Book Review: The development and impact of the fatwa

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 29 Dec 2016

The author explores the history of the fatwa and the role of fatwas in contemporary Islamic societies

Susyologia Al-Fatwa (The Sociology of Fatwas) by Dr. Haider Ibrahim Ali, General Egyptian Book Organization, Family Library series, Cairo 2016. 454pp.

This book explores the issue of fatwas, or Islamic religious edicts, and their increasing impact on the Islamic world during the past few decades. The theoretical part of the book, which constitutes almost half of the volume, was comprehensive and adequate in regards to the source and the history of the fatwa. The second half deals with the texts and incidents in which fatwas are used to challenge women’s rights, arts and literature.

Ali notes the impact of fatwas on people and Islamic societies, especially with the widespread popularity of satellite channels which broadcast such fatwas in the Islamic world, and the popularity of the sheikhs who issue fatwas with their audiences.

The author asserts that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and the “rightly guided” caliphs, the engagement of text with reality increased in the absence of the direct authority represented by the Prophet’s companions.

At this point in time, the fatwa phenomenon emerged. Issuing fatwas, that is, legal edicts that clarify aspects of religion and law, meant for the early scholars bearing a great religious, ethical and human responsibility in terms of guiding the flock. Those who performed this mission were necessarily well-established in religious jurisprudence and were deeply pious. In the first chapter, Ali explores this process and the way in which the issuing of fatwas then became institutionalised.

In the second chapter he tackles what he calls “humanising the fatwa”, i.e. the beginning of ijtihad, or independent religious reasoning, which took place after Muslims came into contact with other nations and faced new realities that hadn't existed during the life of the Prophet or the early caliphs.

This contact rendered religious interpretation to formulate guidelines on new contexts and experiences an indispensible necessity. Alongside ijtihad, scholars also deployed custom and the concept of qiyas, or analogy to previous realities, when issuing religious verdicts relevant to new circumstances.

Ali argues in the fourth chapter that the fourth century of Islam’s history was considered by many religious jurists and scholars to be the tipping point in the history of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), when the principle of absolute ijtihad was discontinued. This was the end of innovation in religious legislation and the religious jurist became unable to issue a fatwa, except in relation to minor issues.

The author devotes the final chapter to discussing the problem of renewing fiqh, renewing religious thought, and the presence of populist fatwas. He devotes a great part of this chapter to “Islam and the West” in which he discusses what he describes as the European challenge that has awakened some Muslims to the necessity of an Islamic renaissance.

The last chapters, titled Women and Fatwa and Islam and the Fine Arts, deal with the practical and applied parts of the author's study.

Concerning the role fatwas have played in challenging women’s rights and freedoms in Islamic countries, the author asserts that the religious approaches, whether they represented political Islam or other trends, have succeeded in winning over Muslim women’s minds.

Key issues in this debate include women’s rights to work, to hold top positions, to participate politically, including as head of state, their right to be judges, to issue fatwas, to be witnesses in court, wearing the hijab, women’s right to seek divorce, the issue of virginity, of female genital cutting, of mixing with men, and women’s right to drive.

Ali mentions the issue of whether women are permitted to lead men in prayers, as an example of a debate that was raised by Muslims living in non-Muslim countries.

Finally, the book discusses the way fatwas have been used to challenge arts, including visual arts and music. Ali looks at the history of fatwas and literature since scholars from Al-Azhar took a stand against Taha Hussein’s ideas in his book The Future of Culture in Egypt, and on to the fatwa that supported the declaration of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd an apostate in the 1990s, which led to a verdict forcibly divorcing him from his wife.  

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