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


Part I | Part II

gavel3We find ourselves in a time in which religious questions can be asked and answered at the speed of a cable modem and a fiber optic cable. A questioner finds himself in a jam – “Can I combine Dhuhr and `Asr prayers so I can take my MCAT?” – and zooms his inquiry halfway across the world to get an answer from a scholar he trusts.  The inquiry is answered and several more questions arise – dealing with academics, family matters, money, sexuality, even the intricacies of eating and clothing – that are asked and answered by those qualified (and sometimes those not qualified). These questions are asked by those who are striving to ensure that their lives are in accordance with the will of God, and that they do not trample upon His laws, or the rights of others as they go about their lives. The process of asking such questions (Istifta) to a scholar qualified to give rulings (Mufti) and receiving an answer (Fatwa), is a process that occurs thousands of times each day.

On one hand, this testifies to the breadth and depth of Islamic guidance – it provides either a ruling, an advice, a general guideline, or a protecting border for every affair of our lives. On the other hand, this phenomenon – the variety of religious questions and the speed by which they are asked and answered – tells us that we may occasionally need reminders about the etiquette of asking questions, and the way in which they should be answered. For this reason, it is necessary to explore some basic requirements that are needed on behalf of the questioner and the answerer, in the process of Istifta.

I. The Requirements Upon the Mufti

1. He knows the ruling with yaqeen (absolute certainty) or dhann (probability) through the tools of juristic reasoning.

2. He understands the question in full. In order to give the ruling, he must understand the question and the circumstances surrounding it completely.

This means that the inquirer asks the question in a clear and concise manner. He or she informs the Mufti of all the facts of the situation. This includes any details that are likely to be pertinent to the situation. This can include: age, occupation, specifics about the situation – anything that could affect the guidance that the mufti may give.

The responsibility here is upon both the mustafti (questioner) and the mufti (scholar). It is the mufti’s responsibility to understand the time, place, and context of his environment and that of the questioner. If he is unable to do this, he should pass the question on to someone else who is more aware of the circumstances than himself. These instructions remind me of a somewhat ridiculous incident:

A questioner inquired from a well-known and popular fatwa (Islamic ruling) website run by a mufti - who is considered highly qualified in some circles – that he was married and wanted to marry a woman as a second wife who might have a sexually-transmitted disease. He asked if it was required for him to get her tested as demanded by his first wife – due to the risk that all of them might get the disease. The mufti replied: “If there is no contact between the two women until she is healed, insha’Allah there is nothing to worry about regarding the transmission of sickness. You may marry her without any problems.”

That was the end of the fatwa. There was no further guidance given, nor any consideration of the weight of what was being asked. Furthermore, it demonstrated monumental ignorance of modern-day technology and the context of the situation. Such an answer not only is an affront to the wisdom and beauty of Islamic Law and the intricate legal mechanisms of the Shari’ah which brings benefit and prevents harm – but can also destroy people’s lives.

Thus, when the questioner is clear and open in his question, providing all the facts, and the mufti is knowledgeable not only of the juristic process and rulings but also of the time, place, and context of his situation – we can have a successful exchange and a positive outcome. Otherwise, there is a risk of a significant mistake being made that can lead to serious problems for all involved.

3. He is able to pay full attention and is not hungry, sleepy, agitated, angry, or in need to answer the call of nature. Moreover, he cannot be experiencing pain, extreme illness, or any need immediate medical attention to relieve extreme pain or discomfort.

For the questioner, part of this means not annoying the mufti by asking him questions at times or situations that may be inconvenient for him, his family, or his health. Many times when a shaykh or ‘alim comes to town and offers some time to spend with students or questioners at the masjid, the students will not let him rest until he is to the point of absolute exhaustion and the signs of fatigue show on his face. The student should not wait outside every door they enter in hopes of ambushing them with questions, nor excessively inflate their email inboxes; rather, he or she should ask what time is best for them and approach them at that time. This is not only bad for the process of asking questions but it also shows a lack of care and respect for the health and well-being of scholars. Students should be open and sincere with scholars and treat them with utmost respect (without exaltation) but should also make sure not to burden them with excessive questions.

Part II – When Can A Mufti Refuse to Give an Answer to A Fatwa?

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6 Comments

  1. MW_M says:

    Masha’Allah, great post, looking forward to part II.

  2. JYB says:

    This was very useful- jazakAllah khair

  3. mms says:

    can you give us the source for where you found this fatwa? also, who is Abdul Sattar? is he a scholar to be commenting on such a weighty subject?

  4. Suhaib Webb says:

    Asalamu alaykum,

    MM:

    He is qualified to address this.

    SDW

  5. Ali says:

    Assalamu alaykum

    One of the biggest problems, I feel, that exist in communities today, are the lack of these truly qualified Muftis that Br. Abdul speaks about. I know of a Mufti in my area who was asked about Hookah, and he states that it is fine because back when he was studying to become a scholar, he used to smoke it with his teacher. Little is he aware of the fact that the ALA (American Lung Association) has published an article stating that Hookah is actually worse than cigarettes, that one session of it can pump 200 times more nicotine then the average cigarette (if anyone wants to know where I got this, I’d be happy to show you).

    So my question is this: where can we find these qualified scholars or Muftis that you speak of? And if we can’t find such qualified scholars in our area, where can we go to get our questions answered? And how do we deal with scholars who deliver fatwas that don’t exactly make sense? Is it obligated for the questioner to follow what the Mufti says or does Islamic law allow for the questioner to make his own decision?

    Jzk

    Assalamu Alaykum
    Ali

  6. mohammed says:

    Wow. Excellent article. i have also read answers on Q/A websites that lack substantive depth and kind of leave the inquirer hanging in the air still confused or without any actual guidance. I think it’s a two way street. The inquirer needs to be specific to the point necessary in order to receive a justified answer and the mufti needs to take into consideration all factors before just giving out an answer. Allah knows best.

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