Why do Muslims issue fatwas?

Middle East Times (England), Nov. 30, 2002
Anwar Iqbal

First it was Salman Rushdie. Then the Bangladeshi writer Tasleema Nasreen. And now it is Isioma Daniel, a Nigerian journalist who has been forced to leave her country after allegedly making offensive remarks against the prophet Muhammad.

Daniel earned her wrath when she wrote in Nigeria’s This Day newspaper that if Prophet Muhammad were alive today, he may have wanted to marry one of the Miss World contestants.

Why is it that Muslims react so harshly whenever they feel that their prophet is being attacked?

The answer lies in Islamic religious and cultural traditions as well as the current political situation.

The Koran, the Islamic holy book, gives the Muslims a set of broad guidelines. But for day-to-day practices, they depend entirely on the Sunnah or the traditions of their prophet. From the day a child learns to speak, he is encouraged to follow those traditions. Hundreds of thousands of books have been written on the Sunnah and its significance for the Muslims.

Even non-Muslims living in an Islamic society unconsciously follow some of these practices because they grow up in a culture strongly influenced by the Sunnah.

So, it is not uncommon to see a Christian living in a non-Arab Muslim society to begin his or her meal saying Bismillah or “in the name of God” in Arabic.

To use a recent example: When Aimal Kasi, a Pakistani executed for killing two CIA agents earlier this month, was taken to the death chamber, he recited the kalima (“There is no God but God”), a practice taught by Muhammad. When he was laid on the gurney, he said: “To God we belong, and to Him we return.” Although it is a Koranic verse, it is Muhammad who taught Muslims to recite this verse when facing death. And when Kasi raised his index finger before the chemicals were injected into his veins, he was again following Muhammad’s instruction to his followers to declare their faith by raising their finger when they are unable to speak.

And when more than 25,000 people came to Kasi’s funeral, they also were following the instruction of their prophet to leave every thing aside and rush to join when they see a funeral.

Those who have traveled on airlines operated by a Muslim nation must also have observed that a prayer is read out on the public address system before the plane takes off – “In the name of God, we begin this journey”; this again is a tradition traced back to Muhammad.

“We hold him so dearly, we believe so strongly that he is impeccable that we are hurt every time somebody says something about the prophet,” said Jamal Barzinji of the International Islamic Institute of Thought, a Washington-based Islamic think tank. “The prophet is our first line of defense. There can be absolutely no compromise on this.”

Barzinji says Muslims have always been “extremely, extremely sensitive” about their prophet but adds the current political situation has further aggravated their reaction.

“They feel that Islam is being attacked by its adversaries. They are particularly upset about the efforts to equate Islam with terrorism [after the September 11, terrorist attacks],” said Barzinji. “The Muslims feel that they have been unfairly treated by the media.”

But some Muslims also say that issuing fatwa and death warrants against people like Salman Rushdie or the Nigerian journalist does not help improve Islam’s image. Instead they urge non-Muslims not to judge the entire Muslim community on the basis of a fatwa issued by an individual or a group of people.

“The fatwa is an expression of an individual scholar’s opinion and is not binding on the entire Muslim community,” said Barzinji.

He is supported by Zahid Hussain, a Bangladeshi Muslim scholar living in New York. “There’s a sense of helplessness among the Muslims today. They feel that they are being attacked from all sides and their own governments, because of their alliances with the West, do little to allay their fears. So they go to religious scholars for help and guidance who further aggravate the situation by issuing decrees and death warrants,” he said.

Hussain believes that both Western and secular Muslim governments should try to co-opt Islamic forces into the system “rather than further isolating them” – because, he noted, “the more isolated they are, the more violent they may become.”

Muhammad Abdel Aleem, who represents the California-based IslamiCity.com, one of the largest online Muslim communities, also opposes the fatwa. “These days anybody can stand up and give a fatwa, but such edicts have no significance because they do not follow proper guidelines,” said Aleem. A fatwa, he explained, has to “be given by a proper body to be of some consequence.”

Barzinji goes a step ahead and says a fatwa can only be globally binding if it enjoys the consensus of the majority of Muslim scholars around the world: “Otherwise nothing is binding on the Muslim community.”

Aleem said he would equate the fatwa issued in Nigeria with the statements given by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. “As Falwell does not represent the entire Christianity, similarly the fatwa issued in Nigeria does not represent the entire Muslim world,” said Aleem.

“The Nigerian fatwa is perhaps even less significant because Falwell still has some following, but those who gave the fatwa have no following.”

Aleem believes that the Muslim reaction to the beauty contest in Nigeria is more cultural than religious. “It is something that does not go with their culture. In America, everyone wears bikini on the beach but if someone comes to a shopping mall in the bikini, most people will find it offensive,” he added.

Faiz Rehman of the American Muslim Council, an umbrella organization representing more than a dozen Muslim groups in the United States, described the events in Nigeria as “very unfortunate.”

“People throughout the world must respect the religious feelings of other people. They should realize that if they say something against Prophet Muhammad, it will hurt the Muslims very much,” he said.

At the same time, Rehman said, the Muslims “should not be offended by everybody’s remarks. We should be more wise in reacting to such remarks.” He added if the Muslims continue to react like this, “any newspaper, any insignificant person could cause a bloodshed.”

He said such fatwas don’t mean anything, “as religion does not allow everybody to declare jihad or fatwa. It has to be declared by some Islamic authority.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday November 30, 2002.
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