If you

Photo: Munir uz Zaman/AFP

If you're not Muslim, almost everything you know about 'fatwas' is probably wrong. Here's why

Seldom has the birth of a fatwa gone unnoticed. While the social, religious and political implications of a fatwa consume us, scant attention is paid to the men (and sometimes women) who have to field the silliest of questions all day.

Sometimes these questions are planted. Sometimes hilarious. Sometimes stupid enough to make you worry for humanity's future.

Here's a sampler:

  • "Recently a new airline was started in India by the name of Kingfisher Airlines. This airline belongs to the business group whose main business is liquor/wine producing. Is it permissible to use this airline..."
  • "Ever so often a group of stores or newspapers etc run competitions offering prizes in order to attract a greater number of customers. I hope that you can explain to me the ruling on taking part in these competitions..."
  • "I am trying to give up smoking but I do not seem to be able to give it up..."

  • "I am suffering from a (spiritual) illness. Whenever anybody belittles or humiliates me, I become enraged..."
  • "I see my husband cheating on me in my dreams..."

Also read: Deoband Darul Uloom issues fatwa on chanting Bharat Mata Ki Jai

The Fatwa Machines

A fatwa is an opinion, not an order. At best comparable to a legal opinion, but never to a judicial verdict - even though it carries that air of finality and authority.

And it is mostly issued in response to queries by regular folk - not arbitrarily at a cleric's whim. In essence, then, the 'fatwa' is a trained Islamic scholar's opinion on a particular subject based on his or her understanding of Islam.

Maulana Usama Qasmi, the Shahr Qazi of Kanpur, says he receives at least a 100 queries every month.

"There are plenty of personal questions. Some fatwas are twisted to suit someone's agenda. Some are planted. And some are so silly that they do not merit an answer," he says.

He cites the example of a general fatwa on the importance of hijab in Islam that was twisted to extend to tennis star Sania Mirza. "Our fatwa was not intended for Sania Mirza. But it was attributed to us," says Qasmi.

Another fatwa on 'earnings' was distorted and applied to Bollywood star Salman Khan. "We never said that his earnings from films were illegal or immoral," says Qasmi.

Yet Qasmi and his colleagues are patient with fatwa-seekers. "We are never rude to anyone. However, we sometimes ignore questions that seem non-serious."

Stupid vs Stupid

Dr Mohammed Talha, the Lucknow-based editor of an online magazine Firangi Times, also encourages readers to send in questions seeking fatwas.

Since he is not a trained 'maulana' he is not allowed to issue fatwas. But the ludicrous questions enrage him.

"What do you think would happen if a stupid question is asked and then there is a stupid person to address that?" he asks.

Talha says most maulvis are not equipped to issue fatwas. Their understanding of Islam is shallow and their training inadequate. "Fatwa is a matter of opinion and in a secular country like India it holds no legal ground. There could be five different interpretations of an Islamic matter by five different people," he adds.

His thoughts are endorsed by Islamic Studies scholar Prof Akhtarul Wasey.

"All Muslims are entitled to seek a fatwa, as they would seek a legal opinion. The opinion is, however, not binding on the individual. And the opinion may vary from person to person."

Also read: Fatwa directs Muslim women not to contest Kolhapur civic polls

But possibly the most important thing about fatwas is this: a fatwa is applicable to only that person who asks the question. It is not applicable en masse, he adds.

That means that, however ludicrous, a fatwa cannot change public discourse or behaviour on a subject.

That doesn't prevent a whole lot of idiocy coming up. Here's examples of real fatwas on a host of subjects:

1. Praying with ID card

Query: My colleague asked me to keep the ID card in my pocket otherwise my salah will not be valid. I have following doubt...

Fatwa: ...(you cannot) offer salah while putting ID Cards or Passport etc with photographs in front of oneself if the photos are visible; hence they should be kept in the pocket or in such a way that the pictures are hidden.

(Fatwa: 194/158/D=03/1437/Darul Uloom)

2. Status of Sufi songs/Qawwali

Query: I would like to know about the status and importance of sufi songs (qawwali) in the light of Quran and Hadiths...

Fatwa: The contemporary qawwali (mystic chorus) sung and listened with harmonium, tomtom, i.e. with musical instrument, is not lawful according to Shariah. Furthermore, today most of the qawwal (chorister) are clean shaved, drinker and far away from salah. Their qawwali with musical instruments is not lawful at any rate....

(Fatwa: 750/643/B=1432/Darul Uloom)

3. Using an internet forum

Query: Is it permissible to use internet forums which are set up in the name of Islam but where males and females engage in online discussions?

Fatwa: it is allowed to use the internet forum if it is according to Shariah. If there is online discussion (by writing) then there is no problem, even if there is a woman at another end. But, if there are pictures or voice of women, then it will not be allowed even if it has only Islamic contents. So, it is allowed to use internet in itself provided that there is no picture of living being and voice of women.

(Fatwa: 245/N=241/N/Darul Uloom)

The Fatwa Politics

Senior sociologist Neshat Quaiser points out that fatwas are mostly just used by people as per their convenience.

"A fatwa is taken seriously when they (people) want to take it seriously as a means to bargain. The domain of religion then is quite flexible in everyday life - contrary to the ways in which it is portrayed in high discourse - or in a situation of conflict," says Quaiser.

Prof Wasey says both men and women are allowed to issue fatwas if they are competent and have been trained in "ifta" (issuing fatwas).

Unfortunately, the fact that fatwas are not binding is never highlighted. The classic case being the recent fatwa on chanting 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' by Muslims.

"The punchline of a fatwa is circulated - the context is conveniently overlooked. No thought goes into how was the query articulated and that the reply was structured to answer that," says Prof Wasey.

Syed Saif Abbas Naqvi belongs to the Shia sect of Islam. The maulana receives at least 15-20 queries in a day.

He recounts some of the stupidest queries he has received.

"Several such queries are from women. Can I ward off the evil eye on chicken curry the same way as on mutton curry? Will I have to peel the banana before I rid it of the devil?" Naqvi laughs.

It's not easy to be a Naqvi or a Qasmi, given the volume of inane and outright stupid questions they have to deal with each day. And given the fluidity of a fatwa - several opinions on the same issue, none binding - it mostly doesn't make sense to knock on a maulana's door.

But thanks to its entry into popular imagination - and the mistaken beliefs around it - the word fatwa will stay part of our urban dictionary for the foreseeable future.

Edited by Payal Puri

Lamat R Hasan

Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub