Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fatwas: the big picture

An analysis of randomly selected Deoband fatwas

By Kashif-ul-Huda,

Fatwas have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Headlines and news reports give readers the impression that muftis who issue these fatwas are working against heavy odds to keep Muslims backward and that most of their energy is spent on keeping women in check. The realty is far from what media, liberal Muslims or even Muslim scholars would like to admit. Most will be surprised to know that the majority of Muslims have never asked for any fatwa in their life. Out of 11 thousands Deoband fatwas online, only 2% are categorized as "Women's issues." An analysis of fatwas issued by Darul Uloom Deoband reveals that a majority of them are pretty harmless as they deal with issues like meaning of names, interpretation of dreams, or other personal issues. And if you look carefully there are many examples of good fatwas as there are fatwas that can be considered bad.

Frontpage of The Times of India, Delhi Edition, May 11, 2010

Disturbed by the recent spate of articles on a one-line month-old fatwa I wrote an article questioning the media's obsession with fatwas and incorrect reporting when it comes to Muslim issues. My article "Everybody loves a bad fatwa” generated a lot of response. Journalists, politicians, Muslim leaders and liberal Muslims took notice. While common Muslims agreed with my charges against media; journalists and editors tried to defend their position by either saying that they always tell their organization not to over-emphasize on these issues but fail or they tried to kept the argument limited to the fatwa, safely ignoring their own role in its propagation. In the end, no one has been able to explain why a month-old fatwa has remained for days on the front-page of newspapers and prime-time of TV channels.

As if to prove my point, articles continued to be published without regard to any fact-checking or journalistic merit in them, by various media outlets. One article by Yoginder Sikand in which he listed a number of "anti-women" fatwas after a “random search” of Dar-ul-Ifta website of Darul Uloom Deoband that he happened to “chance upon” one night, was published by the Times of India, Outlook, Rediff, and Economic & Political Weekly. Yes, the article was important enough to be published by four different publications, as it fully agrees with the image that the media has of Indian Muslims.

Secular or Liberal Muslims, who are heard in major media only on Muslim issues, dutifully utilized this opportunity to question fatwas and the role of ulema. Like others, Javed Anand writing in the Indian Express also completely ignored the media’s role in stereotyping Muslims, instead he reserved his criticism for people like me who “can’t see the wood for the trees.” He suggested that educated Muslims questioning media should “quit pondering over fatwas in isolation” and should “see the big picture.”

So that’s what I decided to do. Look at the “big picture” as suggested by Mr. Anand and also test Mr. Sikand’s random search method to evaluate the Darul Uloom Deoband’s fatwa factory. There are thousands of muftis all over India and many fatwa-issuing institutions but since it is always Deoband that finds itself in the news (may be because they put their fatwa online) so I decided to restrict my research only to Deoband fatwas.

Fatwa factory

The website of Darul Ifta (abode of fatwas, place where fatwas are issued) of Darul Uloom at Deoband [] was launched in April 2007. It has issued over 11 thousand fatwas in the last 37 months or an average of 308 fatwas a month or 10 fatwas a day. Darul Ifta, which works only four days a week, employs four people to process about 30-40 questions that it receives every day. Answers to a question may take days to weeks depending on the complexity of the question asked.

Unlike other fatwa sites that give lengthy fatwas with lot of reference to the Quran and ahadith, Deoband muftis have championed the one-liner fatwas. Most of the answers are just one or barely a few sentences long. A few may contain some Arabic text referring to a particular Quranic verse or hadith or refer to an old fatwa in some other books. All fatwas customarily end in "Allah knows best," a sort of disclaimer denying any responsibility for error in their judgement.

One other thing to keep in mind here is that fatwas as reported in the media may seem to be the work of some mad mullahs, but there is method to this "madness." Mufits work under a framework and intellectual tradition seeking guidance from the Quran and ahadith(traditions of Prophet Mohammed), and a body of religious work developed by academic research of over 1400 years . So fatwas can restrict women's movement and their employment opportunities but unlike what some media organization reported, they can never say that women's earning is haram.


To use a bit more rigorous method of evaluating the fatwas instead of Yoginder Sikand's way of doing a “random search” late at night, I decided to truly randomize the fatwa search and then look carefully at the fatwas selected through this process. In statistics, randomness is a term which means that there is no recognizable pattern or it refers to an incident that can happen only by chance.

Microsoft Excel was used to generate over 30 random numbers. MS Excel has an option to generate random numbers between 0 and 1; 32 numbers were generated this way and the cells formatted to see five digits after decimal points. Each fatwa, whether in Urdu or English, issued by Darul Ifta gets a unique number. Random numbers generated in the previous step were used to look for truly random fatwas. This removes any bias that I might have in selecting fatwas that will agree with my theory.

For searching purposes, decimal points were ignored and numbers were considered as integers. Therefore, a random number 0.29512 becomes 29512 for the purpose of this analysis. The search for a random fatwa start with that five-digit number and looking in both English and Urdu collections. If I didn't find any fatwa numbered 29512 in either language then the last digit was removed and searched again. If I was unable to find a fatwa for 2951 then removed the next digit and continued doing so till a fatwa can be found. So, in this example a fatwa in English numbered 295 was retrieved. Of the first 25 random numbers generated only two (35181 and 92022) did not yield any fatwa. So a total of 27 numbers were used to find 25 randomly selected fatwas. For the purpose of this analysis I limited my random search for fatwas to 25.

Click here for fatwa analysis spreadsheet.


As of June 2, 2010 there are 11,395 fatwas on the site, out of which 7,679 are in Urdu (67%) and 3,725 in English (33%). The first thing that jumps out when looking at the numbers is that only 2% of total fatwas are under the category of “Women’s issues” – 151 in Urdu and 87 in English.

The 25 fatwas that were randomly selected for analysis were from all the categories and instead of depending on Darul Ifta’s assigned category I assigned them my own based on the text of the question asked. Let's first look at some big picture issues here before we delve into the fatwas themselves.

Of the 25 fatwas, 16 are in Urdu (64%) and 9 are in English (36%) language. Language wise my randomly selected fatwas are in agreement with language distribution of all fatwas on the site, this gives me confidence that set of fatwas selected for this analysis is a good representation of all the fatwas on the site.

Ten questions from India and 7 from Pakistan formed the bulk while rest 8 came from six different countries. Besides India and Pakistan, three questions came from the United States, and one each from Australia, China, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom.


All twenty-five fatwas were categorized based on their dominant subject matter. Five fataws were women related issues. Four fatwas each asked for dream interpretation, theology, and personal issues. Three on business (or finance) and three others were sectarian in nature. Two fatwas were about the meaning of names.
Topics Number of fatwas % of total fatwas
women 5 20
dream 4 16
theology 4 16
personal 4 16
business 3 12
sectarian 3 12
name 2 8
total 25 100

Now let’s look at these fatwas in detail. The first thing you notice is that five or 20% of randomly selected fatwas can be said to be women related. To be fair, this piece of information can be cut both ways. One can argue that it is one of the most popular categories suggesting that indeed ulema are obsessed with women issues and trying to control them. One can also argue that 80% of their fatwa are not directly related to women and considering that some of these questions were asked by women themselves therefore the assertion that ulema are obsessed with women issues is not true. Since these questions are asked by Muslims around the world therefore questions in a particular topic is a reflection of what is on the mind of people asking these questions rather than the ulema answering them. In fact, it is a very democratic process as the agenda here is set by the users and not Darul Ifta.

One thing to notice is that while Darul Ifta categorizes only 2% of their total fatwas as “Women’s issues,” 20% of randomly selected fatwas in this analysis were found to be women related. This could be because a fatwa may have been classified differently by Darul Ifta. For example, fatwa number 5049 deals with triple talaq and has been placed under “Talaq” category while I have put it under “Women.” Similarly, a fatwa (#8257) may have multiple questions and only one aspect of it may relate to women and I have placed that too under “Women.”

Let’s take a different approach and see how many fatwas are really advisory in nature and doesn’t affect how a man or woman practices his faith or behaves in larger society. Four fatwas are personal in nature, four about dream interepration and two asking about the meaning of names can come under the category of being advisory and non-controversial. Personal fatwas are answers to questions that affect the person asking it. So under this category we have questions asking about permissibility of combing hair after maghrib prayers, cleaning ears with ear buds, whether bath is needed after a particular type of sexual discharge, can one have his or her back towards Kaba. So a total of 40% of fatwas are those that will never make it for an interesting newspaper copy and Muslims however liberal can not claim that these are keeping the community backward.

Of the four fatwas under "theology," none can be considered controversial. One asks about the permissibility of making congregational dua after farz prayers in jamaat. Another one asks about whether Quranic verses can be used to treat the affects of Jinn. One fatwa declares that all shares in the sacrificial animal need to be for the same purpose and the last question in this topic asks for the authenticity of a hadith. so far we have looked at 56% of the fatwas and none can be considered controversial, regressive, or in plain language bad.

It is a fact that barring some notable exceptions, most madrasas in South Asia are sectarian in nature. Contrary to popular media belief, madrasas invest a big chunk of their time and resources refuting or accusing other sects than thinking about other religion or jihad, for that matter. It comes a surprise that only 12% of the total fatwas can be classified as sectarian. Of the three fatwas- one was about an aalim, one advises that it is better to attend a Deobandi madrasa than go to Madina University (thought to be preaching Wahabi ideology there) and one reluctantly allows praying behind a Jamaat-e-Islami or Barelvi imam but adds that it is not desirable. Sectarianism occupies the minds of madrasa teachers and administrators but it seems that for a majority of Muslims that is not a major issue that needs some guidance.

Three fatwas that deal with business or finance- forbids taking LIC policies to save taxes since LIC deals with interest; credit card, including paying its annual fee, is allowed as long as full payment is made every month; and believe it or not, income from tobacco business is considered halal by Darul Uloom.

Of the five fatwas on women, one confirms that triple talaq is valid and two deals with hijab/purdah. There is no surprise here, their positions on these matters is well-known. The other two fatwas, though, are very interesting, one says that it is allowed to touch a sick women to help her and the other allows for abortion to save pregnant woman’s life.

Masjid al-Rashad in Darul Uloom's campus

Fatwa followers

Folks in the media and liberal Muslims with tunnel vision forget that fatwas are nothing more than advice for a specific situation or question and issuing mufti or darul ifta has no power to enforce or make it binding. Unlike the judicial system mufits do not generally pronounce judgements suo moto. Fatwas are initiated when a person asks the religious opinion on a matter concerning him or her. So in a way it is very democratic as the general Muslim population sets the agenda of what issues are important to them.

As noted before, Deoband's Darul Ifta, on average, issues 10 fatwas a day. There are many more fatwa-issuing institutions all over India, still, this number is pretty low. reporters talked to a few Muslims in Patna and Lucknow and we were surprised to learn that none of the people that we talked to ever asked for a fatwa. Surely, some of them can recall important fatwas but the source of this information was always media. So, inadvertently media is helping in the propagation of Darul Uloom's fatwas that they so despise. Another confirmation of low usage of fatwas came through a survey on's website where 70% of Muslims responded no to the question whether they have ever asked for a fatwa. Only 30% respondents have at least once asked for a fatwa. So fatwa usage remains low and its affect minimal no matter how one looks at it.


All in all, fatwas issued by Darul Ifta department of Darul Uloom Deoband is a mixed bag although the majority of fatwas are personal in nature or do not in anyway help to keep the community backward or deserve a mention in any newspaper let alone the front-page. Of the rest of the fatwas, taking the “liberal Muslims” point of view, four can be considered bad since these validates triple talaq, enforces hijab or purdah, or doesn’t allow one to purchase LIC policies because it deals with interest. At the same time, there are at least three fatwas that even “liberal Muslims” will agree that they are good in nature- helping a sick woman, credit card usage, and abortion to save mother’s life. Fatwa about income from tobacco business being halal can be considered good or bad depending on one’s point of view so let’s keep it aside.

So out of 25 randomly selected fatwas, four can be considered bad, three are good and the rest are neutral. I hope that this exercise has been able to prove that the muftis at Deoband are not "misogynists," not even obsessed with women and in fact there are several examples of fatwas that will prove "liberal Muslims" wrong about their perceptions of ulema. There are fatwas that approve inter-caste marriages, allows one to teach about interest and banking, advises against corporal punishment, declares that a divorced women can keep her children and the father has to pay the expenses, allows taking of loan on interest for education, and permits that girls can study together with boys if there are no girls-only institution in the area.

Journalist and researcher Nasiruddin Haider Khan who has studied Muslim women issues was able to get fatwas against female foeticide, sex selection, and in favor of family planning from many different sources. He uses these fatwas to create awareness about these serious issues. In his jihad for gender justice within Muslim community he uses these fatwas as one of the tools.

Another side to this picture which is often overlooked that changes in Muslim society and the world in general is pushing muftis to rethink and change their positions. Using time-tables & clocks to determine prayer times, use of loud-speakers for azans, use of photographs for ID purposes, in matters like these muftis have softened their positions, a sign, that they are not immune to change in the world around them.

Those who want to see the big picture, here it is. A picture big enough, not colored by ideology but driven by scientific method to give us a better view of the fatwas coming out of Darul Uloom Deoband. Those who are sincere about reform among the Muslim community need to come out of the pages of English dailies and take their intellectual jihad to the mosques and madrasas.
Source : the big picture

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