The Ulema at Deoband do not only engage in complex theological debate. Sometimes they plumb the depths of the ludicrous in response to questions from the public. More so, because of the solemn manner in which they are answered—as fatwas. We culled out these gems from a 10-volume set of Fatawai Darul Uloom.
Q: If while breaking wind it does not smell or sound, does it still break the wazu (cleaning before prayers)?
A: If you are sure you broke wind and you are not under a false illusion and are not physically challenged, then you should do the wazu again.
Q: What is the punishment for a man who tells his wife that having sex with her is like having sex with his mother?
A: There is no punishment for what a man says in private to his wife.
Q: If a chicken defecates in my well, has it become impure? How do I purify my well?
A: Throw out 110 buckets of water from your well. Then it will be purified and the water can be used for wazu.
Q: If my bathroom does not have high walls and a roof, should I still bathe in the nude?
A: If the walls are high enough to cover your body then bathe in the nude. If not, then don't bathe naked.
Q: Will Allah accept my prayers if I pass wind while doing my namaz?
A: Only if you have kept the wind within you and restrained from releasing it are your prayers valid. If not, you should say your prayers again.
Salma, Novelist: ‘Nothing they say seems to affect menfolk. It is undemocratic, beyond reforms. What we really need is a fatwa against all fatwas.’
Shaista Amber, All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board: ‘Sania is first an Indian. She is wearing the dress of her profession. Why should these men comment? Fatwas embarrass Muslim women.’
Syed Mustafa Siraj, Writer: ‘An aberration in the Muslim community and the media goes to town with it. As for fatwas, no Muslim takes them seriously.’
Nurur Rehman Barkati, Shahi Iman of Calcutta :‘Uneducated mullahs with regressive, dogmatic views issue such fatwas. But most Muslims treat them as a bad joke.’
Mushirul Hassan, Vice-Chancellor, Jamia Millia: ‘Islam does not accord a formal status to the ulema. The whole practice of issuing fatwas emerges from this search for legitimacy.’
Imtiaz Ahmad, Sociologist: ‘Allah revealed the Quran for all but considering the theological illiteracy, the right to offer opinions has become a Mullah’s license.’
"Sheikh saheb se rasmo raah na ki/ Shukr hai zindagi tabah na ki (I did not engage with the religious sheikh/ Thank god I did not destroy my life)"
—Faiz Ahmad Faiz
Irreverence is a finely honed tradition among the Muslim elite. All the great Urdu poets from Ghalib to Faiz have poked gentle fun at the ulema. Yet there is a great mass of Indian Muslims who cannot take recourse to elegant verse when confronted with a religious dilemma. Some are neo-converts anxious not to commit any sin in their journey to a promised paradise. A few place their concerns before the local mullah. They ask a question; the mullah ponders and gives a reply, sometimes in writing. That is a fatwa in Sunni Islam, which is followed by the majority of Indian Muslims.
Yet, ever since Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini gave the fatwa demanding the death of Salman Rushdie, worldwide there has been an impression that a fatwa is a command or edict. In Shia tradition, an imam's fatwa is binding but not every two-bit mullah can issue one. But as Maulana Mehmood Madani, president of the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind says: "In Sunni Islam, a fatwa is nothing more than an opinion. It is just a view of a mufti and is not binding in India. In principle, only those Muslims who wish to live by Sharia laws should ask us for fatwas."
Any Muslim can ask for a fatwa. Ever since it faced public and media flak for issuing some controversial fatwas four months ago, the influential Darul Uloom seminary at Deoband has refused to entertain queries from media persons and says it will not issue any fatwas that may be "political in nature". So Outlook approached the Islamic Fiqh Academy in Delhi's Jamia Nagar, where highly educated maulanas monitor fatwas and are authorised to issue them. The question was: As a Muslim woman, is it appropriate for me to work and to use cosmetics like lipstick when I go to office?
Maulana Fahim Akhtar Nadvi, who issued the fatwa in October 2005, stressed that the reply would be according to the Sharia position as they understood it. To sum up the fatwa: "In Islam, a woman's expenses are first to be borne by her father and then her husband. But if there are mitigating circumstances, she may go out to work. She can dress in a manner outlined in the Sharia—only the face, hands and feet can be exposed. The head should be covered. A woman can adorn herself and use cosmetics at home. But if she looks provocative outside, she will only invite trouble for herself. You are therefore advised not to use make-up outside the house and to dress simply while fulfilling your responsibility at work."
The good maulana's advice is not very different from what the Delhi Police or one's grandparents might say. But because it comes with the words fatwa tagged on, it can be hyped to sound sensational. Besides, there is a genuine problem of crazy and downright stupid fatwas being issued by mullahs without a thought of the consequences. Says sociologist Imtiaz Ahmad: "The situation has deteriorated to a point where any little mufti freely issues fatwas irrespective of whether he has the requisite knowledge. Ideally, there should be no reason for seeking such opinions. Allah revealed the Quran for all mankind. But given the fact that the large majority of Muslims in India are theologically illiterate, as they cannot understand the Quran even if they read it, the right to offer a theological opinion has ended up as a licence and a free-for-all."
What's worse is that little can be done to change the situation. All the Muslims Outlook spoke to were unhappy with the ridiculous fatwas. But no one wants to to encroach on civil liberties or take away the freedom of expression. They all say it's really up to Muslim institutions to issue some sort of directive to curb the fatwa epidemic. The problem is not every village mufti takes his orders from an institution. He is an independent institution who reserves the right to say what he likes.
Mushirul Hassan, vice chancellor of Jamia Millia University, gives a historical perspective: "The real problem is that Islam does not accord a formal status to the ulema though Muslim communities recognise them as guardians of Islamic law. Thus the ulema have been searching for sources of legitimacy from the very beginning. The whole practice of issuing fatwas emerges from this search for legitimacy." In several Islamic countries, there are ministries for religious affairs that monitor fatwas. But the many freedoms in India also make it a tower of Babel. No one can legally be stopped from issuing fatwas unless they violate the law. That is precisely what happened in Madhya Pradesh last month when a maulana issued a fatwa nullifying a divorce granted by a civil court. The upshot was that the cleric was arrested.
But no one can be arrested for expressing an opinion on the length of Sania Mirza's skirt. Similarly, Deoband cannot be legally sanctioned for saying that Muslim women should only contest elections wearing veils. Neither can a cleric be held accountable for giving an opinion that a woman who has been raped by her father-in-law could no longer stay with her husband (Deoband issued a fatwa on a hypothetical problem which the media then applied to the Imrana rape case).
But what's aggravating the situation is the constant media spotlight. Many of the recent fatwa controversies were media-inspired. Individuals from the press asked questions and got a reply that made for a great story. There is no doubt that when it comes to "Muslim issues", the media the world over can go on a feeding frenzy. Well-known Calcutta-based writer Syed Mustafa Siraj says that the attention given to Muslim issues is patently unfair. "I know of several cases where grave injustice is done to Hindu women but the media does not care. But let an aberration take place in the Muslim community and the media will go to town with it. As for fatwas, no Muslim takes them seriously." The Shahi Imam of Calcutta, Nurur Rehman Barkati, says that fatwas such as those issued about Imrana and Sania Mirza are irrelevant. "Uneducated mullahs with dogmatic and regressive views issue such fatwas. But most Muslims treat them as a bad joke," he says.
The media is indeed part of the fatwa story. But conversely, what is often ignored is the simmering anger of many Muslim women. Salma, a novelist and poet in Tamil Nadu, points out that every fatwa issued in India in recent times has been anti-women. "Nothing that they ever say or do seems to affect menfolk," she says. "And there's no point in asking what we need to streamline the process of issuing fatwas. It is an undemocratic practice in the first place and no reform can make a fatwa better. What we really need is a fatwa against all fatwas."
In Lucknow, another woman created quite a stir when in February 2004 she formed an All India Muslim Women's Personal Law Board. Shaista Amber is not a liberal or Left activist. She is a god-fearing Muslim who maintains the dress code and dutifully says her prayers. But she is very angry: "The holy Quran gives women so many rights. But those men on the Muslim Law Board who are all political people don't want women to get anything. They manipulate the system to impose their will on us through a faulty interpretation of Muslim personal law. It is completely wrong to issue fatwas such as those about Imrana and Sania. They should stop as they use these fatwas to embarrass Muslim women. Sania is an Indian first. She is wearing the dress of her profession. Why should these men comment?"
Probably because if you ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer. An individual understanding of a faith and the holy book can be deeply satisfying. Yet the roadside cleric or even the ulema of a respectable seminary like Deoband are often intellectually stifling. As with all religions, Muslims too are stuck with their middlemen whose worldview is so limited that they can so easily become objects of ridicule. The problem is that, far too often, they embarrass an entire community.
Whenever they come under attack, the all- powerful men who manage Muslim institutions often resort to victimhood. Maulana Madani, for instance, scoffs at the "media-inspired" controversy. "The problem is," he says, "whenever they see my beard they say Muslim, Deoband, Taliban, terrorist. The prejudice is in the eye of the beholder." All the honourable members of the law board such as spokesperson Qasim Rasool Ilyas can hold forth at length about "a Sangh parivar mind-set".
They are probably right about deeply held prejudices against the community. Particularly when many Muslims believe that there is a global war being waged against Islam. But perhaps that is precisely why Muslim clerics should be particularly hesitant about issuing fatwas. Indeed, Deoband already appears to have got the message and has set up a committee to monitor all fatwas. Yet in such a large country, where there are so many schools of Islam, it is virtually impossible to enforce a code. Perhaps the roadside muftis and maulanas will soon be shamed into shutting up.
The Muslim dilemma is perhaps best summed up in the words of the poet Akbar Allahabadi, who had loved his people, even as he constantly cursed them: "Qaum ke gar paas baitho, Qaum ki gali suno/ Qaum se gar door baitho, taana-e-hali suno/ Maro goli in saboh ko, dat ke qawali suno" (If you sit with your people, hear their curses/ If you sit away, hear their taunts/ Shoot them all and just listen to qawalis).
By Saba Naqvi Bhaumik with Jaideep Mazumdar in Calcutta and S. Anand in Chennai