The Story of Fatwa

 Mozaffar Hossain

Fatwa is an Arabic word meaning a verdict or judicial pronouncement on certain debatable question of personal or social interest given by a Mufti or a jurisconsultant. Mufties are generally authorised experts in Muslim laws. They are selected by states from the reputed Imams of different Mazhabs, viz. Hanafi, Shafiai, Maliki and Humbali according to the demands in a country. The aim of Fatwa is to answer a question of vital importance raised either by a judge or an individual to settle a dubious issue.

Fatwa can never be arbitrary. It is always based on some precedent. It becomes a necessity when an individual or a judge fails to get at any solution of his dubious problem from the available Sharia literature or Islamic code of life based on the Holy Quran, Hadith, Ijma and Qias.

From the earliest time of Islam many Fatwas given by Imams and Muftis have been collected which are known as Fiqah. When a Mufti, in spite of his thorough knowledge of Fiqah literature, fails to solve the problem at issue, he will have recourse to other methods. These are the historically developed methods in Islam known as (i) Qias or analogical deductions from the Quranic teachings and Hadith, (2) Ijma or the consensus of opinion of the experts subject to the approval of the existing society, and (3) Ijtihad or personal judgment when all existing laws fail. A Mufti is authorised to base his verdict on any of the three processes. After the demise of the infallible teacher Prophet Muhammad (SM) the Muslim law-givers developed these valuable processes of solving debatable questions of personal and social importance.

During the early ages of Islam the law-courts issued Fatwas until the period of the Ummayads and the Abbasides. The renowned and wise theologians would take the lead.

In modern times, certain Muslim states have formed 'Fatwa Committees' consisting of famous law-givers of Islam. The experiences from Fatwa Committees of Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates expose some characteristics of Fatwa as practiced.

Firstly, Fatwas were given by the committees formed by the respective states, not by whims or caprice of individuals.

Secondly, they were given only when they were sought for in cases of emergency. Thirdly, Fatwas were not inconsistent with the existing laws of the respective countries. Last but not the least, Fatwas were given only by the expert law-givers well-acquainted with the Islamic sources of law.

Fatwas are rampant in countries where social progress is not at par with the liberalism of modern democratic society. Fatwa-practised countries are like the replicas of medieval inquisition-practised countries of the bygone Roman Catholic Christian bishop dominated states. In the light of this perspective, the practice of Fatwa is related to fundamentalism.

Historically, fundamentalism was a religious movement that arose among the conservative members of various Christian dogmatic schools in the early ages of Christian theological development with the object of maintaining traditional interpretations of the Bible and of the doctrines of the Christian faith in the face of Darwinism, secularism and the emergence of liberal theology due to the impact of approaching modernism in the traditional Christian society. It was a belief that Bible is literally true and it is obligatory to the adherents of religion in a literal way. However, the Christian society has already crossed the bar of fundamentalism and has accepted the modern view of secularism as a pattern of life. Islamic fundamentalism is in the orbit centring round the literal meaning of Quran and leading the life guided by 'shariah'. What was past in the Christian fundamentalism is now present in Islamic fundamentalism.

Islamic fundamentalism, if the term can be applied in the sense of limiting the area of freedom of human thinking, was at its height as a reaction against the Mutazilite philosophers of the 8th and 9th centuries who introduced rationalism into Muslim theology regarding reason as the chief criterion of ascertaining the validity of truth and morals. Their main assertions were the denial of multiplicity of God's attributes, the doctrine of the eternity of Quran and upholding the idea of free-will. As a reaction against such a school of thought a reign of terror prevailed for some time demanding the adherence of literal meaning of Quranic teachings without questioning 'why and how' to things. This was an event in the history of theological development of Muslim thought which has already been passed into oblivion. Things are now different, yet everything is not in the way of balance.

History is replete with the horrible news about the victims of religions fundamentalism though the term 'fundamentalism' was not used in this particular sense till the birth of Christianity. Before Christianity, fundamentalism in the form of 'Fatwa' (the term came into history after the birth of Islam) tortured the early Greek philosophers like Pythagoras, Empedocles and Auaxagoras. The touching trial-story of Socrates leading to his tragic death is known to all. Plato had the experience of being sold as a slave by King Dionisus I. He had to pass a long restless life of insecurity. Aristotle had to leave his birthplace Stagira and die on Chalsis for his sophistication of thought. The only visible offence of these philosophers was their height of intellect and sophistication of thought crossing the limit of popular belief and faith. No contemporary merit of the mass can keep pace with or tolerate such a big dimension of thought. New ideas and thoughts are generally allergic to all average merits.

The worst victims of fundamentalism were the free-thinkers of Medieval Europe. The devouring flames of Inquisition, the religious trial court, begun in the early 13th century under the domination of the Roman Catholic church initiated mainly by St. Thomas Acquinus (1225-1274 AD), took many promising personalities of intellectual arena. Roger Bacon (1214-1292 AD), the Professor of Oxford University, had to remain captive in a church for several years for his insurgence against traditional blind faith and support for experimental knowledge. Joan of Arc (1412-1431 AD), a French young girl, who fought valiantly and brought victory for the English, was convicted of witchcraft and heresy by a church court and was burned at the stake in a marketplace. As the flames rose, she prayed in the name of Jesus. An English soldier watching the tragic scene cried out "We are lost! We have burned a saint!" The verdict of the soldier was later proved right. In 1456, the church re-examined the trial and the ill-fated girl was found not-guilty of the charges of witchcraft and heresy. She was declared a saint posthumously.

Copernicus (1473-1543 AD) was another victim of the then Christianity. His cosmology went against many fundamental Christian beliefs based on Biblical teachings. He was the first to declare in Heliocentric theory of the rotation of the earth. Both Catholics and Protestants went against him and were about to punish him by death. Being afraid of the violent consequence of his hypothesis Copernicus restrained himself from publishing it immediately. He published it when he was just on the verge of death in 1543 with an introduction of admitting his idea as a fiction, not scientific theory. He did not forget to dedicate the book in the name of pope only to get rid of the omnivorous fire. Geordano Bruno (1548-1600 AD), the Italian humanist poet, dramatist and philosopher-scientist, was burned alive after long eight years of inhuman torture in the jail for his naturalistic theory of creation which went against the Biblical genesis.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 AD), the Italian physicist astronomer and proponent of scientific world outlook, defied the traditional Aristotelian world-view and attacked the dogmatic scholastic physics of his time. It paved the way for experimental science. His theory corroborated the heliocentric system of Copernicus. As the theory was a death-blow to the religion prevailing at that time, the Roman Inquisition compelled him to abjure his 'Copernican heresies'. Due to extreme pressure Galileo has to withdraw his scientific view and beg pardon before the trial-court for his so-called blasphemy. Still he had to lead a secluded life of house-arrest for five years till his death in 1642.

The Dutch philosopher of Modern Europe Spinoza (1632-77) was tortured inhumanly for his pantheistic conception of God dissolved in and identified with Nature which went against the Biblic Anthropomorphism. Though inherited with rabbinical education, he was excommunicated from the synagogue in 1656 for his 'higher criticism' of the Bible.

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), the English natural scientist, propounded his theory of Biological evolution challenging the Biblic teachings. His two epoch-making masterpieces (1) 'The Origin of Species' and (2) 'The Descent of Man' saw the light after much burgaining in the trial court. He escaped death only because of the influence of Renaissance-Reformation and the Industrial Revolution which paved the way of free-thinking much better than the previous dark ages.

Islamic dogmatism also took the form of Christian fundamentalism. Almost all the early Muslim philosophers were the victims of torture.

The famous early Muslim philosopher Al-Kindi (800-870 A.D.) could not expose his ideas freely. The teachings of Plato, Aristotle and Pythagorus influenced him much in his world-view. Medical science got proper nourishment from his creative genius. He emphasised the idea of 'proportion' in administering medicine. But the fanatic Muslims of his time could not tolerate many of his ideas. His books were proscribed by Calif Mutawakkil.

The versatile genius of Ibn Sina (Avecinna, 980-1037 A.D.) covered the vast region of knowledge of a poet, physician and a philosopher. He was also confined to jail for several months because of his lack of knowledge in the art of sycophancy. His books were devoured by fire.

Imam Al-Gazzali (1058-1111 A.D.) had to pass his worst days marked as an atheist. Everybody would spit upon his name. The Spanish Calif Ali Abu Yusuf ordered his magnum opus 'Yahia-ul-Ulm' to be burned to ashes. Al-Gazzali had the courage to declare that the fanatic and dogmatic adherents of Islam were the real enemies of it.Ibu Rushd (Averroes, 16-98 A.D.) was the worst victim of Islamic fanaticism. He was officially declared atheist and was exiled from his root-land. His books were proscribed and burned to ashes. The fanatics publicly spitted upon his face.

In the Indian sub-continent fatwa created a serious social commotion in the 19th century when it was given with a political motive of anti-British propaganda. Leaders like Shah Wali Allah and Shah Abd-al-Aziz declared India as 'dar-al-harb' or the 'abode of war' not suited to foster the Islamic way of life and it was the duty of the Muslims to migrate and settle in any 'dar-al-Islam' or the 'abode of Islam' outside India.

The practice of fatwa in Bangladesh exposes a lamentable and pitiable picture of social anarchy prevailing in the country. Prior to the independence, the dismal instances of fatwa was few and far between. The main characteristics of fatwa as exposed through various news agencies are as follows:

(1) Most of the fatwa-cases are occurred in the interior and remote village areas where law and order position of the government is too weak to control the situation.

(2) Fatwas are given mostly by the local Imams of different mosques, Madrasa teachers or self-declared 'pirs' lacking in the proper knowledge of religious literature and having no authority of doing so. They do it in collaboration with the local 'mathbar's or socially influential leaders who are practically above the control of administrative authorities.

(3) The motive behind such fatwas are mostly to victimise the rivals of various interested groups (political or otherwise), or to exact illegal money by penalising the victims or their relations. All these are against the spirit of fatwa proper.

(4) Fatwa cases are concerned mostly with illicit sex-relations, love affairs, separations of husband and wife, supporting any political party by voting against the interested groups or adopting any progressive social outlook which may affect the age-long vested interested groups. In such cases, the different NGOs are the main targets.

(5) The silent majority of the population is illiterate, culturally backward and helpless to do anything positive to the victims.

The different ways and techniques of torture adopted by the self-declared Fatwa-authorities are as follows:

(1) The victims are arbitrarily punished either by physical torture (by scourging, stoning etc) or by extorting ransom money beyond the normal capacity of the victims.

(2) In cases of illicit sex-relations and love affairs the victims (mostly women) are stoned to death in half buried condition a barbarous tribal method.

(3) The victims, sometimes including the whole family, are mostly boycotted by the neighbouring society making them quite impossible to lead a normal life for want of food, shelter and communication etc.

(4) Politically, fatwas are used by declaring the victims as 'murtads' (renegades) demanding capital punishment or exile.

(5) The main targets of Fatwa are the Quadiwa's (as their belief is contrary to the sunni order of faith), NGO activities, birth control measures, progressive women movements etc.

Some heinous examples of fatwa targets are the writer Taslima Nasrin, Prof. Ahmed Sharif (Late), Prof Kabir Chowdhury, poet Shamsur Rahman, Nurjahan (stoned to death), Swapnahar, Firoza Khatun etc. These are only the few sporadic examples of countless crimes committed by the fundamentalists whose brains are in mortgage to the dark ages of Medievalism.

The usage of Fatwa in a modern secular and multicultural society is like putting the square peg in a round hole, for it is applicable only in the countries where 'Shariah' is the guiding principle of administration. It is no substitute for law and order based on democratic principles.

There is no way of denying the fact that Bangladesh is not yet modern state in its true sense. It is still in a state of transition from its medieval past to modernism dragging with illiteracy and age-long prejudices in its back. The eradication of such vices may usher in a new era of enlightenment.The following lines in The Daily Star of the 2nd January, 2001 attracted my attention with a feeling of optimism about the future of Bangladesh: "The High Court yesterday ruled that any fatwa or 'legal opinion' not given by a court is unauthorised and illegal."

But my unmixed optimism was very short-lived. Soon came the known voice of old challenging the judgement of the High Court and declaring the judges concerned as 'murtads.' A new drama of fatwa is on the stage and we shall have to walk miles.\

The author is retired chairman, Department of Philosophy, Jagannath College.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, January 17 ,  2001

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