The Fatwa in Journalism

Pico Iyer in his book Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions, an anthology of his essays, writes in the essay “Prosaic Justice All Around: Salman Rushdie vs. The Ayatollah”, “When Khomeini issued a fatwa, or death sentence, on Rushdie last week, it became impossible to tell who was the prophet and who the victim-…[1]”. For any person then who is reading the essay a fatwa then is interpreted to be a death sentence. Vico Giambattista, the seventeenth-eighteenth century Italian philosopher has said that human knowledge is only what human beings have made. In this essay Iyer, who is otherwise a perspicacious travel writer commits a severe gaffe in his role as an interlocutor. Iyer is an intermediary at some level between the reader and his idea. In his communication the author is claming to be an ‘expert’ (without stating it). A reader who reads this essay instantaneously accepts the ‘fact’ that a fatwa is a death sentence without questioning Iyer’s assessment. As the point made in an earlier posting the definition of a fatwa can hardly be restricted to a ‘death sentence’ but when good writers like Pico Iyer make such critical errors the magnitude of errors of misinterpretation can only be magnified in the shallow arena of journalism.

The word fatwa became a part of general parlance when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa where he justified that Rushdie deserved to die because of his blasphemous utterances in his book The Satanic Verses. The instrument of the fatwa became famous in 1988 with its association with Salman Rushdie but as Sadik argues in his paper the infamous ‘fatwa’ was not a fatwa at all[2]. Anyway, the impression that the world got was that once a fatwa was pronounced Muslims were bound by their faith to fulfil the letter of the fatwa. Thus, we saw quite a few Muslims the world over baying for Rushdie’s blood. Finally, in a recent fatwa, Rushdie’s life was spared but raises the necessity to critically question the media’s rule in purveying this idea that the fatwa is a death sentence. Pico Iyer has fallen prey to this misinterpretative role performed by the media.

Earlier[3] last year in June the Darul Uloom Deoband pronounced that Imrana, a woman from Muzafarnagar in UP could no longer be the legal wife of Noor Ilahi. Imrana was directly paying for the crimes of her husband. In the same week the Darul Uloom issued another fatwa proclaiming that ideally Muslim women must not contest panchayat elections, and never without a veil. The Indian print media splashed these issues on the front page giving it more importance than necessitated by the actual pronouncements. Undeniably, the seminary at Deoband is a very important authority for Muslims in South Asia but the print media simply blew the whole issue out of proportion. The issue concerning the panchayat election fatwa was investigated by Basharat Peer of the Tehelka[4] who in his interview with the Vice Chancellor found out that a journalist from a local Hindi newspaper had sent a letter seeking opinion whether Muslim women could go out to campaign and contest elections without wearing a veil. The journalist had not mentioned his profession and had merely signed his name. A mufti had read his query and answered according to Islamic law, which forbids women from going out without a veil. Then the journalist had written the story and it looked like the seminary had announced a fatwa on its own. From there it was picked up by the national newspapers and it looked like the fatwa was a binding order on all Muslims.

In a report in The Hindu dated 1st July in the Imrana case the report described a fatwa as an edict[5]. The report said, “However, she (meaning Imrana) was yet to receive a formal fatwa (edict) to stay away from her husband and children. Islamic seminary Darul Uloom Deoband issued a fatwa to Imrana that she could no longer live with her husband as she had been raped by her father-in-law.” The report while misinterpreting the meaning of fatwa also makes it look like the victim here does not respect the Indian legal system that has a grievance redressal system and as if the fatwa is binding upon her.

What is important to note here is that when the print media reports on issues pertaining to the delivery of fatwas it generally treats it under the broad rubric of reporting about Islam and it does this in an insensitive and crass manner without recognising the internal divisions within Islam in India. While Muslims in India can be broadly divided into Sunnis and Shiahs, among the Sunnis they can be further subdivided into the four maslaks or traditions of Islamic jurisprudence, the Hanafis, Shafis, Hanbalis and Malikis. While most Sunni Muslims in India are Hanafis there are divisions amongst the Hanafis themselves and Deoband represents a strand of the Hanafi thought. The Barelwis who are the followers of the late Ahmed Riza Khan Barelwi (d. 1921) and who are the most numerous in India (according to the Islamic scholar Rafiq Zakaria) might not always follow the fatwa of the Deoband as they have their own seminary in Barilley. The Ahl-e-Hadis is another important sect within Indian Islam which does not conform to any of the four maslaks mentioned above and their principal seminary is located in Benares and they will certainly not hold the fatwa of Deoband to be the last word on any particular issue.

A few other fatwas that I can think of that have been reported by the Indian media is one fatwa issued by some obscure alim of West Bengla who forbid Sania Mirza from playing because she wore revealing clothes. The manner in which that issue was reported gave so much importance to the ruling of an alim whom nobody had ever heard of that it smacked of callousness in reporting.

The December 12th 2005 issue of Outlook had a cover story on Fatwas. The cover had a blown up picture of heavily painted glistening lips crossed out and the headline was Crazy World of Fatwas. “No Make Up” in bold red read a bigger strap line and the last line said, “Outlook obtains a fatwa against Muslim women using lipstick in public”. The cover story was titled “Ayatollahs All” by Saba Naqvi Bhaumik. The story starts off quite well though it makes one ponder what she means when she writes that of the great mass of Muslims in India, “Some are neo-converts anxious not to commit any sin in their journey to a promised paradise”. It is a troublesome statement because almost all Muslims in India are not neo-converts.

The story moves on with the author describing how the fatwa entered pubic consciousness (through the fatwa on Salman Rushdie of course). The reporter makes an important point when she writes that there has been an impression that a fatwa is a command or an edict. But then the reporter moves on to investigate the matter by creating a fictitious setting and it looks as if she is out to debase Islam. The question that the reporter chose to seek an opinion of a mufti was, “As a Muslim woman, is it appropriate for me to work and to use cosmetics like lipstick when I go to office?” The opinion sought was from an alim from the Islamic Fiqh Academy in Delhi. It is not said to which maslak in Islam this institution belongs nor is any background about the institution given. The impression that the reader would get from reading the fatwa is that Islam does not allow women to wear make up.

Then there are five excerpts from the fatwa collection of Darul Uloom Deoband. The magazine writes that they culled out these gems (the italics are mine) from the collection and they have been listed under the title of ‘Ridiculous Fatwas’. The five gems are:

1. If while breaking wind it does not smell or sound, does it still break the wazu (cleaning before prayers)?

A. If you are sure you broke wind and you are not under a false illusion and are not physically challenged, then you should do the wazu again.

2. What is the punishment for a man who tells his wife that having sex with her is like having sex with her mother?

A. There is no punishment for what a man says in private to his wife.

3. If a chicken defecates in my well, has it become impure? How do I purify my well?

A. Throw out 110 buckets of water from your well. Then it will be purified and the water can be used for wazu.

4. If my bathroom does not have high walls and a roof, should I still bathe in the nude?

A. If the walls are high enough to cover your body then bathe in the nude, if not, then don’t bathe naked.

5. Will Allah accept my prayers if I pass wind while doing my namaz?

A. Only if you have kept the wind within you and restrained from releasing it are your prayers valid. If not, you should say your prayers again.

The reporter does not state how many fatwas are there in the ten volumes of the compendium of the Darul Uloom Deoband. Even if a safe speculation is made about the number of fatwas in that set, taking into account the fact that the Dar-ul-ifta of Deoband is more than a century old and it is one of the most respected Islamic seminaries in the world, it can easily be said that the number will not be less than several thousands. Culling out five gems from this collection very subjectively presents Muslims in a terrible light, almost mocking their religious beliefs.

Journalism is a shallow medium of communication of information. The medium demands that ‘news’ be communicated as instantaneously as possible. It is a competitive process to see who can deliver the news as quickly as possible. In this communication that is a dominant part of popular culture we see that the limited research that tight deadlines lead to a flattening out of the news. Stories aren’t investigated at a deeper level and this leads to a certain pursuit of the sensational. There is a celebration of ‘sensationalism’. In such a scenario where the sensational is sought after and celebrated questions like objectivity and truth are lost.

The fatwa entered the realm of public consciousness through Rushdie and has now embedded itself in the consciousness of the public. Nobody has not heard of a fatwa. The media has used the word so frequently that most consumers know it as some ‘Muslim rule’. The media has failed in it’s role of presenting something to the audience in an unbiased manner. The fatwa is perceived to be bad now and every time someone hears the word fatwa the first reaction is that it must be another binding rule for all Muslims.

The theorists of the media (I had a section on this in my earlier posting) who operate from a slightly Marxist view point write that the bourgeois notions of what constitutes news helps in preserving a certain status quo while the liberal pluralists believe that truth is provided by the media. As can be seen in the analysis of the way the ‘fatwa’ is reported it acquires an anti-Islamic tinge to it bringing Chomsky’s and Herman’s fifth filter where Anti-communism is replaced by Anti-Islamic reportage. Of course, a larger research would demonstrate this inherent prejudice in the Indian media of anti-Islamic prejudice that this research has proved through the reportage of the fatwa.

The liberal pluralists believe that news helps in the creation of public opinion but is the truth offered for a ‘true public opinion’ to be formed. As the analysis of the fatwa reportage has demonstrated there has been a gross misrepresentation of the role a fatwa plays in the life of Muslims and more seriously, a gross misrepresentation of what a fatwa actually is. Thus, when truth itself is questionable then can a responsible public opinion be formed?

Edward Said writes that the American media is insensitive to the differences that abound within the ummah (community) of Muslims. There is a reductionism at work here that seeks to present Muslims as terrorists and fundamentalists. Using the analogy of Islam as reported in America and fatwa as reported in India a similar argument can be made that the variety within Indian Islam is not recognised by the Indian print media and a reductionism is taking place when fatwas are reported reducing them to mere edicts.There is a callousness in reporting about Islam in India that reflects in reports about fatwas.

[1] Iyer…p. 147

[2] Al-Azm, Sadik J. “Is the ‘Fatwa’ a Fatwa?” Middle East Report 183 (Jul.-Aug. 1993): 27.

[3] For many portions of this paragraph I have relied on Javed Anand’s article, “Let’s Call the Ulema’s Bluff” in the Times of India dated July 7, 2005.

[4] Peer, Basharat. “Inside Deoband: The Third-Umpire of Fatwas”. Tehelka. 2: 35 dtd. 03/09/05.

[5] The Hindu. “I will abide by religious laws, says Imrana” dtd. 1st July 2005