Defining Fatwa: An Oriental Perspective

By Dr. Saira Rahman

The term fatwa requires explanation in both its actual meaning and in what it means in Bangladesh today.Fatwa, in true Islamic context has been explained by Dr. Syed Anwar Husain as 'the opinion of a mufti who is a versatile person having sufficiently strong grounding in Islamic principles. A mufti is a religious person appointed by the state for the purpose of issuing fatwa.' And no one else can do so. Therefore, in other words, a fatwa is a religious decree or edict according to Quranic doctrines or Shari'a. The term itself is derived from the Arabic 'to give decision'. During the time when Islam was still young, and through the Ummayyid and Abbassinid dynasties, religious courts were held, where fatwa were passed. Due to outside influence and changes in society, the responsibility of judging people was given to the state, but every-day, domestic disputes were resolved by special fatwa institutions, which were, however, not allowed to pass decisions over serious criminal offences. Nor could they decide on severe punishments like the death sentence.

In Bangladesh today considered from a strict Islamic point of view, the practice of fatwa is an anathema. It is an instrument of exploitation disguised in religious garb. It is targeted against the most vulnerable members of society to achieve social, political and economic advantage and has its roots in policies and practices of political elite who seek to gain through the patronising of anti-social, anti-development, fanatic elements.

At this point of the discussion, I would like to point out the difference between the fanatic and the fundamentalist and would like to stress that 'fatwa-mongers' in rural Bangladesh are not fundamentalists. Call them 'fanatics', 'religious fascists', 'obscurantists' or 'extremists' but not 'fundamentalists'. Webster defines a 'fanatic' as 'an extremist, often applied to followers of a religious or political party' and 'fanaticism' as 'excessive zeal or unreasoning fervour especially religious or political'. 'Fundamentalism', on the other hand, denotes 'a belief that the Bible is to be accepted literally as an inerrant and infallible spiritual and historical document'. The term itself is from the word 'fundamental' meaning 'pertaining to or being the basis, root or foundation of something; essential; elementary; primary'. The word 'Bible' can be substituted by 'Quran' in the above definition of 'fundamentalism'. Therefore these two terms are completely opposite in meaning.

Unfortunately, in modern terminology, fanatics and fundamentalists have been thrown together to mean the same extreme personality which makes a fanatic. The western media has also played a role in giving the term 'fundamentalist' a negative meaning. Fatima Mernissi comments '.....the media does not help Westerners to understand what goes on in the Muslim world, reducing, as it does, political figures to Tarzan's Chita. And even Chita had some humane quality about her, denied to Muslims as they are described in the Western media. This dehumanisation of Muslims in America and European television has, by mirror effect a dehumanising impact on the American and European viewers. They become so frightened that their national capacities are paralysed and only their defensive, aggressive energies are brought to bear on their relations with this important part of the world civilisation.' The fact that the term 'fundamentalist' and 'fundamentalism' do not quite apply to Islam in the same way as it applies to Christianity or Judaism is, of course, also recognised in some non-Muslim quarters. Bernard Lewis, a Jewish scholar of Islam states "it is now common usage to apply the term 'fundamentalist' to a number of Islamic radical and militant groups. The use of this term is established and must be accepted, but it remains unfortunate and misleading. 'Fundamentalist' is a Christian term. It seems to have come into use in the early years of this century, and denoted certain Protestant churches and organisations, more particularly those which maintain the literal divine origin and inerrancy of the Bible. In this they oppose the liberal and modernist approach to the Quran, and are, in principle at least fundamentalists." However, even though Lewis agrees that the term is misleading, he says that the term 'fundamentalist' is established and must therefore be accepted- even while denoting extremists and Muslim fanatics. If this statement is accepted, then how can we argue for the abolishment of such terms as 'chairman', 'manpower', 'red Indian' and other sexist and racist language which have been part of the English vocabulary for a very long time and are, due to non-acceptance in present times, now seen as 'politically incorrect'?

I emphasise that the fatwa-mongers and the political powers behind them are not fundamentalists because they act on blind impulses and emotions with little regard to the basic doctrines of respect, humanity and peace and tolerance enshrined in the Quran. Kazi Alauddin Ahmed places it exceedingly well when he comments ' In my opinion he (the fanatic) is practically blind-folded and yet he enjoys a sort of mirthful sojourn in the dark alleys of ignorance, superstition, intolerance, vengeance and other such ignominious overtures.' The fatwa passed by the village imams, as will be seen, have little to do with Quranic teachings and philosophy. The decisions are almost invariably self-interested and biased: fabrications, misinterpretations or extremist interpretations of the Holy Book.

A fundamentalist, in the Islamic context, is a believer in the fundamentals of the Quran, its underlying philosophy and spirit. By virtue of his understanding, he is an educated, enlightened, unbiased person having through exposure to the Quran and who, therefore, has no scope of perverting it or distorting the basic principles of peace, humanity and tolerance enshrined in it. A rational Muslim who interprets the term 'fundamentalist' literally, will have no qualms in calling himself one, since a majority of Muslims do believe in the basic principles of Islam contained in Sur'ah Al-Baqarah 17:7 'it is not righteous that yea turn your face towards east or west; but it is righteous to believe in God and the Last Day and the Angels and the Book and the Messengers; to spend your subsistence, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer; for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; and fulfil the contracts which yea have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain and adversity, and throughout all period of panic, such are the people of truth, the God-fearing.' Thus in relation to Muslims, 'Islamic Fundamentalism' should mean the 'fundamentals of Islam.

Thus, the Muslim fundamentalist, in my opinion, is in danger of being overwhelmed by fanatics who are misusing the identity and dignity of the former, with the help of the (purposely?) confused West. In Bangladesh, fatwa are passed not by the enlightened fundamentalist, but by the dark political powers of the fanatics and their cronies.

Fatwa, in itself, poses no danger to Muslim society. It is the misinterpretation and misuse of the term and its practice, which is violative to society. Furthermore, since the term "Fundamentalist" has been given a negative attitude and an adverse labelling by the West and certain vested interest groups, in relation to Muslims, we need to ensure that the real meaning of the term and practice of 'Fatwa' is not similarly given

The writer is a free-lance legal researcher.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, January 7 ,  2001
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