So what is a fatwa and what does it have to tell?
In the older ages where man was in close union to nature, men could look at a dry riverbed or a scarred tree trunk and tell the story of what befell the riverbed and the tree trunk. Out of touch with nature, men hear no more the tale of nature’s change. But men acquired the skill of hearing other stories. Passing my local Fish & Chips store, I can tell anyone willing to listen the changes this store has faced in past decade. While natural artifacts have ceased to speak to us, cultural artifacts speak vocally. I intend to see what story the fatwa, a cultural artifact of the Muslim word, has to tell.
So What is a Fatwa and Why Many Seem out of Touch with our Reality?
A fatwa is a religious ruling that is given by a religious authority. Many fatwas today seem incomprehensible. Complex issues of politics, economics, society, are dealt with by quoting a few verses from the Quran, by citing a few Prophetic hadith. Nuances are almost always lacking in these fatwas. A woman complains that her husband is addicted to watching pornography. The fatwa on her issue laid the blame on her. She should, the fatwa said, beautify herself more to distract her husband from the computer screen. Pornography addiction, the pornography industry, psychoanalysis, etc. are not even mentioned let alone discussed in the fatwa.
The Compartmentalisation of Knowledge
The one-dimensional aspect we see in many fatwas today is a result of the trend of specialization in academia. In the modern educational system, knowledge has been compartmentalised and cut off from each other. Where once knowledge was seen as a tree with many branches, now knowledge is seen as a branch hovering in mid-air aloof from everything apart from itself. This specialisation means that a scholar or academic can be, for instance, an expert in the history of politics while having meager awareness of theories on sociology.
The Difference Between Modern Scholars and Past Scholars
Any cursory glance at Islamic history shows that scholars in the past were all polymaths. Scholars today, unfortunately, rarely are polymaths. Due to the trend of specialisation, we get scholars who have read hundreds of thousands of hadith, who have memorised tens of thousands of hadith, yet who do not have a good grasp of world economics. These scholars then issues fatwas on economic issues, which of course leads to the fatwas having a very naive approach to economic problems.
A Possible Answer to Modern Scholarship
The antidote to this problem is for educational institutes in the Muslim world to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach to education. Studies in Islamic jurisprudence must be complemented with studies in contemporary politics. Of course this solution calls for a complete overhaul of the current trend of education. A scholar who is an expert both in Islamic financial theories and global economy does not ipso facto have the expertise to give fatwas regarding societal issues.
Why Should a Jurist Be Well Versed in Different Fields of Study?
The scholars of the past were well-versed psychologists. Any reading in the literature of ‘spiritual development’ shows the depth of psychological insight that the scholars had. Scholars today are not so endowed. They have neither studied psychology nor sociology. This limits their horizon when it comes to issuing fatwas. For instance, marital issues can only be understood correctly if one were to have insight into specific psychology of the the society one lives in, and if one knows thoroughly the person making the complaint. Marital problems in Pakistan do not mirror marital problems in Paris. In Pakistan families are usually extended, and family politics, especially of the dominance of the mother-in-law, plays a major role in marital disputes. In Paris families are nuclear, if there are children at all. The politics involved in a Parisian family is usually minimal, while the dimension of philandering plays a not-so-minimum role in marital disputes. A scholar who gives a fatwa on a marital issue without taking the society’s make-up into consideration is making a mistake.
Standardisation of Fatwas
I mentioned that it is important to know a person, psychologically, before issuing a fatwa related to personal issues. In the past, people would personally go to the scholars, sit down with them, and explain their problems. In the very act of explanation, the people would exhibit their own psychological make-up which the astute scholar would be able to discern, read, interpret. Thus the scholar could give a psychological evaluation of the questioner, which will allow the scholar to tailor his answer to the person’s personal needs.
Online Fatwas: an Impersonal Approach
Nowadays scholars reply to emails. Their is no personal, face-to-face, contact with the questioners. The answers given
are usually cardboard replies that are supposed to give general solutions to specific problems. This problem stems from the trend of standardisation in society. It is the Henry Ford’s approach to fatwa production. You have a problem? OK, we will produce a product that can be shipped via email to everyone out there. Standardisation is one of the reasons pop psychology contains so much trash nowadays. It is also the reason why most of the cultural products we consume are shallow, inane, mechanical.
A Possible Solution to the Impersonal Scholarly Approach?
What needs to be done is the training of psychiatrists in aspects of Islamic jurisprudence then allowing them to give fatwas on specific issues, such as marital disputes, personal problems, etc… This entails a whole new conception of education in the Muslim world. But unfortunately the Muslim world is still importing Ford’s production line into academia.
The story the fatwa tells us is the story of loss of knowledge, and loss of value. The scourge of specialisation and standardisation has wreaked havoc on fatwas. But not only on them. The Arts is like a devastated nuclear wasteland. We are given prepackaged ‘art’ which is ‘tailored’ to our specific needs. These two scourges of wisdom and depth will continue till we have fatwas that resemble gangnam style and music videos that resemble fatwas.