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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. 

In relation to all the questions raised in the last issue of MG (in the first part of this piece
Read) the answer is given in affirmative. What is more important to note here is that the contents of the fatawa and other fiqh works suggest that Muslim jurists of the period adopted a liberal and catholic view with regard to those problems which had been controversial among the jurists (Details of the same may be seen in my paper, Fatawa-i-Firuzshahi and Problems of Muslim-non-Muslim Relationship in Medieval India, in Bulletin of Comparative Religion New Delhi, July-Sep. 1981, pp. 48-70, 1/3).

Not going very far in the past, I would like to draw the readers’ attention to the fatawa collection of the British period. These works contained many fatwas relating to the Birtish rule as well as the nature of treatment and dealing with the British rulers of India in the light of Shariah laws. These fatawa not only explained the Shariah’s attitude towards the emerging problems, they also helped to arouse the patriotic sentiments of Muslims and made them more responsive and active for the sake of freedom of their country. Some of the important fatwas in the whole series are: declaration of the Birtish India as dar-al-harb, obligation of waging jihad for emancipation of the country from foreign rule, and support to Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements.

The importance of these fatwas for the freedom movement may be realised from the fact that the Tahrik-i-Mujahidin was based on the two earlier fatwas. They actually inspired Indian Muslims to such extent that Muslims did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of their country. Important measures suggested by Gandhiji to attain the goal were endorsed by many ulama of the period through the medium of fatawa, which had great impact on the Muslim masses. Significantly, these fatwas were issued not only by one or two aalims, but hundreds of ulama. The fatwa in favour of Tark-i-Muwalat (Non-Cooperation) was issued with the signature of 484 ulama. 

The effect of such fatwas may be understood in the light of enthusiasm demonstrated by Muslims in the freedom struggle in response to these fatwas. It is also evident from the statements given by the Birtish government. Some of the Muslims who returned the titles and medals are reported to have clearly stated before the British authorities, "a fatwa is binding on Muslim masses, and it is not feasible for them to defy it". The text of the above-cited fatwa may be seen in the fatwa compilations of the 18th -20th centuries, especially Fatawa-i-Aziziah, Fatawa-i-Mahmudiah, Imdad-al-Fatawa, Kifayat-al-Mufti, Fatawa-i-Farangi Mahl and some other fiqh works of those days.

It would be quite interesting to study and cirtically analyse the contents of these fatawa and assess their role in generating patriotic sentiments in Indian Muslims and in serving the cause of freedom. It would be certainly of significance if such a research project is sponsored by UGC, ICHR or ICCR. 

It would be amazing for some of the readers to know that our government has already recongnised the importance of fatawa literature produced during Muslim rule in India. Five volumes of Fatawa-Tatarkhani compiled at the instance of Tatar Khan, a great patron of learning and a noble of Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq’s reign (1351-1381 AD) was edited during 1984-1989. The fatawa originally consisted of 30 volumes. The editor of the fatawa, Qazi Sajjad Hussain of Madrasa Masjid Fatahpuri, passed away in 1990. What happened to the publication of other volumes is unknown.

In view of the above details about the system of fatawa in Islam, it would be wrong to say that "a fatwa helps in developing a herd mentality which is inimical to democracy". I feel that sometimes lack of knowledge or wrong perception creates misunderstanding and leads to negative comment which ultimately results in mistrust, hatred and illwill. I think mediamen will share with me the view that in the present painful atmosphere of rising social tension, communal divide and constant effort by a section of our countrymen to widen this divide, the time is quite ripe for different sections of our pluralistic society to study with an open mind each other’s religion, culture and literature and make themselves aware of each other’s social set-up and legal system. 

This would, of course, help to remove many misunderstandings and wrong impressions which breed suspicion, tension and conflict. Though such a situation affects different sections of society, the fact is that in present atmosphere, Muslims are greatest sufferers. The situation must be changed for the sake of harmony and peaceful co-existence in a composite society. I am of the firm belief that editors of newspapers, columnists, press reporters and other media persons can play a very important role because their editorials, articles and investigative reports contribute a lot to form public opinion. As a matter of fact, the significance of media is increasing day by day. 

Who can deny the fact that during the Gujarat disturbances it was the national press which exposed the wilful inaction of the state government and Centre to check violence and punish the culprits. It was actually the national press which brought to the notice of the world community the destructive planning of the Sangh in relation to the minorities. It was the national media which solidly stood by the victims of murder, plunder and rape in the land of Mahatma Gandhi. It cannot be denied that it was after the wake-up call given by the media to the political establishment that some effective administrative steps were taken to control the violent situation and to bring succour to the victims. All this was done by the media in the explosive situation under threat from mischievous elements. The media did its duty: incurring displeasure of political authorities in the state and at the Centre. 

Let me conclude with a tribute to the national media and the coverage of its professionals. However, I wish I could have said the same for much of Gujarat’s vernacular media, which tarnished its image by publishing false, incendiary reports that poured oil on the burning hatred. 

teaches at Islamic Studies at the AMU.

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