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What is a fatwa? How Darul Uloom Deoband’s fatwa department works?

By Syed Ubaidur Rahman

Fatwas have become highly misunderstood subject in the country. Fatwas issued by different madrasas get prominent place in leading news sources and many a time these fatwas are used to ridicule Muslims and their religion.

Most often the fatwas from Darul Uloom Deoband are selectively taken out from its website and printed prominently by different media sources. Usually, the media presents the fatwa or religious edict as order for the entire Muslim community that should be followed by everyone. But this is not really the case.

What is a fatwa or religious edict?
Fatwa is a religious opinion sought by any concerned Muslim who is not able to find a direct instruction about something in Qur’an or Hadith. It is not a religious order issued by a madrasa or a fatwa center on anything that it believes Muslims to follow.

Fatwas are issued in the form of an answer by a competent alim in response to a question asked by a Muslim. Most madrasas including Dar ul Uloom, Deoband and All India Muslim Personal Law Board have their own fatwa departments where experienced islamic scholars are deputed to answer the questions of fellow Muslims in their area. The question asked can be of any kind and anyone can pose any question and seek its answer. Usually the question is in the name of an anonymous person and the answer or fatwa is also given in anonymous fashion.

Oxford Islamic Studies Online, while detailing fatwa has this to say, “Authoritative legal opinion given by a mufti (legal scholar) in response to a question posed by an individual or a court of law. A fatwa is typically requested in cases not covered by the fiqh literature and is neither binding nor enforceable. Its authority is based on the mufti’s education and status within the community. If the inquirer is not persuaded by the fatwa, he is free to go to another mufti and obtain another opinion; but once he finds a convincing opinion, he should obey it”.

It goes on to add, “Theoretically, muftis should be capable of exercising legal reasoning independently of schools of law (ijtihad), although followers of tradition (muqallids) are also allowed to issue fatwas. Historically, fatwas were independent of the judicial system, although some muftis were officially attached to various courts. In the Ottoman and Mughal political systems, the chief mufti was designated shaykh al-Islam. Other muftis were appointed to positions as market inspectors, guardians of public morals, and advisers to government on religious affairs. Under colonial rule, madrasas took over the role of religious guides, and special institutions were established to issue fatwas. In modern times, print and electronic media have reinforced the role and impact of fatwas by making them instantly available to the public. Present-day Muslim states have tried to control fatwas through official consultative/advisory organizations within religious ministries”.

Fatwas in India
While almost every madrasa has muftis, the big madrasas have reputed muftis (religious scholars) who are assigned additional duties of issuing fatwas in response to queries from believes in their areas or from anywhere in the country. Even small madrasas, who lack resources to actually have good scholars, depute a lowly molvi to take care of queries from the local population. On the contrary, Darul Uloom Deoband has a large fatwa department that also has an online fatwa facility where fatwa can be asked online and the answer is published online without giving the real name of the fatwa seeker.

Darul Uloom’s Fatwa department
Darul Uloom Deoband, the top religious institution in the country gets thousands of questions and its muftis answer those questions both online and offline. The online ifta department was established in Darul Uloom some twelve years ago and till now online fatwa section of Darul Uloom has issued more than a hundred thousand fatwas online. Every year Darul Uloom gets as many as ten thousand queries on a range of religious issues. The fawa department has kept all the copies of the fatwas in huge registeres, while important fatwas have been uploaded online. As many as 35000 fatwas have been uploaded online in Urdu language, while 9000 fatwas have been put online in English language.

Urdu Daily Inquilab, while quoting Mufti Mahmudullah of Darul Uloom says that fatwa concerns only to the person who asks it. Others are not compelled to follow it. Even the person asking the question cannot be compelled to follow it as it is only an opinion and not a religious order.

Get fatwas in English
Many tend to believe that muftis in Darul Uloom Deoband issue fatwas only in Urdu or Arabic languages. But this is a false assumption. If you visit the website of the ifta department of Darul Uloom Deoband, you will find thousands of fatwas in English. You can ask questions in English and the mufti will respond in the same language. So the communication is not an issue anymore and people of diverse background are able to easily communicate with muftis of Darul Uloom and seek answers or fatwas on their queries.

(The author is editor of ViewsHeadlines.com and can be reached at syedurahman@gmail.com)

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