January 26, 2020
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No! My Fatwa Of Dissent

The Holy Book cautions the believers that when faced with multiple interpretations they must use their own judgement

No! My Fatwa Of Dissent
illustration by Saurabh Singh "Alliance with America is a great crime forbidden by Islam."
—Hizb-ut-Tahrir (email fatwa, September 18)

"If any Islamic country or its ulema (clergy) announce jehad, it is obligatory for each and every Muslim in the world to support it morally and express it openly."
—Syed Ahmed Bukhari (Friday prayers, September 28)

After September 11, the world has suddenly became a more difficult place for the Muslim. First, there were the desultory racist attacks in the United States on people who appeared "Islamic" (Sikhs and bearded South Asians sometimes found themselves unwitting partners of the identifiable ummah).

Then, there was the entire "war of discourse", accompanied by the tired tropes of prejudice—Islamic terror, medieval practices, fundamentalism, file photos of Kalashnikovs in Peshawar streets. Also, there were those who practiced the timeless art of political opportunism. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, for instance, sponsored a rally in Edison, New Jersey on September 23, where the dominant slogan was "Hindus and Sikhs unite against terrorism". One doesn't need a degree in textual analysis to decode that one. And of course, there was the threat of bombs that led a terrified Afghan populace to abandon their decrepit homes, thanks to their plane-crashing "benefactors".

But along with these outside perils, a formidable internal threat that this nervous community faces comes from the irresponsible fatwas of its religious "leaders". The mullahs, most of whom are neither likely to suffer any persecution themselves nor be held accountable, have felt free to demand a militant response from their congregations. Their pronouncements circulate relentlessly; in the public proclamations by sidelined powerbrokers like Imam Bukhari, from discredited leaders seeking to re-establish themselves in mosques, and through shadowy nameless organisations in cyberspace who spam Muslims with anonymous emails. The calls range from boilerplate denouncements of American imperialism to exhortations urging Muslims to rally behind the Taliban.

While asking the community to follow the Buddha-destroyers who call themselves students but deny women educational opportunities, these so-called interpreters of religion elide over one important detail: there is no basis for the legitimacy of their fatwas in Islamic jurisprudence. For instance, the Quran explicitly states (39:18): "Hear advice and follow the best thereof." In effect, the Holy Book cautions believers that when faced with the inevitability of multiple interpretations, they must use their own judgement. Reason is celebrated throughout the Quran and Muslims are warned not to abdicate their responsibility while making any choice. The ulema of the faith have the right to interpret situations from a religious standpoint, and offer an opinion. However, their proclamations are not binding on the community. As the noted Muslim scholar Ziauddin Sardar recently clarified, a fatwa in Islam is merely a statement of opinion. Not a command. Not a religious imperative. And it is certainly possible for all Muslims to issue their own fatwa. For instance, one can issue a fatwa, as he did, denouncing the terrorists as non-Muslims, for making war on innocents.

The fact that these pronouncements by our clerics, issued in the form of commands, go unchallenged in public (private grumbles aside) points to a troubling paucity of formal internal dialogue within the community. It is high time self-identified Muslims armed themselves with Quranic verses to question their clerics who make circuitous justification of these events. For example, they could use verses 2:190, 5:32 and 17:36 from the Book, which unequivocally denounce killing of innocents, to decimate any argument that remotely attempts to defend the September 11 incidents. They can also deploy verses 10:24; 30:8; 30:21; 34:46; 39:42; 59:21—all of which celebrate independent thinking—to challenge anyone who makes any statement that begins with "All Muslims should...". Unless they equip themselves with their own tolerant theology, they will lose their community to the venality of those who, through motivated religious interpretations of contemporary political phenomena, seek to propel them towards the wrong end of the dangerous and false logic of the "clash of civilisations".

After the defeat of the Arab alliance at the hands of Israel in 1967, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in a withering poem titled Sar e Vaadi e Seena (On the Sinai Valley) wrote passionately against those among the Islamic clergy who, by giving religious colour to the conflict, had obfuscated the legitimate political grievances of Palestine:

Ab rasm e sitam hikmat e qasaan e zameen hai
Taeed e sitam maslehat e mufti e deen hai
Ab sadiyon ke iqraar e itaa'at ko badalne
Laazim hai ke inkaar ka farmaan koi utre

(Now the elite of our world seek to "cure" us by tyranny/ And the mufti of our faith has chosen "wisely" to support them/ To change this centuries-old tradition of followers and acceptance/ A new command must descend— "No!")

Perhaps Muslims already possess the fatwa of refusal, which must now be exercised. Let me begin. I hereby say no. I refuse to accept the equation of anti-imperialism with pro-Talibanism. I refuse to capitulate to the rhetoric of the "clash of civilisations". And to Imam Bukhari and his recommendation that every Muslim follow the Taliban in jehad, I simply say no.

(Mir Ali Raza helps edit samar, the South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection)

For complete text see web story dated Oct 05 2001
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