First Person | Theatre of the Absurd

Media must desist from playing up the fatwa racket

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

I first got acquainted with the concept of a fatwa when I was not yet a teenager. We were a large family at the helm of which was my mild-mannered grandfather. But not all his children had inherited his temperament. One uncle of mine was unusually short-tempered. Making his disposition worse was his penchant for invoking religion at the slightest provocation. One day, after a particularly ugly fight with his wife, in the course of which she said a few cruel things to him in return, he stormed out of the house right into the next door mosque, whose wall we shared.

We lived in an old fashioned house built around a courtyard, which offered no privacy to anyone. All the bedrooms were around the courtyard from where the staircase led the way to the first floor. The same pattern was repeated there as well, except that the concrete floor of the courtyard was replaced by an iron grill through which one could see the goings-on in the house across the floors. This style ensured that there was unintentional sharing of happiness and sorrows in the extended family.

The senior-most clergy in the next-door mosque was a blind Hafiz, a person who has memorised the entire Quran.

Completely unlettered (except for his memorising of the Quran), he was a soft-spoken person completely weighed down by his poverty and dependence on the benevolence of the prosperous patrons. My uncle confabulated with him on whether his wife’s disobedience was a valid ground for divorce under Islamic law. Poor Hafizji (as he was addressed by everyone out of respect for his office) probably concurred with him and that became a fatwa. Armed with this fatwa, my uncle returned home to threaten his wife into obedience.

The design of our home helped. My grandfather’s room was just across the courtyard opposite my uncle’s and he heard my uncle dangling the bizarre fatwa at my aunt. My mild-mannered grandfather lost his cool, not so much for the juvenility of his son but for the misuse of religion. Wielding his walking stick in the air, he threatened to teach the Hafizji a lesson for interfering in domestic matters. That was my first exposure to fatwa and I learnt exactly what it meant.

Technically, a fatwa is an opinion on matters of religion by a learned person who is capable of a considered judgement because of his education and exposure. It is neither law nor it has any punitive powers. Muslims because of their insecurities in the present life and worries about after-life are scared to take decisions and therefore constantly seek fatwas from their neighbourhood mullahs.

Such is the level of insecurity that I have heard people during religious discourses seeking opinion on whether they can grow grapes because the fruit may end up in a winery. Since it is their crop, will they be held responsible for the production of wine, forbidden in Islam?

Sensible people do not take fatwas seriously. Of course, some have to be taken seriously, like, Ayatollah Khomeini’s against Salman Rushdie, because of the seniority of the person issuing it and the nature of the fatwa. When Khomeini said that Rushdie had committed blasphemy and faithful Muslims will be well within their rights to slain him, it was possible that some crazy Muslim may have wanted to exercise that right.

But short of Khomeini, fatwas neither deserve the space they get in the media nor should they be taken seriously. I feel most of the fatwas are generated by idle journalists who approach obscure mullahs with the most bizarre questions to create news in the absence of one. A year ago, I met Asghar Ali Engineer, Islamic scholar and one-time accompanist of Kobad Gandhy (of Maoist fame now in Delhi’s Tihar jail) in Bombay. We started talking about fatwas and he narrated an incident to me. He said, when the news of the girl Imrana who was raped by her father-in-law broke out, one journalist from India’s largest selling newspaper called him to get the Islamic position. “I told him that there was no question of a religious position because it was a criminal case,” he said.

The journalist persisted asking him several questions on Islamic laws, the Hudood laws of Pakistan and so on. When Engineer told him that in India offence like rape comes under the CrPC and not the Muslim Personal Law, he hung up. But the next day, the same newspaper carried a front page article quoting a fatwa by some obscure Ulema saying that since the woman has been raped by her father in law, her husband is now her son and she should marry her father in law instead.

Except for creating sensation and television debate for a couple of days, nothing much came out of that fatwa. The rapist was arrested and the victim couple carried on with their lives. It is ironical that even when Muslims don’t take fatwas seriously, media continues to play these up, unnecessarily giving 15 minutes of fame to the undeserved. Judging the hollowness of a fatwa is not difficult, all one has to do is find out how seriously it impacts the lives of ordinary people. That should make news and not the fatwa.


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