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Published in the 1-15 Apr 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Media and politics behind Agra fatwa controversy
Senile mufti, stupid fatwa

A crowd of unruly youth gather at Belanganj here on 14 March. They carry an effigy, said to be of the octogenarian Mufti Abdul Quddoos Rumi, who periodically lands himself into trouble at every opportunity.

As the crowd gets more and more hysteric with every passing moment, the temperature mounts sharply even in the otherwise pleasant March forenoon. The youth finally torch the hated dummy of the controversial mufti.
West Bengal BJP leader Muzaffar Khan and his followers sing Vande Matram in Kolkata
West Bengal BJP leader Muzaffar Khan and his followers sing Vande Matram in Kolkata

Only after the effigy is burnt to cinders and enough insults are hurled at Mufti Rumi the crowd disperses hoping to have registered their “protest”. This theatrical production was staged by a Hindutvawadi group of the Bajrang Dal. But the Mufti who aroused passions after issuing his controversial fatwa had fled to his native town in Allahabad hundreds of miles to the east.

Interestingly, these people were rather slow to react. The mufti had issued his “fatwa” on 6 March declaring that Muslims who had sung the Vande Mataram song on 3 March at a meeting here should “renew their faith” and “renew their marriages”, the two measures usually taken to revive lapsed faith in Islam.

Left to right: Mohammad Bashir, Shahzad Ali

Left to right: Mohammad Bashir, Shahzad Ali

After issuing the fatwa and the resulting protests the mufti made his disappearing act leaving the city of Taj on a heap of communal dynamite. The mufti, in his 80s, is prone to controversies of even more subversive kind. He is on record to have declared the late Qazi Mujahidul Islam Qasmi, president of the prestigious All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the greatest Indian scholar of fiqh at the time, “apostate”. Mufti Rumi accused late Qazi Mujahidul Islam as a Qadiyani (Ahmadi), a sect considered heretic by Muslims. 

On 4 March Hindi daily Amar Ujala carried a news item with a sensational caption that “Muslims would no longer be misled”. It went on to say that Muslims “kiss the earth five times a day” adding that now all Muslims of Agra would sing Vande Mataram. It also published statements of some Muslims associated with BJP in which they said that Vande Mataram was not against Islam and singing it meant just paying salutation to the nation. They claimed that there was nothing wrong in addressing one’s country as “mother”.

Following the report, some Muslims prepared a list of 10 questions  and asked Mufti Rumi for a fatwa (religious opinion). Mufti Rumi said in his reply that the song contained polytheistic ideas, that he had seen the Urdu translation of the report and prayed for the guidance of these people and asked them to renew their faith and remarry their spouses.

The fatwa caused a stir among Muslims who had sung Vande Matram which is generally disliked by Muslims for its ideas as well as its background. People came out protesting against the fatwa in Agra and West Bengal. West Bengal BJP leader and member of the Central Haj Committee, Muzaffar Khan, led a protest march opposing the fatwa in Kolkata. He said the fatwa was meaningless and that there was a political motive behind it. Khan even claimed that the mufti had denied the children of those 54 Muslims admission in madrasas and boycotted them socially while the actual fatwa said no such thing. VHP leader Giriraj Kishore also strongly objected to the fatwa saying that it reflected the mindset [of Muslims] for which they had been fighting for years.

But the fatwa found no support by Islamic scholars. Maulana Anzar Shah Kashmiri, shaikhul hadith of Darul Uloom Waqf, Deoband, and noted Islamic scholar Maulana Abdullah Jawed expressed great surprise and termed the fatwa un-Islamic. Maulana Kashmiri said that there was a big difference between politics and religion. Political parties have their own principles and policies which may not be acceptable to others but one does not become kafir by joining a political party. BJP is a communal party but it does not mean that one would become kafir by joining it, Kashmiri said. Mufti Muhammad Mukarram, Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Fatehpuri Masjid said that if the song has been sung with belief in its contents, then those who sang it are outside the place of Islam but if it has been sung just as other songs without knowing its purport, there is nothing wrong but they should not repeat it.

Shahzad Ali, president of Agra city’s BJP minority cell told this correspondent that no one had sung the song. He said that a meeting of the party was held to discuss strategies to attract Muslims. Answers to be given to Muslims about Vande Mataram were also discussed. After the meeting was over, media representatives present on the occasion asked some participants about the song. Their replies were unintelligent as they had no knowledge of the song’s political and religious history. Their statements were published, Shahzad says, despite the fact that most of them were illiterate, hence they could not give proper answers.

While Amar Ujala kept quiet after overplaying the story, Hindi daily Aaj did a good job. In its 13 March issue the daily said, “The efforts to push the town into the fire of violence met a dead-end. A section of media which tried to hype the issue came a cropper.” The daily further observed that it is of little value who does what adding that “a section of media is adamant to publish reports which increase the BJP’s popularity even if the city is pushed to violence.” 

The fatwa issued on 6 March in response to the questionnaire bearing names of Chaudhary Ali Sabri and Laiq Ahmad nowhere mentions names of the “54 Muslims” who were allegedly “excommunicated” as many newspapers, especially the Agra edition of Hindi daily Amar Ujala, claimed. Disregarding the tradition the fatwa in question does not quote references from the Quran and Hadith or consensus of Muslim scholars which is necessary for issuing fatwas. As such the so-called “fatwa” was simply the opinion of an insane person who should have retired decades ago.

Muhammad Bashir Qureshi, a local MLA and former science and technology minister of Uttar Pradesh, said, “We respect our mufti and these [excommunicated] people are out of Islam.” On being asked that a mufti may also make mistakes, Qureshi shot back, “We do not listen to anything, what mufti saheb has said is final”. Qureshi warned the mob who burnt the effigy of Mufti Rumi and claimed that it is an attack on Muslim’s faith as a mufti is highly respected in the Muslim society. He convened a meeting of Muslims at the city’s Jama Masjid and demanded the district magistrate to arrest the mob leaders under National Security Act!

Muhammad Iqbal, of Taj Emporium, an artifacts shop near Agra Jama Masjid, says that there are few Muslims opposing mufti saheb's ruling but they are being highlighted by the BJP. It is a conspiracy to divide secular vote, he says. 

Muslims who were declared “kafir” in media reports found it hard to prove their allegiance to Islam. Shahzad Ali, president of the city’s BJP minority cell, said, “We have a tough time. We are Muslims and worship Allah alone. We believe in His messenger and are against worshipping the earth”. He says the issue is being hyped by Samajwadi Party and the Congress with ulterior motives to garner Muslim votes. He does not blame the mufti but says that he should have asked them before issuing the fatwa. “Mufti saheb has been misled”, he says. Had he enquired with us he would not have issued the fatwa, said Shahzad. He says the fatwa sends a wrong message about Islam. Shahzad Ali gives us a copy of Vande Mataram with its Urdu and Hindi translation. The song only shows respect to motherland and nothing else. He says that mufti saheb should have stayed in the city so that we could have contacted him. We are trying to contact other muftis, he says. 

Abdul Salam Qureshi, vice-president of Agra BJP’s minority cell declares his faith in Islam and says that if one becomes non-Muslim by singing Vande Mataram, because it shows respect to the country, one also becomes non-Muslim by singing Sare Jahan Se Achchha Hindustan Hamara. People in every country sing songs to show love to the motherland, so did we, Salam says, adding why no one issues fatwa against President APJ Abdul Kalam for singing Vande Mataram? 

Ashfaq Saifi, one the victims of the fatwa says the questions asked in the fatwa are general and they do not relate to any particular person. Has anybody asked us if we have done what has been stated in the questionnaire, Saifi asks. He says political parties are raising the issue because they are afraid of our popularity among Muslims. 

It was clear from my two-day investigation in Agra that the issue is being unnecessarily twisted by some newspapers and local politicians for their petty interests. 

Maulana Abul Barkat Mazahiri, rector of Darul Uloom Agra, says the fatwa is irrelevant. He says Mufti saheb issued the fatwa and left the city whereas he should have in fact stayed here to face the music. Now Muslims are fighting each other, which is bad, he says. “He has no sense”, Mazahiri says while giving some other examples of Mufti Rumi’s nonsense approach. In his biography Siddiq Ki Kahani Ek Sadeeq Ki Zubani (Siddiq’s story told by a friend) Mufti Rumi accuses a distinguished religious scholar, late Qari Siddiq Ahmad of Banda, of writing another student’s examination papers in his student days, Maulana Abul Barkat said.

While muftis refrain from issuing political fatwas, Mufti Rumi had earlier issued a fatwa asking Muslims to vote for Bahujan Samaj Party candidate Raisuddin. Raisuddin lost his deposit and the mufti his credibility.

— Manzar Imam in Agra

Fatwa text

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