The Journey of Issuing Fatwas
Issuing fatwas (legal edicts) is such a noble and prestigious position that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was in charge of along with many other posts such as being a judge, supreme leader, advocate for Islam, Imam along with many other positions which were detailed in the book of Sheikh al Qarafi titled (al Furuq). Al Qarafi differentiated between the Prophet’s many posts as a Prophet, a judge, advocate, state president, military leader, an Imam who leads prayers and explained how the Prophet combined between all these posts due to him being the perfect man. The Prophet’s companions traced the Prophet’s footsteps and inherited his knowledge and carried out the Islamic Shari’ah to the coming generations with zeal and sincerity.
The Prophet’s companions were famous for issuing fatwas and some of them issued fatwas that if it were to be combined would fit a volume while other fatwas would fit only small book. The total number of the Prophet’s companions who were in the business of issuing fatwas reached only around hundred and fifty companions despite the fact that the number of companions which saw the Prophet with their own eyes and fought with him in different conquests and lived during his life reached more than 124,000 companions. This indicates that less than 1% of the Prophet’s companions were involved in handling and issuing fatwas because of the immense religious responsibility on the one who issues fatwas though all of the companions were noble people about whom the Prophet said “if any one of you spent the equivalent of Mount Uhud in gold, he would not attain the level of any one of them, or even come half way.” (narrated by al Bukhari 3/1343) yet the post of issuing fatwas was a supreme one that was not open for everyone but only to those who posses the intellectual discernment and religious scholarship.
This noble post of issuing fatwas remained in the Ummah and many scholars such as Imam al Hafiz ibn al Salah, Imam al Nawawi, ibn Himdan, Ibn Taymiyah, ibn al Qayyem, a long many other scholars who wrote about the etiquettes of the Mufti and the necessary conditions that he or she should meet to be eligible for such eminent post.
This prestigious position of issuing fatwas remained in Egypt and was confined to elite scholars and astounding jurists such as Sheikh al Mahdi al ‘Abbasi whose fatwas were combined in eight volumes and titled (al Fatawa al Mahdiyyah). He took charge of this eminent post when he was twenty years old and was surrounded with trustworthy jurists who helped him in reaching correct legal rulings and he later became the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar.
When people ask for a fatwa, they want the mufti to give them the legal ruling based on the holy Quran and the Prophetic traditions and they are concerned about the legal ruling on their subject matter that was issued by great legal scholars such as Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam al Shafi’i and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal who represent the four major legal schools of jurisprudence in the Sunni world along with another four schools of jurisprudence such as al Ibadiyya, al Zaydiyyah, al Ja’fariyyah, al Zahirriyah and the law books of these schools still exist to our modern time and have its own followers whether big or small crowd. For example in the non Sunni world, al Ja’fariyyah is the school which is most followed and then al Ibadiyyah, al Zaydiyyah and finally al Zahiriyyah which was established by Ibn Hazm who authored his book (al Muhalla) which is used as a reference legal text for his juristic school of law.
But aside from these eight schools of jurisprudence, there are more than 90 mujtahids (legal scholars who practice independent legal reasoning (ijtihad)) and who had their own legal schools of jurisprudence such as al Layth ibn Sa’d, Hammad ibn Salma, Hammad ibn Abu Sulaiman, ibn Jarir al Tabarai, al Awza’I, Sufyan al Thawri along with many other mujtahids who are listed in a book by Ahmad Amin titled “Duha al Islam”.
In the craft of issuing fatwas, the mufti widens his field of research and does not limit himself or herself to only the four legal Sunni schools of jurisprudence but rather extends his research to include the other four legal schools to cope with people’s best interest and changes which occur due to the passage of time and differences in geographical locations. Therefore juristic eclecticism depends solely on the juristic discretion of the adequate jurist who can even go further in his juristic research to encompass the 90 legal schools of jurisprudence and consult them whenever it is needed. The jurist can then resort to the major two sources of legislation of the Quran and the Sunnah guided by the rulings of the major juristic counsels such as the Counsel on Islamic Researches in Al Azhar and the Counsel of Islamic jurisprudence in Jeddah along with other major authentic counsels around the world. Very few of the legal matters require the direct ijtihad of the mufti who would directly resort to the Quran and the Prophetic sunnah and use legal evidence along with juristic tools to reach a new legal juristic rulings but as rare as these cases are, they may occur in matters that are new and no authentic legal ruling was issued on its regard by the major juristic counsels across the globe.
When a mufti is asked for his opinion, he wants to include the authentic opinions of the astounding scholars of the Ummah according to their juristic perspectives and then people are left to choose freely to abide by the legal ruling or not. God says in the Quran “so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve.” 18:29 because according to the Azhari methodology, we should not meddle between the Creator and His creation as we live in an environment of freedom, God says “O Muhammad], over them as a guardian; upon you is only [the duty of] notification.” 42:48 and said “But if Allah had willed, they would not have associated. And We have not appointed you over them as a guardian, nor are you a manager over them.” 6:107
And God did not appoint us to control or coerce people to abide by our beliefs and God wanted to state that clearly by telling Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)” You are not over them a controller.” 88:22
So our principle is to deliver the legal ruling and the Islamic Shari’ah the way it was conveyed to us and then let people alone to decide which route to take on their own. The question is where are all these conditions that regulate the process of issuing fatwas in our modern world? What are the qualifying characteristics of those self claimed scholars who are adamant on media appearance while lacking adequate knowledge and intellectual discernment? Unfortunately all they have is outer religious look and limited or no understanding of legal texts which do not benefit individuals or help in building communities.