THE World of Fatwas or The Sharia In Action is a meticulously researched work on the application of Islamic precepts to practically every aspect of the existence of the "faithful". It is a somewhat daunting book in volume; 669 pages of writings by the author, and the remaining pages containing basic texts and index. In terms of intensity and detail of research it is in the genre of two previous books by Shourie, namely Mrs Gandhi's Second Reign and Missionaries in India. Going through the book, one comes to the conclusion that the premise Shourie wants to prove is the quotation from the Quran reproduced on the back cover—"Mohammad is the messenger of Allah. Those who follow him are firm and unyielding towards unbelievers, yet full of mercy towards one another." (Quran XL VIII 29).
The book has 12 chapters. The first two chapters, "Their Ways, Their Power," and "All of Life", highlight an almost irrational interfering influence which the Muslim clergy exercises and is capable of exercising on the Muslim community. These chapters also describe in examples and by analysis the manner in which the Quran, Hadis and, more importantly the fatwa, permeate every aspect of a Muslim's life from cradle to death; from sexuality to philosophy; from rituals to spiritual experience.
Chapters three, four, and five dealing with the manner in which the fatwas fashion the Muslims' identity and the manner in which they contrast this identity with the persona and existence of non-believers and lastly political and ideological contrariness which characterised the Muslim leaders of the Khilafat Movement, are an insightful and relevant discovery of the perspective in which Islam is practised, and should be viewed.
Shourie's recounting the relations between the Ali Brothers and Mahatma Gandhi is a revelation of the Ali brothers' communal contrariness. The Muslim clergy harassing Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Dr Zakir Husain, the aggressiveness with which the Ulema questioned the Islamic integrity of the Jamia Millia University as mentioned in the book, are a pertinent exercise in rediscovering Muslim theocratic perceptions of the rules of existence of the Muslim community in India. What is even more interesting is Shourie's assessment that even men of eminence like Abul Kalam Azad and Zakir Husain had to succumb to the narrow, pernicious religious bigotry of the Muslim clergy in India. I would not go as far as Shourie inbeing critical about these nationalistic Muslim leaders. If they succumbed, reconciled or compromised, it must have been for the larger tactical purpose of carrying the Muslim community that they belonged to with them, instead of subjecting the community to the emotional trauma of confronting the Ulema, specially when the majority of Muslims were ambiguous about its political identity, and subject to religious superstitions.
Chapter six is entirely devoted to women and the Sharia, and concentrates on proving that the Islamic claim of ensuring justice, equality and dignity to women when compared to other religions of the world, is not just inaccurate, but false.
This chapter titled "Moon ki naak, balkiraal ki pudiya, balki baarood ki dibiya", is a most thorough description of the methods by which Islamic scripture, Islamic tradition and convention and religious "obiter-dicta" relegate women to a secondary status, even an enslaved status of existence subject to unqualified exploitation.
While all this may be so, the point to ponder is whether all the conventions described, all the fatwas narrated, really transmute themselves to the daily life of Muslims. If they do, then the Muslim community all over the world must have had a traumatic and unstable existence through-out the 14 centuries since the establishment of Islam by the Holy Prophet.
Chapters 7 to 10 dealing with the power of the Sharia are relevant in understanding the socio-cultural and politico-economic ethos of the Muslims. They are also a summation of conclusions derived from the previous chapters. Chapter 10 is a polemical exercise to show that the inequities and rigidities of the fatwa are not just interpretive aberrations of the Ulema, but that they are based on the teachings of fundamental Islamic scriptures and conventions.
Arun Shourie's desire is to prove that: "It is the very essence of a totalitarian ideology, that it enforces its right to regulate the totality of life. The Quran, the Hadis, the fatwas, represent one continuous endeavour in this respect. They aim at controlling every aspect of life (page 629)."
Arun Shourie has proved this point not by logic but extensive research. Apart from the Quran, Hadith and the books on Sharia, he has gone through 38 volumes of fatwas (page 5). The book is timely. It is relevant in reinforcing the point of view that religion, when it moves away from the norms of harmony, eclectic and catholic faith and reasonableness, is a destructive force.
My complaint about the book is its hectoring tone. While nobody can question the veracity of the texts quoted, or the authenticity of the interpretations given by the author, I wish he had pondered over why Islam survives today in about 51 to 55 countries, and how is it that nearly 700 million to one billion human beings believe in Islam, which is nearly one-fifth or one-sixth of the population of the world.
The only possible answer is that while in terms of quoting texts and analysing them the book could be accurate, it does not reflect the objective human predicament in Islamic communities. Islam is and must be having a rational and more human application in daily life. Even if the faithful approach the Ulema for fat-was on which to show their posteriors when performing their ablutions. Why is it that Arun Shourie completely omits the impact of the Persian and Indian civilisations on Islam? Why has he chosen to ignore the elements of universal brotherhood and tolerance, scepticism about religious orthodoxy enunciated by the great Sufi teachers of Islam beginning from Jalaluddin Roomi, Nizamuddin Aulia and Sheikh Salim Chishti? Why has he not chosen to adjust his microscope at a wider angle so that he could have seen redeemable elements in Islam?
Having said all this I must take note of the introductory para where he says that the book might help in freeing Muslims from the thrall of the Ulema. If the book serves that purpose it would be laudable. It certainly serves the purpose of educating the secularists who believe in secularism as a mantra rather than as a conviction based on knowledge. The book has only strengthened my conviction in the validity of the Hindu scriptural saying: "The truth is one, but the wise articulate it in many ways." I only hope that Arun Shourie does not insist that only his way of articulating the truth is valid. The World of Fatwas provides a new prism to non-Muslims for observing Islam, and holds up a mirror to Muslims challenging them to necessary introspection for adjusting to a changing world.