Mufti, Fatwa, and Istifta – The Asking and Answering of Religious Questions


Part I | Part II

3167236184_4c5385c657_bWhen Can A Mufti Refuse to Answer a Question?

1. The Situation Being Asked About Does Not Exist.

Often times, the questioner (mustafti), will approach the scholar and ask him a question involving a scenario which has not yet happened. Sometimes the question may make assumptions which can result in changes to the situation that would affect the legal outcome in ways that are as of yet unforeseen. Other times, it can simply be a ridiculous question not worthy of the time and effort of the legal scholar due to its non-reality, or low likelihood of becoming a reality.

Examples of such questions are:

“If we find out that there are aliens on other planets, do we need to give them da’wah to Islam?”

“If there was water on Mars, but the color of the water was slightly tainted, but I didn’t know what it was, and if we had drinking water but had to conserve it, should I make tayyammum or use the Mars water after a water filter?”

And so on.

Though we find that the Hanafi ‘ulama who, in contrast to the Maliki scholars, did not shy away from answering theoretical questions in order to ensure that future situations could be dealt with in case they arose, this is still a valid reason why a Mufti could simply refuse to answer a question.

Theoretical questions can often arise from the inquisitive mind which seeks to understand the deen and provide solutions for people, but can also arise when a person has become so involved in academia and issues of knowledge, that the focus on action, practicality, and implementation of knowledge has taken a backseat.

As questioners, we should be wary not to burden a scholar with a question which has no bearing on practical reality, and might be a waste of time and energy. Furthermore, it is always a good check for ourselves to identify what kinds of questions we intend to ask our teachers. Are they questions that are simply “intellectual gymnastics”? Are they questions to which we already know the answers? Knowing the nature of our own questions will help us stay away from frivolous intellectual pursuits, and from asking unproductive questions to the scholars.

2. The Questioner Seeks to Follow His Desires or Cause Confusion (Amongst the People)

In situations in which the scholar feels that the questioner is “Fatwa Shopping,” or that he/she is asking questions in order to bring about debate or argumentation of sensitive issues within the community, the scholar can also refuse to answer or respond to a question.

What is “fatwa shopping”? Well, Islamic Law is primarily studied around the four established schools (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali). Students of knowledge who have studied under teachers who are experts in the process of extracting Law from the Texts can in certain circumstances, venture between the schools for particular acts based on their understanding of the fundamentals and methods of Islamic Law and the source texts.

The advice often given to the layman and novice students is to stick to a trustworthy source of knowledge when seeking advice or legal opinions. Often times however, due to the availability of various opinions, instead of aiming to seek the most reliable opinion, a person may try to ask every scholar available, waiting until he/she finds the most lenient scholar who might give the easiest possible answer.

The aim of the person is not to find the opinion that is the most reliable or the most in line with what the Prophet (ﷺ) might have responded. The aim becomes to play battleship with the issue, until he/she hears a yes. Although Islamic Law aims to bring about ease for people in general, as stated by Ibn al-Qayyim, the intention here is to seek permissibility, not to seek the truth. If the scholar recognizes such a situation or has reason to believe that such intention exists, he may decide to refuse to answer a question.

A second related reason is when a person may ask a question in a gathering aiming to bring about a controversial answer that in a particular gathering, which may lead to debate or argumentation. For example, knowing that there is a diverse crowd from different theological schools within Ahl as-Sunnah or from different orientations in a group, a person may ask specific pointed questions aiming to bring about debate, about `aqeedah, minutiae of fiqh which may confuse the audience, or other subjects.  Especially when the topic of the lecture, gathering, or class may be about something entirely unrelated, such a question may be put aside for personal discussion in order to prevent harm or inappropriate debate in a public forum.

3. It Will Lead to Greater Harm

If anwsering a question may lead to greater harm, the Mufti may refuse to answer the question or give a fatwa. Situations may exist that are related to politics (war, defense, political participation), family issues (divorce, abortion, rape), or financial matters, in which, if the Mufti were to answer with a public fatwa that is meant for the consumption of a large group of people or community, it may lead to conflict, family separation, or extreme financial hardship for the one affected.

This scenario is different from Reasons 1 and 2 in that Islamic Law inherently possesses a mechanism to try and bring about ease and a practical resolution of difficult political, family, and financial matters. However, it may be that a Mufti’s personal legal opinion may lean towards a stricter opinion that would bring about extreme hardship or even a person’s leaving Islam. In this case, he may refuse to answer the question and pass it on to another scholar who may be able to provide a solution to such a situation.

Part III (next time): What are the Requirements for the One Asking the Question?

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12 Comments

  1. Abu Ibrahim says:

    Jazakhallah Khair.

    I also hate those hypothetical questions like “If a man was on an island by himself, and there was no one to see him, and he had no clothes, could he still make salaah, even if his leg was broken and causing delirium…” and so forth and so on.

    It would be best if people ask real questions about real issues that could benefit rather than confuse, mislead, or harm.

  2. Rev. Cynthia says:

    As a non-Muslim, recently involved in a Fatwa ruling, I found the process quite frustrating. This request was in reference to a real situation. A Muslim man is interested in marrying me & visa versa. Although the Islamic laws around this seem clear – he is allowed to marry Muslim women or women from “The People of the Book” ( Jews or Christians) period. However, my belief system is closest to that of the Hanifs (non-Jewish, non-Christian monotheists). We contacted one scholar, but don’t know if he rec’d our message, as we didn’t hear back from him. A second scholar was contacted and he involved two more scholars to confirm his ruling. The entire process took several months. Would you consider this “fatwa shopping?” Actually, if several scholars had not been involved, my intended told me that he would ask for a second opinion just to be sure the ruling was correct, even if the fatwa was favorable. So, in his case, he wanted to be crystal clear that he was doing the right thing.

    Because my beliefs are closer to Islam than that of a Jewish or Christian woman, I must say the concept that we might be told that we could not marry was beyond my comprehension. Ultimately, it has all worked out though. Hallelujah!

    Thank you for this informative article!

    • Haq says:

      The fact that the scholar you consulted, confirmed his ruling with others on this matter is not ‘fatwa shopping’ but just prudence. This term is problematic since it is too vague and subjective. There are legitimate situations in which a Mufti can ‘find a way out’ for someone, yet this may also be termed ‘fatwa shopping’. Due to its vagueness, it has lost its analytical value, hence I think its best alone. Similarly to ask scholars until you find one that you are satisfied has understood the situation well is nothing wrong. It is also important to note that a person in difficulty who seeks an easier opinion is also not ‘fatwa shopping’.

      Regarding the time the scholars took to answer, I think this is due a lack of a scholars specialising in the field of fatwa and dedicating their time to answering question. Hence they must find time in their spare time to answer the many questions they receive. May Allah reward them.

      Hope this helps,
      Glad it worked out :D

  3. Heba Salah says:

    Great job! i think scholars have to work on the following rule:
    ‘Ilm la yanfa’ wa Jahlun la yadur”.
    علم لا ينفع وجهل لا يضر
    It really makes me sad to see some Muslims asking some trivial quesitons after attending a very beneficail lecture conducted by one of great Muslim schoalrs. It happened to me in person. I was in a lecture conducted by Sh.Ali Goma’ (may Allah prolong his life in health). This was 4 years ago. He talked about attaining inner peace through the acts of the Companions. After the end of the rich lecture, a sister asked me, “Do you know exactly waht Fatima bint Asad (Abu Talib’s wife) used to cook for her family?”Her argument behind this Q was that they were among the elite people in Makkah at that time. Really, i felt ashamed at this.
    I hope that Muslims ralize the “blessings” they are having before hand.
    Wa Allahu al-Must’an and He is the One who guide us to the right path.

    • Haq says:

      I think questions are healthy and should not be Stifled. I think the sister had a perfectly valid question, she was only being curious. If we have ‘expectations’ of what kind of questions should be posed, it will lead to a very restricted learning culture, since some questions would be termed ‘wrong’.
      peace…

  4. Haq says:

    “Although Islamic Law aims to bring about ease for people in general, as stated by Ibn al-Qayyim, the intention here is to seek permissibility, not to seek the truth.”

    But isn’t the fact that the person bothered to find a ruling of permissibility shows he had a conscious? If he didn’t, he would not have bothered. How can this be termed ‘ittiba al-hawa? Truly Ittiba al-Hawa is when someone does something disregarding Sharia? I always find the reasons against following the easier (aysar) opinion not strong enough.

  5. Rev. Cynthia says:

    @ Haq ~ many thanks for your thoughtful response. I greatly appreciated your comments.
    I’m hoping that you might be able to expand on the following two cases, which you mentioned:
    A. “. . .situations in which a Mufti can ‘find a way out’ for someone”
    B. “. . .a person in difficulty who seeks an easier opinion”
    What you said here: “the fact that the person bothered to find a ruling of permissibility shows he had a conscious” is exactly how I felt about my intended. Even though he said that he felt at peace (following his doing the “Guidance Prayer”), he wanted to be sure to get confirmation via the Fatwa. Despite the emotional upheaval for me, I felt that he was doing what was necessary for his religion and I respect him for that.

    Blessings multiplied…

  6. Haq says:

    Dear Rev. Cynthia,
    A. There are many from very major societal issues to minor individual issues. For example:
    1) There was a recent incident of a woman who had assumed the special ritual state (Ihram) for the annual pilgrimage (aka Hajj), in which many acts, normally allowed, become prohibited. To release onself from this state, there is a certain procedure. However a sister had made a mistake and had returned back to the UK without releasing herself from this state. This obviously was very difficult on her as she she was not allowed to use perfume, trim her hair/nails etc… (these are some of the things that become prohibited in that state). So basically the ruling issued by Mufti’s of her locality is that she must return to Saudi Arabia and do the act she had forgotten to do, however this would have placed immense difficulty on her, and hence an alternative fatwa was issued (from the various valid opinions) which meant she could release herself from that state without returning to Saudi Arabic
    2) An example of a major issue is the matter of divorce. The overwhelming majority of jurists opine that 3 divorces issued in sitting means the quota has been reached (in Islam, every couple have a quota of 3 divorces, after which the wife is permantly divorced from her husband unless she marries someone else and consummates the marriage with him, and after he divorces him she can go back to her first husband). However, there is a prevalent misconception that without issuing 3 divorces the divorce is not effective, and based on this men issue 3 divorces together. If however the majority opinion is followed, society will be in turmoil, with families breaking down etc… Hence due to this a Mufti may issue a verdict on the minority opinion due to the benefit (maslaha) that will acrue from it. Obvioulsy the analysis should be scientific and objective.
    3) a more personal issue, my sisters daughter, actually my brother’s too lol vomits quite a lot. Now the vomit, if it is full mouth, then the mufti’s here opine that it is impure (najis) which must be washed off before prayers. If this is so, then my sister and sister-in-law will be busy all day changing clothes and it eventually de-motivates them from praying . Hence I told them (after discussing it with two scholars) that a very prominant mufti (Ibn al-Qayyim) opines that the vomit of a baby who is not on solids yet is pure, and thus they now find ease. This last example is also an example of a case in which a person can legitimately consult a mufti for an easier ruling. Also you may read my article on this for a better understanding of the factors that may help indicate when consulting a mufti for ‘a way out’ may be necessary @ http://www.suhaibwebb.com/islam-studies/%e2%80%9c-and-has-not-placed-upon-you-in-the-religion-any-difficulty%e2%80%9d/
    There are many issues such as this and I can go on, but what this highlights is that Islam is a living tradition and responds to the people’s needs. At its core, it is a text (Quran + Hadith), yet this text must be engaged with, and it is here when rulings change to reflect changing conditions.

    Hope this helps!
    Feel free to ask more questions :)
    PEACE
    Haq…

  7. Rev. Cynthia says:

    @ Haq~ thank you for your thorough response. After reading what you had to say here and the article that you linked, I am starting to see that all of the rules surrounding Islam are extremely involved and I cannot imagine how people could possibly know & follow all of them.

  8. Malik Mohsin says:

    Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh
    Dear brother I want to ask you whether job in international NGO funded by UN or European countries/ US is right/ jaiz? I mean as per my knowledge these NGO are funded interest money. Please give your opinion.

    Regards

    Malik Mohsin

  9. Zeeshan says:

    Authentic Ahadees reveal that, if a Pregnant Woman decides (do Niyyah) that she will name the child either Muhammad (pBUH) or Ali (AS). Then the child born will be a boy. Insha Allah. is there Hadees kidnly give us the complete reference including which school of thought, book and chapter and also the explaination?

  10. Shahsta Abbas says:

    AA,

    I have a question and did not know how to ask via any other route.
    My cousin’s daughter passed away almost a year ago and she was asking what is the islamic ruling on doing a hattam on the day her daughter died. (death anniversay) where she invites family memebers and friends to join her in reading Quran and making dua for her to rest in peace and be granted Jannah ia. As far as i am aware i do not know of muslims conducting death anniverasry memorial hattams and it is not the sunnah? Please can you shed some light on this?

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