Fatwas: All that is wrong with Islam and the problem with Muslim liberals

Quran not just governs the spiritual life of a Muslim, it also regulates all facets of life, from as banal aspects as clothing, and appearance to law to death. And this power has been wielded via fatwas

Siddhartha Rai August 16, 2022 21:21:08 IST
Fatwas: All that is wrong with Islam and the problem with Muslim liberals

Representational image. AFP

Fatwas, as Arun Shourie writes in his The World of Fatwas or Shariat in action, are the main instrument employed by the unscrupulous ulema as a class. They also reflect, more or less accurately, what has been written in the Quran and Hadis, and from this emanates the authority of the ulema.

The recent attack on the acclaimed author, Salman Rushdie has once more catapulted the power of fatwas in the Muslim mind to the forefront of public debate. In fact, Rushdie’s predicament highlights the fundamental dilemma of Muslim ‘progressives’ and reformists among the ummah: to carry the badge of being a liberal and to make a flourishing career in lieu of that badge, one must not bring into question, and just condone, all the wrong in Islam as is reflected in the fatwas. But, as one remains silent at the abhorrence of inversion of fundamental laws of humanity by the ulema and fatwas, that very badge of liberalism comes under scanner.

The liberals have, since long — from before India’s Independence — used the ploy to give in to the fatwas, concessions as it were, to circumnavigate falling foul of the ulema, but instead of being a stratagem, the strategy has almost always backfired. The ulema, at the first sight of such concessions, first declare victory — both theirs as well as the indefensible positions of Islam — and then push forward for more, and more, so much so, that they keep on reclaiming the minds of Muslims to extremism, orthodoxy, conservatism and fundamentalism.

But, it is not the first time that a liberal intellectual has found himself on the wrong side of fatwas and the ulema. Throughout the recent history of India, starting before Independence, the ulema have gradually gathered authority, existing in the interstices of political processes to begin with and then coming of age to claim the constituency of the Muslim mind.

Muslim intellectuals such as Iqbal have noted that while the movement of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had pushed the ulema back into the bunkers of their madarsas and maktabs, the Khilafat movement spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi, along with Ali Brothers, had brought them back into relevance as the Khilafat committee needed fatwas on a regular basis to bolster their hold on the Muslim community. Not that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a true liberal — he propounded the two-nation theory, followed later by Mohammed Ali Jinnah in letter to the last ‘t’ to carve out Pakistan — he too had to face a fatwa issued by the Imam of Mecca for his zeal to reform Islam.

Maulana Mohammad Ali, one of the leaders of the Khilafat movement that was woven around the vision of re-establishing the Caliphate, was once an ardent fan of Gandhi. So much so, that he had likened Gandhi to Jesus on more than one occasion. While Gandhi extended his support to the Khilafat movement, Jawaharlal Nehru had argued that Mohammad Ali was just trying to ‘use’ Hindus as ‘pawns’. And, that came to be true not long after!

While the Khilafat movement fizzled out towards 1924, Mohammad Ali changed his tone, took an about turn: he declared that when it came to creed, even an “adulterous and fallen Mussalman” was better than Gandhi!

In a letter to Swami Shraddhananda, cited by Shourie and drawn from Gandhi’s Collected Works, Mohammad Ali wrote that some Muslims “…are flinging at me the charge of being a worshipper of Hindus and a Gandhi-worshipper”.

The pressure of the ulema was catching up.

“As a follower of Islam, I am bound to regard the creed of Islam as superior to that professed by the followers of any non-Islamic religion.” And there ended the ecumenism of a joint Hindu-Muslim Khilafat movement, as envisioned by Gandhi.

On another occasion, Mohammad Ali toed the classic orthodox ulema line, to declare that to it was the duty of every Muslim to consider Islam as superior to all other religions.

The ulema have actually fashioned a cleverly-crafted strategy, in close association with the Urdu press in India, to push their agenda and clog all and any light of re-interpretation of the Quran from shining inside the Muslim community, to gag all liberal voices, who at the end have had to relent and kowtow.

Even the likes of Zakir Husain and Maulana Azad bottomed out when confronted with the power of the ulema and their fatwas.

Zakir Husain became the target of the ulema when a book authored by a German orientalist was translated in Urdu at the Jamia Millia Islamia, when Hussain was the vice-chancellor of the varsity in 1927. The book had made claims contrary to popular Islamic beliefs as read in the Quran. The very fact that the book was translated at Jamia was made into a question of faith and loyalty to Islam, and Zakir Husain castigated for it. The pressure brought about by the ulema, the Urdu press and conservative experts of Islam — including Hakim Mohammed Jamil Khan, the son of Hakim Ajmal, one of the founders of the university — was such that Zakir Husain had to pen an almost abject apology.

The ulema, declaring a war on the book, were very clear in their charges: why, at all, the book was translated into Urdu, lest it pollute the minds of the common Muslim reading it; moreover, why and how, such an endeavor was undertaken at Jamia, Muslim university. By extension, the leadership — Zakir Husain — was complicit in this ‘misdemeanour’, committing a ‘crime’ against Islam and the faithful.

Zakir Husain, in his explanation, had given in so much so that he announced that any such endeavour (of translating texts from other languages) in future would be run by the ulema and committed to translation only when the latter cleared it worthy to be published.

Though Maulala Azad too had joined issue with the ulema, though quite subtly and almost in defence of Zakir Husain, he too suffered the same fate for his book, Tarjuman al-Quran, wherein he argued that form and spirit of religions, including Islam were different things. What mattered was the form that taught, including in the Quran, the unity of almighty, though forms of worship and ritual differed from religion to religion, from country to country, from clime to clime.

The ulema questioned him: how those who did not believe in Islam and Allah get delivered and attain salvation? They alleged that Maulana Azad was trying to start a sect like Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Brahmo Samaj within Islam. What was the harm? The ulema was of the view that Hinduism was a fallen religion which needed to be reformed. But, Islam with Quran having been revealed by the Prophet was in no need for any reform!

Maulana Azad capitulated. He clarified that what he ‘meant’ to say in the book was that only believers in Allah could attain salvation; that good deeds were only as prescribed by the Quran. All pretence of liberalism just vanished in thin air.

What the Muslim liberals have not been able to find a way through is the fact that Islam posits the ulema as the only intermediary between the Prophet and the Muslim community; the problem is compounded by another fact — that Quran not just governs the spiritual life of a Muslim, it also regulates all facets of life, from as banal aspects as clothing, and appearance to law to death. And this power has been wielded via fatwas!

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