Regulating Fatwa in the Contemporary World: Discourses of Pluralism & Crisis in the Age of Globalization


[This is the twelfth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on iftaa and fatwa held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited report I will write on the conference and represents my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. The Minaret of Freedom Institute thanks IIIT for the grant that makes the publication of these notes possible. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone.]

Moderator: Vinay Khetia
“Regulating Fatwa in the Contemporary World: Discourses of Pluralism & Crisis in the Age of Globalization”
Alexandre Caeiro, EZIRE-Friedrich-Alexandre University, Erlangen, Germany

Given the historical diversity in Islamic thought, valorized as a sign of Islamic tolerance, the current “narrative of chaos” requires some explanation. I shall explain the narrative and problematize it. I will focus on Shaikh Yusef al-Qaradawi who, I suggest, offers an alternative account to this common diagnosis. This is surprising since he is an active figure in the debate for regulation of iftaa. I will highlight some positions Qaradawi has taken but from which he seems to shy away.

There have been a number of high profile conferences calling for regulation, including the Amman declaration. A small conference in Mardan Turkey centered on Ibn Taymiyya’s criteria.  There have also been many shows on satellite TV like “Iqram” Also many books like Fawd al iftaa’ and countless articles in the press about the negative impact of proliferating fatwas. They invariably target both the state and the wider society calling for criminalization of unauthorized fatwas, self-restraint, public education, a formal covenant binding on muftis, the establishment of specialized institutes, university training for muftis, strengthening of existing institutions, the weakening of institutions, establishment of a supreme council. Many of these proposals rely on the regulatory power of Islamic tradition rather than coercive state power. There is a tension between social legitimacy from the community and the desire for political intervention by the sultan. Islam has tolerated a high degree of diversity in iftaa, at least in the Sunni world. Diversity of fatwas has been called a mercy. Islamic reformists have gone beyond the traditional distinction between binding hukm and nonbinding fatwa to stress the responsibility of the believer to choose the fatwa that best suits his condition and inclinations, citing the hadith “Ask your heart.”

I have a clip of Uthman Uthman’s interview with Shaikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah from AlJazeera. It emphasizes the need for fatwas in a changing world and cites the proliferation of sources. Is it even possible to regulate such a market? The new media are widely blamed for the chaos, depicted not as neutral instruments but as media that have displaced the traditional standards so that fame rather than knowledge becomes the new criterion of influence. They focus on “abnormal fatwas,” e.g. that smoking does not break the fast of Ramadan, or that normalization of relations with Israel is allowed, or the infamous breast-feeding fatwa. This is a broad understanding of fatwas that includes any oral statement by a qualified scholar. There is a claim that a market mechanism is being applied to an institution that is not subject to supply and demand. There is an implication that this has become a business when in fact many muftis give fatwas all day long for free.

Linking this issue to the fight against terrorism is most clear in the Amman Declaration of 2005, which was specifically designed to prevent radical groups from issuing fatwas justifying violence. Professor Michot’s paper on the new Mardin declaration is also relevant. The attempt to stop al-Qaeda by invoking Ibn Taymiyyah’s text is rooted in an impoverished understanding of what motivates terrorism.

In many ways this narrative is compelling, but the diagnosis is not unanimously shared. Sh. Ali Gomaa of Egypt downplays differences among muftis as due to differences in how questions are phased rather than deep disagreements. Sh, Bin Bayyah is quick t point out that the challenges facing iftaa are the same as those facing other fields of knowledge. The diagnosis of chaos is not as self-evident as it may seem.

There is always some kind of regulation in markets, even if it is the invisible hand of Adam Smith, so we need further exploration of the claim that there is a market in fatwas. There is also the charge of confusion. Muslims can identify fatwas as abnormal. In most cases the distinction between the permissible and the impermissible is evident to common sense. Many scholars often refer questions to more qualified ones. Recognized religious authorities rather than TV or Internet preachers have issued many of the controversial fatwas we have mentioned.

Yusef al-Qaradawi has been involved in these calls for regulation, but I think he actually offers an alternative as in his interesting book, al-Fata wa-sh-Shaddah. He does not blame the new media but says these problems have always existed due to lack of qualifications of the muftis, lack of respect for specialization, rush to issue fatwas, secular attachment to one’s own opinions, unwillingness to debate, political motives, and abuse of the notion of maslaha (public interest). He seems to accept the intrusion of non-qualified scholars as an inevitable feature of social life common to all arts and crafts. Consider an episode of the TV show “Al-Fatwa as-Siyâsa” debating a fatwa by Tantawi on a wall to seal off the Gaza tunnels. This episode was unusually less friendly in tone as Sh. Qaradawi repeatedly denies the questioner’s attempt to imply that there should be a separation of religion from politics. Fatâwa siyâsîya is used to mean fatwas that support the position of the ruler, rightly or wrongly. Some muftis are not knowledgeable about the fiqh and others sell out. Shouldn’t the mufti who issues a decision on politics understand politics first? No; everyone has a right to political participation. The argument of the contribution of political fatwas to the problem loses its force for someone like Qaradawi. The proliferation of fatwas during the Gulf War served the interests of the rulers. Qaradawi denies the opinions served the purposes of the states but rather were governed by the conditions within the different countries. Muftis diverge for various reasons and this is normal. Should there not be a single stance? No. He gives the example of ibn Abbas changing his view on an issue as great as repentance for murder in the middle of its issuance as he better understands the intention of the questioner. For Qaradawi the mufti is effective only to the extent the followers are willing to act on their opinions. Differences in fatwas have more to do with sensibilities and temperament.

Osama Umar al-Ashqar’s book is representative of a modern understanding that the fatwa is to help in the development of the modern nation.

Discussant: Jamal Al-Birzanji

I congratulate Alexandre for this quality paper. Chaos in fatwa is only a reflection of chaos in the ummah itself. As the ummah itself settles down, I think this will work itself out. The governments and rulers are not trusted by the people and have no right to criminalize iftaa. What is missing is a platform in which debate can take place. Until the new regime came into Turkey there was no Muslim country in which a free debate could take place that could marginalize the extreme views and make room for a meaningful debate.

I think Shaikh Yusef stopped short of pointing finger at those fatwas issued to please a ruler. In Saudi Arabia there was a real fear that Saddam Hussein would invade Saudi Arabia and there was an honest confusion; but Shaikh Tantawi faced a ruthless regime had no choice, though only Allah knows what was in his heart. I respect his position that the ummah has always confronted ridiculous fatwas, but this did not concern the ummah until now under pressure from the West about terrorism, or perhaps out of greater sensitivity we have become concerned. I think Tantawi was a sincere man trying to honestly address the question without alienating himself from the regime.

I don’t think it is an invisible hand but a very visible hand that regulate iftaa, the trust in the ummah; be patient for the scholars to regulate one another by their debate.

Discussant: Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad

Not supply and demand but price intermediation is the distinction between the “marketplace of ideas” and ordinary markets. The new media does not cause the problems of chaos, but it exacerbates them by reducing the costs of seeking and issuing fatwas. Qaradawi is correct that the mufti is effective only to the extent the followers are willing to act on their opinions, but to what degree is Qaradawi’s ambiguity itself political?

General Discussion

Caeiro: I did not want to circulate this paper because it is so chaotic. I wonder to what degree the perception that there is new crisis is due to an idealization of the past and to what degree the people who depict a crisis have an agenda. I wonder to what degree it is the military superiority of the West that is the crisis. Perhaps we pay too much attention to that. People sometimes think the establishment of a supreme council of iftaa will solve the problem and I question that. Maybe it is a good thing that he issuance of fatwa prompts a counterfatwa. The contrary view seems authoritarian. I like Dr. Jamal’s notion of the “visible hand” that leads to an eventual consensus over time.

Markets is a common metaphor in sociology, but it is a lazy one. If there is no price intermediation then is it really a market? Maybe it is the public rather than market that should be the focus. Qaradawi’s motives may be political, but he is aware of the need to create a disembedded Islamic thinking. We all operate in a politicized world, but maybe he is more willing to engage in the discussion than some others.

Mahmoud Ayoub: A measure of chaos is necessary and also healthy. Where there is an authority like a supreme council of Iftaa it may help where it is necessary, but what we really need is the character of the mufti. People are reluctant to give fatwas because they may make a mistake to people or to God. The alternative to chaos is much worse.  There are always those eager to replace chaos with dictatorship.

Sara Albrecht: Maybe we should look at chaos as a creative force.

Sami Ayoub: The difference between Tantawi and Qaradawi on the Gaza wall may be an example of differences due to phrasing.

Ahmad: Without dismissing your suggestion that an alternative metaphor to the market is needed when speaking of the public contestation of ideas; I would point out that the marketplace of ideas is not the only example of a markets without price intermediation: consider the blood supply. After disasters when the need for lood rises, so does the supply. When the crisis is over both suppluy and demand drop. Why market may be the appropriate metaphor is because there is a supply of and demand for fatwas.

Kenneth Honercamp: Are we speakiong of chaos or diversity? Is there a place in your paper for unity in diversity. Traditional Islamic society has been built on diversity. Modernism seems to see diversity as dispersive, as a threat. Seeing the chaos of fatwa as a threat is a little like the Communists seeing more than one brand of soap on the shelf as a threat.

Anwar Haddam: I want to set the record straight. In the huge demonstrations against in the buildup to the Iraq war there was a not a single sign supporting Saddam Hussein. Maybe this diversity is not chaos but is a mercy to the ummah. The elephant in the room is engaging in terrorism based on fatwas. I’m not sure putting the muftis under a single authority is not in the spirit of Islam.

Samy Mutwalli: perhaps some fatwas are shocking because they deal with subjects that have not been discussed for a long time.

Abubaker Al-Shingieti: Chaos is in the nature of iftaa. Crisis comes from the substance of the fatwas.

M. Ayoub: There seems to be a public ability in the Muslim ummah to always take the middle of the way and reject extremist tendencies. For instance, the Shia groups that have survived and done well are the most moderate. The others either disappeared or were pushed to the fringe. In Sufism too, Ibn Arabi is Shaikh-al-Akbar for a rather small minority of Sufi scholars. There is a level on which ijma operates and supports the hadith “My community does not agree on error.”

Al-Barzinji: Chaos is not diversity; fawda is not ta`abiyya. Chaos is that which cannot be predicted or regulated, like [long-term] weather. The creative chaos of diversity is positive.

Ayoub: The opposite of chaos is cosmos, not control, but order.

Hisham Altalib: Why need a council be an alternative to the chaos? Why can’t you have both, let the open issuance of fatwas continue, but also multiple councils of fatwas.

Adam Shaikh: I am from Sudan, but have been here for 23 years and would appreciate if this institutionalization supported by Dr. Hisham could give Muslims in the United States a role.

Dale Corre: I would question whether chaos is the right translation of fawda, which comes from a root that puts everyone on the same level, anarchistic as opposed to hierarchical.

Caeiro: There have been a number of suggestions about metaphors, which I will need to think about them. When I spoke of laziness in metaphors I was thinking of the term market logic that doesn’t really say anything since there are multiple markets with multiple logics. I need to look further into the question of social entropy. I chaos means unpredictability, that is in the nature of the social world. Merely having a website doesn’t make you equal to everyone else with a website. AMJA (Association of Muslim Jurists in America) are based all over the world. How do they incorporate that the fatwa should be responsive to local times and places? There is an intergenerational dimension to this perception of chaos. Thanks for the distinction between crisis and chaos, I shall give that thought. There are different concepts of order that need to be historicized and ask how Muslims conceive order.

M. Ayoub: The Bible says the heavens and the earth were in chaos until God imposed cosmos.

Alexandre Caeiro: What is missing from the notion of chaos is relating plurality to the notion of lack of qualifications in the scholars. There is the literal versus the purposive understanding. When Qaradawi tells people to vote, they ask for whom shall we vote? And he suggests the ones that oppose homosexuality, but there are no such parties in France.

Mujib Ar-Rahman: A scholar can be expelled from his own country or killed as an apostate because of his fatwa.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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