Islam in India

Indian Ulemas and their Fatwas

The Sharia has to be continuously interpreted to deal with new situations as and when they arise. Problems of life, belief and faith, and issues of law which confront the believer are answered by the rulings or fatwas issued by the ulema, the competent authorities in Islam. Arun Shourie [i]  has extensively studied the fatwas issued by the Indian ulema on varying issues – social, religious and even political. These ‘fatwas’ are compiled in several volumes for future reference by the local clergy. There is no question that arises in the mind of the faithful about life and living, which is not dealt with in the Koran, or the sunnah of the Prophet or the law books. They clearly reveal the mindset of the ulema and the mindset which they seek to instill and perpetuate in the community. In turn the questions asked reveal the concerns of the community. An intellectual analysis of these fatwas may throw light on the concerns of the faithful and their problems; the fatwas would also throw light on the manner adopted by the ulema to deal with these concerns and problems. Such a study may be revealing as it will explain the Muslim psyche when it lives in a land where it constitutes a religious minority.

Shourie has taken up the following five popular collections for analysis –

1. Fatwa-i-Rizivia, popular amongst Barelvis who constitute the majority of Indian Muslims.

2. Kifayat-i-Mufti, Mufti Kifayatullah ke Fatawi, of the founder of the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Hind.

3. Fatawa-i-Ulema Dar al-Ulum, Deoband, the well known religious institution, known for its anti-West and anti-modern position.

4. Fatawa-i-Ahl-i-Hadis, having a large following amongst the ‘aristocracy’.

5. Fatawa-i-Rahimiyyah, proclaimed from Rander, Gujerat and followed by a large number of Indian Muslims settled abroad.

The first example he gives of the ulema’s power and influence is that of the Ali brothers with whom Gandhiji was associated during the Khilafat movement in the early nineteen-twenties. Initially they spoke of him as a saint and paid him high tributes. But soon under the pressure of the ulema, they declared, ‘However pure Mr. Gandhi’s character may be, he must appear to me from the point of view of religion inferior to any Mussalman though he be without character’ and ‘Yes, according to my religion and creed, I do hold an adulterous and a fallen Mussalman to be better than Mr. Gandhi because … to consider one’s creed as superior to that of every non-Muslim is the duty of a Mussalman’. Even prominent Muslims like Maulana Azad and Zakir Hussain have not been spared from the wrath and intimidation of the ulema to whom they had to ultimately submit.

And what is the mind-set of the ulema? To quote Shourie, ‘The earth is stationary. The sun revolves around it. The stars are stationary, hung as lamps by Allah to guide travelers, and to stone the Devil. To believe anything contrary to all this is to betray the Faith. Men are the masters. Each may keep up to four wives at a time and as many concubines ‘as the right hand holds’. The wives are fields which the husband may or may not “irrigate” as he will. The husband can bind them to obeying the merest whim on pain of being divorced. If he is still not satisfied, he can throw them out with one word. Upon being thrown out they are to be entitled to a bare sustenance - but only for three months, and nothing at all beyond that. To see any inequity in this, to demand anything more for the women is to question the wisdom of Allah, it is to strike at Islam. To urinate while standing, to fail to do istinja in the prescribed way, to fail to believe that the saliva of a dog is napaak, and his body paak - these are grave sins. To ask for the well-being of a Kafir, be he ever so saintly, even upon his death, to fail to believe that a Muslim, be he ever so sinful, is better than a kafir, be the latter ever so virtuous is kufr itself.’ And fatwa after fatwa from various schools have been quoted to illustrate these verdicts and to uphold many ‘truths’.

Moreover the ulema directly or indirectly control every mosque, seminary, Urdu press and madrasah. Foreign funds flow freely to them. Their hold has been tightened by the premise which has been dinned into every Muslim - that Islam (like Communism and Nazism) does not concern itself merely with matters of the spirit, but that it encompasses every detail of life, even the most private of the private. The faithful have internalised the notion that even such matters are religious matters and this gives the ulema their tremendous hold over the Muslim faithful. Thus a Mufti writes that even as doctors have to examine the most private parts of their patients, the spiritual physicians starting from the Prophet too have described and explained in detail all the directives and propositions concerning devotion, social affairs and even ritual cleansing of the human body. Thus Islam regulates the totality of life. Thus, Muslims, conditioned to this submission are all the more ready to follow the directives of that authority even on public and political issues.

Clearly these rules and theories formulated in eighth century Arabia have long become outdated due to advance in time of science and society. But the custodians of the faith have always been concerned about how if once the habit of questioning starts it would be very difficult to keep the faithful under their thumb. This anxiety has prompted the ulema to ensure that nothing, but nothing is examined. Accordingly, this has become the hallmark of this faith. The quest, as pointed out by Sri Ram Swarup in another chapter, has never been an inward-directed one and all emphasis has always been on the external.

From the beginning, the doctrines of Islamic theology have suffered the charge of Israeliyat - which means, that the revelations given to the prophet were mere recycling of Jewish and Christian legends. Hence from the days of the Prophet himself there has been the anxiety to always make sure that they were different, to show that they were different and to insist that they are different. Thus the Prophet changed the Qiblah from Jerusalem to Mecca. He also said that one, who lives like another qaum, shall be taken to be of that qaum, and dealt with accordingly. The Prophet had paid such minute attention to being different that he decreed not only on the attire and the deportment of the faithful but even on their eating habits -  that if non-Muslims keep the mustache and shave the beard, Muslims should trim the mustache and grow a beard, and that since saffron clothes were worn by pagans,  Muslims should not to wear them, and also that if Jews and Christians of the time did not dye their hairs, Muslims should dye theirs and that  meat in the plate was not to be sliced with a knife as the Christians did but  was to be bitten by teeth.

And so, the fatwa volumes display almost a paranoid obsession about the tilak on the foreheads of Hindu men and women and the cry of jai. And if cows are holy to Hindus they have to be slaughtered by Muslims. A Fatwa-i-Rizivia emphasises that if the Hindu asks that cow-killing be stopped on account of his religious point of view, then it is not right for Muslims to stop killing the cows. In Bharat cow slaughter is an act that greatly glorifies Islam. Also, if you agree to their proposition you will be strengthening their false religion and doing so is not permissible in Sharia although Maulana Ahmed Riza Khan has acknowledged that he has not ‘as yet’ been able to sight any reliable hadis which reports the Prophet himself as having eaten the meat of the sacrificed cow.

We have seen elsewhere that the Koran declares all non-Muslims to be kafirs and that they are so as per Allah’s command. Only if for some opportune reason - when it is not for the need of the Din, and when it is not confined to the extent required by that need alone - a person, knowing some persons to be kafirs evades calling them kafirs. In that circumstance he is a sinner but not a kafir himself. However, if he actually thinks that calling a kafir a kafir is wrong and contrary to civilised etiquette, then he puts a blemish on the Holy Koran, and that is certainly kufr. 

Fatwa after fatwa emphasises this and is strongly critical of Muslims even paying homage to the Mahatma and the Lokamanya on their death. The example of the Prophet himself, who refused to intercede even for his mother and guardian uncle who did not accept Islam, is cited. There are rules as to when to accept and when not to accept gifts from kafirs. Even the moderate Mufti Kifayatullah rules only conciliation and peace to the extent that religious injunctions and the character, respect and honour of the religion are maintained to the Muslim’s satisfaction. Of course the ulema do not yield even this much. They repeatedly stress that the kafirs are people to be despised for their rejection of Islam, and also that they are intrinsically, inherently, and incorrigibly untrustworthy. Declares Mufti Kifayatullah, if a Muslim doctor says that the patient can be saved only by taking an alcohol based medicine, one may take it, but not if a non-Muslim doctor says so. The Sarva-dharma-samabhava shouted from the rooftops by leaders and secularists are utterances of kufr. A person who has such beliefs and teaches such beliefs is not a Muslim but an infidel and an apostate. Muslims should keep away from him rather than listen to his infidel utterances.

It is not as if thinking and progressive Muslims are unaware of the inadequacies and out datedness of Muslim law. Reformers like Maulana Azad, Iqbal and Hamid Dalwai have stressed the importance of reason and sought to distinguish between Din and Sharia. Thus a distinguished scholar like A.A. Fyzee writes, ‘it must be realised that religious practices have become a soulless ritual….the time for heart-searching has come. Islam must be reinterpreted or else its traditional form may be lost beyond retrieve….it will be found that certain portions of the Sharia constitute only an outer crust which enclose a kernel - the central core of Islam - which can be preserved intact only by reinterpretation and restatement in every age and in every epoch of civilisation….The conventional theology of the ulema does not satisfy the minds and outlook of the present century.’ Another scholar, Prof. Tahir Muhammad has written, ‘The existence of so many schools of Muslim law in India and, and more than that, the insistence of the followers of each of these schools to stick exclusively to the doctrines of their own school, lead to the conclusion that what is applicable in India under the banner of ‘Muslim personal law’ cannot be equated with the revealed or inspired tenets of the Islamic religion….It is unwise for the Muslims of India to shut their eyes to the tremendous progress in the fields of personal law and succession  made even in several Islamic countries. A unified, codified and modernised law of personal status now operates in a large number of countries where Muslims constitute overwhelming majorities. In India, the Muslims have to live in the company of a dominant non-Muslim majority and other co-minorities, all of whom are now governed by largely modernised and codified personal laws.’ Prof. Tahir also edits a journal which provides information about changes that are constantly being made in the ‘eternal’ and ‘immutable’ Sharia in country after country.

The ulema of course oppose vehemently to such kufr. To even ask ‘What is the Sharia or does anyone go by Sharia today?’ is kufr. And even one single deed of kufr makes one a kafir, they warn. Many fatwas of every school declare this unmistakably. The consequences of kufr are horrendous; indeed a non-Muslim can scarcely imagine them. No one from the community - not even one’s closest relatives - can maintain any sort of relationship or contact with the person. His marriage stands dissolved - his wife and children are immediately placed out of his reach. In the final instance the ulema can pronounce one to be an apostate and the penalty for that is death.

Not only should the Koran be obeyed to the letter, the ulema alone have the competence to state what the Koran means. Even an honest query to seek understanding of any discrepancy in Sharia invokes a stern admonition: laymen ought to stay clear of the subtleties of law; they should leave these to the experts. In fact, it is the very ambiguity which gives gross and absolute power to the ulema. They can use the Sharia as readily to yield one result as to yield its opposite. Shourie illustrates with the law on divorce to show how completely hollow is the claim that the Sharia is a clear and definite Code and how completely hollow is the claim that it is an eternal and immutable code. This is the reason why the ulema not only fight back every attempt to replace religion based personal laws by a common civil code but also why they fight back every attempt to codify the Sharia itself.

There are three distinct features of the Koran which we have seen in the chapter on religion which give the ulema the quality of ambiguity that they need. They are:

1.  The verses of the Koran are not arranged chronologically.

2.  They are not arranged or grouped by subject.

3.  There are no universally accepted rules about the proper way of reading the verses - for instance, whether a verse has to be read by itself or in association with other verses which, though occurring in other parts of the Koran, bear upon the same subject. The problem is compounded by abrogation or cancellation of passages.

Then there is the problem of putting different constructions of an Arabic verse. Thus, the following verse (4.12) on inheritance has been translated by Yusuf Ali as -

If the man or woman

Whose inheritance is in question?

Has left neither ascendants nor descendants

But has left a brother

Or a sister, each one of the two get a sixth; but if more than two, they share in a third ..

Maulana Azad renders the same lines as follows:

And if the man or woman who leaveth the heritage have neither parents living nor children  but hath a brother or sister, either shall have a sixth, and if more than one, they shall have alike in a third ….

The ‘Rampur’ rendering in Urdu used widely in North India puts these lines as

Aur agar aise mard ya aurat ki miras ho, jiske na baap ho, na beta, magar uske bhai ya bahan ho, to unme se har ek ka chcchata hissa aur agar ek se zada hon to sab ek-tihayi mein sharik honge …

Where Yusuf Ali read ‘ascendents, and Maulana Azad read ‘parents’, Maulana Fath Muhammad sees only ‘baap’ that is ‘father’. Where Yusuf Ali read ‘descendents’ and Azad read ‘children’ the Maulana sees only ‘beta’ that is ‘son’! Thus if a person is survived only by a daughter or grand-daughter, each version of the reading will treat them differently.

The latitude which the hadith afford for ambiguity and arbitrariness is even wider: some hadis occur in some collections and not in others. And sometimes, the words are different in different collections of the same hadis. Again some hadis are rejected as unreliable by some jurists and reliable by others. And often there is no agreement on the relevance of a hadis to the question at hand. The law books make this freedom of interpretation even more complete! And nowhere is this better illustrated than in cases that concern talaq or divorce.

Thus, ‘Zaid told his wife, ‘if you enter the house, talaq’. He avers that he did not intend talaq, that he spoke the words only to frighten her. She enters the house. Is she divorced?’ Yes, rules Mufti Kifayatulla. On the very same page is another case where the husband says that to frighten the wife he said, ‘If you go to the house of Khalid, then our relationship will end.’ She goes to Khalid’s house surreptitiously. But the husband says that he had not intended either talaq or separation, that he had spoken the words only to frighten her. Does she stand divorced? No, rules the Mufti since the husband did not intend talaq and because the word ‘talaq’ had not been used.

So what has happened in practice is that mere expediency and the whimsical utterances of sundry Muftis have become law, and that which was clearly and unambiguously law eternal - in that it was specified in the Koran itself - has been circumvented throughout by expedients.

But how can we blame the ulema for the ambiguity and arbitrariness when the   Koran itself suffers from the same defects? Appendix A lists a number of ayats which the ulema take as their supreme commands. Then how is it possible to blame them for following what has been ordained to them? All the double standards employed by them between the believers and nonbelievers can be traced to this source as well as to the Sharia. We are shocked by the single-minded concern of the ulema - their obsession with the minutiae of the prophet’s life in their service of Islam, with their obsession with stamping out, and doing in of all ‘rivals’ to Islam and Allah, their frenzied preoccupation in ensuring that no Muslim retains any residual regard, to say nothing of veneration for any entity other than ‘Allah’ - intolerance, verbal and physical violence in their relationship with non-believers. All these flow from Allah’s overriding concern that we worship Him, and none but Him. He goes to most extraordinary lengths to remind us of His power and glory. Thus, for instance, He visits afflictions on a people to humble them, next He sends them a prophet so that they may believe in Him; and when they don't believe in the prophet (and this too, it must be remembered, happens by His decree!) he wreaks the most terrible vengeance on them.

To Hindus with the breath-taking understanding of the nature of Brahman and their understanding of time, it is not easy to understand why Allah, who, if he is God and is therefore self-sufficient in all respects, is so obsessed about puny little man, on puny little earth, in this puny little solar system, in this little bit of a universe, acknowledging His greatness. And even if this is His sole concern, surely He can find an easier way of having man acknowledge His greatness. Why does He not instill veneration directly into man’s consciousness rather than by adopting these circuitous and painful routes? There is no answer to this in the Koran or in the Bible, both of which speak of the same God. Both demand fear and not love from their adherents.

It is of the very essence of totalitarian ideology that it enforces its right to regulate the totality of life. But this totality itself becomes one of the reasons for the eventual collapse of such systems as has happened recently in the Soviet Union. The very comprehensiveness boomerangs. Thus every act of even simple defiance like urinating while standing in a public urinal, undercuts the authority of the Sharia. More importantly, even small differences over the minutest matters provoke violent controversies in different schools of the ulema. One can witness the invectives hurled at each other by their warring factions.

Thus one fatwa-i-Rizvia declares, ‘And among these Kafirs too there are gradations. One hard kind of basic kufr is Christianity; worse than that is Magianism; worse than that is idolatry; worse than that is Wahabiyat; and worse than all these is Deobandiyat’. And the deathly struggle between various sects of Islam is there for the entire world to see. Another consolation is that the world of today is different from the world of the Prophet, making the ulema’s ideology totally inappropriate. It also makes it impossible for Muslims to live peacefully in a mixed society. Given time, this ideology too will collapse as surely as communism did. We Hindus have to give this process a helping hand in the subcontinent to speed it up in our own interest.

[i]  The World of Fatwas or the Shahriah in Action, Arun Shourie, ASA Publications, New Delhi, 1995

Receive Site Updates