There is much talk these days about different kinds of activism. One hears of political activism, social activism, community activism, media activism, judicial activism, and so on. A section of Muslim religious leaders have launched a new form of activism of their own—what can be called ‘fatwa activism’. They think that by issuing a flurry of Fatwas they can reform Muslim society. So, one hears of scores of Fatwas against un-Islamic dress, Fatwas against women being present at certain religious places, Fatwas calling for the killing of people accused of traducing the Prophet, Fatwas demanding the banning of books by controversial authors, Fatwas declaring some persons as apostates and insisting on their social boycott, Fatwas announcing television or other things to be Haram or forbidden, Fatwas declaring banking to be un-Islamic and so on. Fatwas of these sorts have been issued in their thousands in recent years, but almost all of them have proved to be practically without any impact. They have not been able to produce the changes that they intended to.
In the modern period I know of just one instance where a Mufti refused to give a fatwa despite being asked to do so. I am of the opinion that this approach is the right one. This instance concerns a noted Indian Islamic scholar, Maulana Abdul Haq Haqqani, who died in 1831. He was the author of a commentary on the Quran. In his period, the British had replaced gold and silver coins with paper money. This new form of money appeared to be unacceptable according to the rules of traditional Fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence. The Maulana was asked to issue a fatwa on the matter to judge whether this was Islamically-acceptable or not. However, he declined to give the fatwa, and simply said, ‘My fatwa [in this regard] won’t work. Instead, the paper money will.’ In such matters, this is the correct Islamic approach to take.
The literal meaning of the word fatwa is ‘opinion’. A fatwa can take two forms. The first is in the form of a question asked to a Mufti by a person with a regard to a matter directly concerning himself or herself with the intention of gaining guidance thereby. For instance, a sportswoman asks a Mufti what he feels is an islamically- legitimate sports-dress for her. It is proper and appropriate for the Mufti to give a fatwa in response to this form of request.
The second way of eliciting a fatwa relates to a particular social evil in the wider society, regarding which an individual approaches a Mufti for a fatwa on his own. It is not proper for the Mufti to give a fatwa in response to this sort of question. If he does so, the fatwa is unlikely to have any positive role or influence in correcting the social ill that it seeks to address. Instead, it can turn out to be a cause for giving Islam a bad name. This has happened in numerous cases. To paraphrase the words of Maulana Abdul Haq Haqqani whom I referred to earlier, such Fatwas did not work and the social ills they sought to combat remained as before. Thus, scores of Fatwas have been delivered on a variety of social ills, against bida’t or wrongful innovations in religion, against polytheistic customs, against dowry, against television and cinema, against loudspeakers in mosques, against interest on bank deposits, against men shaving their beards, against wearing Western clothes, against English education and so on. But, needless to say, all these Fatwas proved to be of little or no effect.
According to what I have studied so far, only a person who has a question relating directly to himself or herself should approach a mufti for a fatwa. A Mufti should issue Fatwas only in such cases. A fatwa must not be asked or issued when the matter does not directly concern the person who requests it. For instance, if a person approaches a mufti, asking him if it is permissible to say prayers behind the imam of a particular mosque whose beard is short, it is not right for the mufti to issue a fatwa in this regard. To do so might well cause strife and chaos (Fitna).
The question then arises of what the proper Islamic method of social reform is. This proper method is one of persuasion and guidance, through writings and lectures, and not through delivering condemnatory Fatwas. People should be addressed in such a way that the advice given to them impresses itself in their hearts and they then recognize and act on that advice on their own. In today’s terms, this could be termed as ‘educational activism’. Islam’s approach to solving social ills is through this sort of educational activism, rather than ‘fatwa activism’.
A guiding principle in this matter is to be found in a narration which is contained in the Sahih al-Bukhari. According to this report, Hazrat Ayesha (r.a.) said that the Quranic verses that were revealed in the initial stages of Islam dealt with heaven and hell so that in this way people’s hearts would be softened enough to receive the Islamic message. Then, gradually, after people had developed adequate capacity to accept Divine laws, the Quranic commandments prohibiting adultery and the consumption of alcohol were revealed. Had these commandments been revealed in the initial stages of Islam, people may not have accepted them, and, instead, might have refused to give up adultery and consuming alcohol.
From this instance one can understand that general social reform cannot happen through delivering Fatwas against social ills. Rather, for this sort of work, people’s capacity and willingness to accept and act on divine guidance must first be developed. Only after this can religious laws be enforced. To issue orders, in the form of Fatwas, in the absence of developing people’s capacity to accept religious guidance is no solution at all. Often, it is not ignorance of religious rulings that causes social ills. Rather, the basic cause is the lack of the appropriate spirit among people.
This is why social reform cannot begin with the issuing of Fatwas. Rather, it has to begin with seeking to inculcate and promote the right spirit among people and to ignite their consciousness and their capacity and willingness to abide by the teachings of the faith. Only after this work has been sufficiently done should issues be explained to people using the language of the religious law. Without developing this inner spirit among people, seeking to cure social ills by issuing Fatwas from without would be of no use. This is putting the cart before the horse.
The only criterion for judging ‘fatwa activism’, or, for that matter, any other form of activism, is its efficacy in producing the hoped-for results. Only those methods of activism are worthwhile that actually succeed in achieving their goals. Action must always be result-oriented. The present-form of ‘fatwa activism’ must be seen and evaluated in the light of this basic principle.
This is a translation of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s essay titled Fatwa Activism Ya Educational Activism? in his book Islam Aur Intihapasandi (‘Islam and Extremism’) (Positive Thinkers Forum, Bangalore, n.d., pp. 14-17)