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini, and the 1998 fatwa proclaimed by Osama bin Laden declaring war against America. These two fatwas, in particular, have drawn a great deal of attention in Western media, which has given rise to the use of the term fatwa to apply to statements by non-Muslims that advocate an extreme religious or political position.
Because Islam has no centralized, international priestly hierarchy, there is no uniform method to determine who can issue a valid fatwa and who cannot, and upon whom such fatwas are binding. Some Islamic scholars complain that too many people feel qualified to issue fatwas.
The Sheikh of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Muhammad Sayid Tantawy, who leads religious authority in the Sunni Muslim establishment in Egypt, said the following about fatwas issued by himself or the entire Al-Azhar University: "Fatwa issued by Al-Azhar are not binding, but they are not just whistling in the wind either; individuals are free to accept them, but Islam recognizes that extenuating circumstances may prevent it. For example, it is the right of Muslims in France who object to the law banning the veil to bring it up to the legislative and judicial authorities. If the judiciary decides in favour of the government because the country is secular, they would be considered to be Muslim individuals acting under compelling circumstances." Otherwise, they would be expected to adhere to the fatwa.
Yet, according to the Islamic science called "Usul al-fiqh" (Principles of Jurisprudence), a fatwa is binding on the Umma (community) when the four conditions given below are satisfied:
1) It is in line with relevant legal proofs, deduced from Qur’anic verses and hadiths;
2) It is issued by a person (or a board) having due knowledge and sincerity of heart;
3) It is free from individual opportunism, and not depending on political servitude;
4) It is adequate with the needs of the contemporary world.
In nations where Islamic law is not the basis of law, different mujtahids can issue contradictory fatwas. In such cases, Muslims would typically honour the fatwa deriving from leadership of their religious tradition. For example, Sunni Muslims would favour a Sunni fatwa over a Shiite one.
This is where, I believe, the problem starts.
Muslims today, are divided amongst themselves. It is this division, supplemented by lack of knowledge, which is giving the clerics, a wide scope to issue edicts.
What the clerics as well as their followers (rather blind followers) fail to see is that such divisions are not endorsed by Islam. On the contrary, Islam believes in fostering unity amongst its followers. And Muslims have been asked to be united by a scripture, not other than Quran.
The Glorious Qur’an says: “And hold fast, altogether, by the rope Which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves.” [Al-Qur’an 3:103].The Qur’an is the rope of Allah which all Muslims should hold fast together. There is double emphasis in this verse. Besides saying ‘hold fast all together’ it also says, ‘be not divided’. The Qur’an further says, “Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger” [Al-Qur’an 4:59]. Hence, all the Muslims should follow the Qur’an and authentic Ahadith and ensure that they are not divided among themselves.
Not only Quran asks Muslims to be united, it is also prohibited to make divisions in Islam, which again, they either don’t see or ignore.
The Qur’an, in clear words, says, “As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, you have no part in them in the least: Their affair is with Allah: He will in the end tell them the truth of all that they did.” [Al-Qur’an 6:159].
In this verse Allah (swt) says that one should disassociate oneself from those who divide their religion and break it up into sects.
The Islamic world has produced several learned Islamic scholars (Imams), but out of these, four (Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafi, Imam Hanbal and Imam Malik) became more famous and their teachings spread in different parts of the world. They, therefore, gave birth to the four major schools of thought followed by Muslims, worldwide.
We must respect all the great scholars of Islam, including the four Imaams. They were great scholars and one can have no objection if someone agrees with the view and research of any one or more from these four great scholars of Islam.
It is, however, a misconception that a Muslim should follow any one of these four schools of thoughts i.e. Hanafi, Shafi, Hanbali or Maliki. There is no proof whatsoever in the Qur’an or any authentic Hadith that a Muslim should only follow one of these four Imams.
But when one asks a Muslim, “who are you?” the common answer is either ‘I am a Hanafi or Shafi or Maliki or Hanbali. Some call themselves ‘Ahle-Hadith’.
It is also worth mentioning that these very four Imams said that if any of their fatwas or teachings contradicts Qur’an, or the sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) i.e. Hadith, then that particular Fatwa of theirs should be rejected, and the Sunnah of the Prophet should be followed.
To give an example in this context, Imam shafi said that when a woman touches a man who is in a state of wudhu, the wudhu of the man breaks. However, this ruling of Imam Shafi contradicts the authentic saying of the Prophet. Narrated Aisha: The Prophet (May peace be upon him) kissed one of his wives and went out for saying prayer. He did not perform ablution. (Chapter No. 70 Hadith No. 179). Thus this particular teaching of Imam Shafi contradicts the authentic saying of the Prophet. So I reject this specific ruling of Imam Shafi who himself said , “ If I say something, then compare it to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His messenger and if it agrees to them, then accept it and that which goes against them reject it and throw my saying against the wall”. Thus by rejecting this particular teaching of Imam Shafi which contradicts the authentic Hadith, I am practically a better follower of Imam Shafi than those who call themselves ‘Shafi’.
Similarly in practice, I claim to be a better follower of Imam Abu Hanifa than those who call themselves ‘Hanafi’. I claim to be a better follower of Imam Hanbal than those who call themselves ‘Hanbali’. None of these labels is endorsed by the Qur’an or the Sahih Ahadith.
Therefore, it is urgently required on the part of Muslims to stop the practice of making supreme judges out of these so called Imams and move towards the Holy Quran which is not a book but a constitution of life (only if implemented in true spirit). Till that happens, the clerics will go on cashing on the ignorance of the community and media will continue blowing the matter out of proportion.
Danish Raza is a journalist based in Delhi. He will be occasionally contributing opinion pieces to New Age Islam.