What is a fatwa? Who can give one?
by Sheikh Musa Furber
Recently at a conference in Cairo, Imam Hashem Islam issued a fatwa (religious edict) to the people of Egypt. His edict was that an upcoming protest, aimed at criticizing Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, was illegitimate, as the newly elected president was, in fact, the legitimate lawful president. Furthermore, that the protest was to be considered as one that was “apostasy” (riddah) from democracy and freedom, and that those who participated in it should be considered as engaging in the crime of plunder (hirabah) and high treason (khiyana al-uzma).
Thus, the “people of Egypt” should confront them, and if the protesters resisted by force, then the “people of Egypt” should respond with force. If the ‘people of Egypt’ were killed, they would be in paradise, while if the protesters resisted, no one would be held liable for their deaths or have to pay compensation to their families.
There was a public outcry. The preacher had claimed he was a part of al-Azhar University’s official institution for issuing religious verdicts, which presumably gave his opinions weight. In the aftermath of his statements, the Ministry of Religious Endowments, as well as the al-Azhar University , came out in full force, contradicting the preacher’s claim that he had any connection to the al-Azhar University, beyond the fact that he is a graduate, and that his opinion was not to be given attention. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs, rejected the fatwa.
Clearly, the mainstream religious establishment rejects this fatwa: however, the episode raised a number of points. What is a fatwa? Who can give one? What are the repercussions of a fatwa in general? And what was the meaning of this “fatwa” in particular?
As with any legal system, not anyone is competent to deliver a fatwa, which refers, simply, to a non-binding verdict of Islamic jurisprudence. Competency comes from a rigorous legal education from within the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, with a mastery of a particular school of law, and training in the practical application of that school on contemporary issues. There is a whole science, entitled the etiquette of verdict (adab al-fatwa), that the prospective issuer of fatwas (or someone known as a mufti) needs to learn, in order to ensure all verdicts are clear, accurate and valid.
Fatwas might be issued by a number of different jurists in any given time or place – but those jurists may find that their verdicts only get followed by those who voluntarily choose to do so. In Egypt, the most famous institution that individual Egyptians will visit to receive one of these non-binding verdicts is that of the Grand Mufti of Egypt: Dar Al Ifta Al Misriyyah, or the Egyptian House of Edicts. I know that institution well – it is where I underwent my own training in delivering legal verdicts, and on a daily basis, hundreds of verdicts were delivered. That institution itself, even though it is a part of the Ministry of Justice (and thus a state institution), does not have the ability to enforce its decisions. The ability to enforce verdicts in Egypt is rightfully accorded to the state authorities – i.e., the legal system.
This recent “fatwa” was particularly problematic in a number of different ways related to the procedure of issuing a fatwa. The details that were provided were sketchy, and appear based on a rather biased political reading of the situation. This alone is a basis for repudiating the “fatwa” as the conditions of a fatwa include that it be unbiased and impartial. That the issuer of a fatwa is for or against a particular political force – whether that force is former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Morsi, or former U.S. president George W. Bush – must never influence a fatwa he or she issues.
There are conditions to be fulfilled before someone might be considered, within Islamic law, a brigand or guilty of high treason – conditions which are clearly laid out in different books of Islamic law. Those books do not indicate that participation in protests or voicing disagreement with rulers, in and of themselves, can be considered as acts of banditry or high treason.
Even if they did meet the legal criteria for high treason or banditry (which protests do not), only the state authorities responsible for maintaining law and order have authority to consider such a verdict as it falls within the remit of the judicial system – not individual religious personalities and fatwa committees. This, on the other hand, involved an individual operating in a private capacity, and was delivered publicly to the “Egyptian people” – not an official judge to an appropriate government body. The imam’s “fatwa” is, in effect, a call to vigilantism, something in complete defiance of Islamic law.
It is compulsory upon any mufti to ponder the likely consequences of their ruling and to weigh whether their ruling obtains or denies the ultimate purposes of Islam. While it is not normally necessary for a mufti to always provide evidence for his opinion, it is incumbent upon him to give details where details are needed, such as where failure to do so can result in the misapplication of his words. This statement, on the other hand, was, essentially, a press release given over the course of a few minutes, with virtually no details. Moreover, it does not appear that the issuer gave any forethought to the consequences of people following his opinion – with bloodshed being an obvious likely consequence of its application. In issuing a statement in this fashion, he is encouraging less law and order, not more, and moreover, increasing the possibility of civil strife.
In addition to the previous major procedural issues, there are two others. Firstly, the idea that there is ‘apostasy’ from democracy and freedom, while likely a rhetorical tool void of any real meaning, it is a tool that no jurist would ever use. It’s a baseless polemic, nothing more – and has no place in a legal argument of any sort. Moreover: it was widely reported that the imam claimed to be a member of al-Azhar University’s official fatwa committee, a claim al-Azhar University itself rejects. The imam’s claim and his association with al-Azhar’s Fatwa Commitee are objective facts that can be verified. If the claim proves to be false – as opposed to being simply misrepresented by the press, which is not uncommon – this alone is sufficient to disqualify the imam from issuing fatwas as a fraud. Frankly, it would be advisable for al-Azhar University to investigate this imam, and any others who display such recklessness, lest the name of al-Azhar and religion in the public sphere be brought into disrepute.
Yet, this discussion goes far beyond the particulars concerning this preacher and his “fatwa”, and the qualifications of muftis and fatwas. The point here is the role of the religious establishment: and how seriously its members perceive that role. The religious establishment of Egypt needs to be more vigilant in ensuring that standards do not drop against the backdrop of a political space that is more infused with religious imagery. Standards cannot be allowed to drop, or weaken – rather, they have to raised, and strengthened. The participation of the religious establishment must always be a source of wisdom and insight, and never one of confusion and strife.
Sheikh Musa Furber is a research fellow at the Tabah Foundation and a qualified issuer of verdicts. He received his license to deliver legal edicts or fatwas from senior scholars at the Egyptian House of Edicts including the Grand Mufti of Egypt.
Originally published in the Washington Post and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author.