The fatwa is commonly known in the West as a death sentence. Among Muslims, the fatwa can be among the most powerful tools of Islamic populism. On a third front, the fatwa is simply a bureaucratic function. Which definition encompasses reality?
Since the dawn of Islam the scholar has had a place of prominence, celebrated for his command of the Quran, the traditions, and mastery of the sharia. For this reason, the state has always wanted to remain on good terms with the scholars, and if possible, to co-opt or institutionalize them.
What makes a scholar? There is a threshold of necessary knowledge, without which any claimant would be exposed as a fraud. But scholars must also be linked to networks, or else they would simply sit at home issuing fatwas to themselves. It is these networks which are under redefinition in Egypt and much of the Arab world today.
For example, the Muslim Brotherhood has a mufti – the Arabic term for one who gives a fatwa. Is he legitimate? What about each and every Salafi preacher around whom the people congregate? If someone appears on television, is he fit to issue a fatwa?
Conversely, though the state conveys legitimacy on many aspects of society, does it also pertain to religious life? Islamic societies have historically treaded carefully here, wary of the corrupting possibility of power but keen to preserve the stability of the nation.
For centuries, in Egypt especially but also throughout the Sunni Muslim world, the Azhar established itself as the pinnacle of Islamic scholarship. Its graduates secured both popular and institutional credibility. Yet in 1961 President Nasser brought the prestigious university under state control.
The process to diversify – and perhaps dilute – the influence of the scholars was already long underway, however. In the 19th Century under British occupation the Dar al-Ifta’ was created to issue official fatwas. The institution survived the 1952 revolution and was used at times thereafter to obtain favorable rulings for controversial state policies.
As both Sheikh al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti are positions appointed by the president, many have criticized the venerable bodies as being little more than mouthpieces for the ruling regime. It has not been uncommon, however, for many criticisms to issue from scholars of either dubious representation or extremist trends. Is not the state the societal organ best fit to establish proper regulations and qualifications?
Though not a justification, Dr. Ibrahim Nagm explains the functions of Dar al-Ifta’. Serving as senior advisor to the Grand Mufti, he seeks to make understandable the concept of ‘fatwa’, which has been sensationalized due to what he would say is its frequent misuse.
Nagm defines a fatwa as ‘non-binding religious advice given by a qualified scholar in response to a question asked by a member of the public’. He then proceeds to unpack the meaning of each key phrase.
Non-binding: A fatwa carried no legal authority or compulsion of implementation. This invalidates the popular idea that a fatwa is a summons to kill a particular individual, for example.
Qualified: Though anyone can give their religious opinion, only a certified scholar is permitted to issue a fatwa. Dar al-Ifta’ insists upon deep Islamic scholarship from a respectable university (such as al-Azhar), and then provides three additional years of training before accrediting anyone.
Question: A fatwa must be spontaneous, issued in response to a real life issue submitted by the public. It cannot be internally generated according to policy. Every day the Dar al-Ifta’ receives +500 personal fatwa requests and +2000 by phone in up to nine languages from around the world.
To handle these requests, the Dar al-Ifta’ has about 50 accredited scholars working in its administration, with an additional 50 scattered throughout Egypt.
Each fatwa issued conforms to the basic methodology of Islamic scholarship, which Nagm outlined as the following:
1) Consult the Islamic sources: These include the Quran, the sunna, and the legacy of Islamic scholarship. Look for precedents and consider their application.
2) Understand the person and the issue: Fatwas are expected to apply differently according to circumstances. The legal texts are incomplete without full knowledge of the problem.
3) Issue the fatwa: To be done in a manner bridging tradition and reality.
As an example, Nagm described a request for a fatwa to see if it was permitted for a particular man to take a second wife. After consulting the sources, the indications were yes – it is permitted for a Muslim to marry up to four wives.
Yet after consulting the situation, the person requesting the fatwa was discovered to be residing in a non-Muslim nation which forbids polygamy. Bridging between the tradition and the reality, Dar al-Ifta’ issued a fatwa instructing the requester to submit to the laws of the country he lived in, and not marry again.
In another example a farmer requested a fatwa to permit or forbid the use of certain chemicals in the fertilization process. Nagm indicated clearly this was a matter beyond the competence of the institution. They referred the question to scientific specialists, who indicated the mentioned chemicals were harmful. Armed with this knowledge, it was a simple matter to issue the fatwa forbidding their use.
Returning to the question of Islamic legitimacy, Nagm does not answer the question, but does paint Dar al-Ifta’ as a thoroughly bureaucratic institution. Its methods are sound, but reflect the dry, thorough work of professionalism.
Professionalism is good, of course, but Nagm frequently contrasted it to academia, which is not enough. It is not scholarship that makes a mufti, but training.
Of course, training is also good. Nagm commented that Osama bin Laden was an engineer, and Ayman al-Zawahiri was a doctor. No matter how substantial their personal study of Islamic jurisprudence, they are not part of a credible, established network.
In terms of establishment, this is certain. But credibility is in the eye of the beholder. Dar al-Ifta’ walks the fine line between professional accountability and state submission. Yet this is no different from the family of Islamic scholars throughout history who have navigated the same challenge.
After all, though scholarship is immensely valuable, it puts no food on the table. It must market its knowledge somewhere. The public trusts the scholar, while marketing, to remain faithful ultimately to God.
That trust is his only credibility.
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