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Understanding fatwa
By Zafarul Islam Islahi (AMU)

This grossly misunderstood term lends itself frequently to be used as a weapon for Muslim-bashing. 

Media’s crucial role in reporting, analysing, informing and entertaining society and shaping its perceptions needs no elaboration. National media’s capability for corrective intervention was clearly evident during Gujarat pogrom (although the vernacular media acted as the villain of the peace). 

Quite obviously, the media in its carelessness, ignorance or mischief can also enforce negative stereotypes. Comments and observations appearing in the print media about certain Arabic terms and different aspects of Islamic beliefs and institutions are a case in point. To cite a few examples, Shariah laws, madrasah, jihad, fatwa, talaq, women’s rights in Islam, and position of non-Muslims under an Islamic state may be mentioned.

At present, a case in point is the editorial of the Hindustan Times (4th July May, 2002) entitled, "let the people decide". The editorial writer has condemned those ulama who gave a call or issued a fatwa for social boycott of Muslim MLAs of the BSP and RLD parties which made alliance with the BJP to form government in U.P. Considering the fatwa a reflection of the communal mindset, he declared it unacceptable in a secular country. First of all, it may be explained that the fatwa as a term of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) signifies legal opinion or verdict given by a mufti (jurist-consult or expert of Islamic jurisprudence) on his own or in response to a query (istifta) submitted by member of public to him regarding an issue of legal importance. Istifta (asking for legal opinion) and Ifta (giving legal opinion) are a part of the well-defined Islamic juridical system intended to provide guidance to Muslims about the problems emerging in their day-to-day life. As a matter of fact, the fatwa has nothing to do with a sectarian approach or communal mindset, nor does it negate the principles of democracy and secularism as sometimes assumed. needless to say, that in a democratic and secular country the followers of different religions have right to be guided by their own religious laws and the jurists are entitled to express their opinion about the problems relating to the members of their respective communities. 

Moreover, a fatwa issued by one or more muftis is considered to be binding on his/her co-religionists and not on others. I fail to understand as to how a fatwa is considered unacceptable in a secular country. Secondly, it is subject to confirmation whether the fatwa refered to above was formally issued by any alim or some ulma. Merely a call by some Muslims for something or expressing opinion about an issue in a public address cannot be called a fatwa in a legal sense.

Thirdly, if some ulama have really issued a fatwa for social boycott of Muslim BSP MLAs, there is no reason why anyone should condemn or malign them. The simple question is whether those MLAs do not deserve such treatment for making an opportunistic and unethical alliance with the BJP at the cost of the minorities. The seal was put on this alliance when Gujarat was burning and the BJP-supported elements were killing Muslims in a planned way. Newspapers have given details of this carnage in news items, editorials and investigative reports. Leave aside the reports of Muslims, Muslim organisations and the statements of political leaders, the reports of National Human Rights Commission, National Minorities Commission, Citizens’ Initiative for Peace, SAHMAT, National Commission of Women, All India Democratic Women’s Association, Human Rights Watch, Editors’ Gulid and People’s Union for Democratic Rights about the Gujarat episode have been published in different national and international dailies. 

After reading these reports one may ask his own conscience whether it was right and reasonable for a Muslim MLA to have relationship with BSP in politically the most important state? Is this alliance not playing with the sentiments of common Muslims and rubbing salt into the wounds of the victims of the worst sort of brutality? To cap it all, this alliance was concluded by BSP despite the repeated assurance by its leaders to Muslims and Dalits during the election campaign that there would be no understanding, agreement or alliance with BJP in post-election period. For the same reason, this alliance was called unprincipled and unethical and was widely condemned as betrayal of Muslims and Dalits. The same view was also expressed in another editorial of the Hindustan Time (4th May, 2002) entitled "Dalits versus Mayawati". The editorial rightly considered the BSP assumption of office as "the party’s negation of secular and ethical principle".

In view of these facts, one may ask whether the call or fatwa of the ulama for boycott of Muslim MLAs of BSP is justified. In the present atmosphere of unchecked atrocities on Indian Muslims and clear evidence of official complicity in such events (Hindustan Times editorial, 16th May, 2002) do they have no right to think, show concern and work for their collective interest? In fact, the fatwa (if we can call it that) in question has not only legal implication, it also demonstrates great resentment of the Muslims against a section of their community which showed no sense of solidarity with the victims of barbarism in Gujarat and scarified the interest of general Muslims for personal gains.

In view of occasional comments and observation on one or another "fatwa" appearing in different national dailies, I feel that some misunderstanding is found in the media with regard to the word fatwa. I am sure that if the editor has studied the provision of istifta and ifta with an open mind and has attempted to understand its aims and objectives he would not have given this baseless and irrational comment in his editorial. A fatwa helps in developing a herd mentality which is inimical to democracy (Hindustan Times. 4th May). The fatwa, as I earlier pointed out, has nothing to do with creating hatred, enmity or illwill toward any section of society. It is simply a mechanism to explain the Sharia’s attitude towards problems faced by Muslims in different spheres of their lives.

There is history of origin and development of the ifta (the root word of fatwa) system and its origin may be traced back to the very early period of Islamic history. Our own country has a chequered history of the develpment of fatawa literature (Some details may be seen in my article, "Origin and development of Fatawa-Companion in Medieval India", Studies in History, a quarterly journal of Centre for Historaical Studies, JNU, New Delhi; 12/2, Jul-Dec. 1996, PP. 223-242).

The study of this literature shows that Fatawa (plural of fatwa) dealt with problems of varied nature and sometimes a fatwa was issued to declare the rulers’ planning, orders and administrative measures illegal and to undo the wrongs done or intended to be done to a person or public, including non-Muslims.

Such fatawa are also related to the period of Muslim rule in India. Besides, in some of the fatwa collections of the Sultanate period (especially Fatawa-i-Firuzshahi) hundreds of questions and answers are related to the problems of relation between Muslimsand non-Muslims which had emerged in society. After the establishment of Muslim rule in India, Muslims and Hindus got the opportunity to interact in socio-economic life. These developments had posed many questions of legal interest. 

Some of the interesting questions recorded in the Fatawa-i-Firuzshahi are: whether it is permissible for a Muslim to return the salaam of a zimmi (non-Muslim subject of a Muslim state)? Is a Muslim permitted to visit the house of a zimmi as a guest? Whether it is desirable for a Muslim to attend to a non-Muslim patient of his neighborhood? Is a Muslim son duty-bound to help or give financial assistance to his aged non-Muslim parents? Would a Muslim debtor be imprisoned or punished for unnecessary delay in the repayment of debt to a non-Muslim financier? If a zimmi reclaims a wasteland (with the permission of the state) would he become its owner like a Muslim in a similar case? (Contd. here
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