There are personalities who issue fatwas on politicised matters of faith seeking to position themselves as moderate to non-Muslim liberals, or offer everything as technicalities to present a veneer of intellectualism. Desperate to demonstrate their usefulness, these muftis engage in a one-way competition attempting to outshine others, either by supposing hypothetical problems or framing problems as having a significant impact on society when in reality they only affect a handful of people.

But there are many problems with supposing legal issues. For one, any legal issue requires an analysis of revelation and extracting a way forward as indicated by God taking all factors into consideration. With conjecture, some factors are unknown since the event has yet to occur, thus to suppose exact solutions can prove futile. What is even more poignant is that the reason for offering religious verdicts, one would assume, is out of a desire to elucidate the most godly and cogent way to proceed in a given situation. It is only with this attitude that the aid of God is obtained and truth lived out. Imam al-Nawawi intimated the sentiments of Shafi’i jurists as extracted from the hadith: “Do not seek leadership for if it is given upon request then you will be questioned about it, and if it is decided without desire then you shall be aided,” that those eager to propose verdicts, climbing over one another to offer one, shall seldom be correct and their undertakings will be muddled and inconsistent. But where they are reluctant to offer verdicts but do so finding no other way, they shall find far more assistance from God and will persistently find themselves free from error.

Offering a fatwa is something the mufti should be forced to do, assuming that not doing so in the given situation might lead to divine reproach. The tabi’i Abdur Rahman b. Abi Layla famously related, “I met one hundred and twenty Companions from the Ansar, one would be asked concerning a legal issue, this one would refer to that one, and that to this one, until it would arrive back at the first.” On another occasion he said, “I met one hundred and twenty companions of the Prophet from the Ansar in this mosque, not one of them would relate a hadith without hoping that his brother would avail the narration, neither would he be asked a legal question without hoping that his brother would avail with an answer.” (al-Darimi)

Following the injunctions as presented by a mufti goes back to the notion of taqlid, which is to follow the shar’i insights of a scholar trusting his/her learning. It comes from the word q-l-d which means to tie a noose around something, and in the shar’i sense it refers to tying the responsibility of deriving the law around the neck of the mufti. It is for this reason that Imam Malik b. Anas said, “Whoever responds to a legal issue, then before doing so should present himself as if standing before paradise and hell, and envisage what his end shall be in the afterlife – and then answer.” The fear that should limit the mufti, as well as others who freely pontificate on matters of faith, is the stark warning revelation declares:

Do not say falsely, ‘This is lawful and that is forbidden’ inventing a lie about God: those who invent lies about God will not prosper – they may have a little enjoyment, but painful torment awaits them.
Qur’an 16:116

The verse offers two distinct warnings, against those who liberally permit that which is unlawful, and those who illiberally forbid that which God has mercifully permitted. For the mufti to speak on behalf of the Most High, Creator of all that exists, Lord of the great throne, is a tremendous undertaking. It is for this reason that, as Ibn al-Qayyim put it in I’laam al-Muwaqi’in, ‘If the position of speaking on behalf of kings is indisputable and of utmost rank, what for the position of speaking on behalf of the Lord of the heavens and earth? It is the duty of those who assume this position to equip themselves and prepare for it. They must know the status of this position and hold no qualm with speaking truth and defending it, for God is their helper and guide…and the mufti should know who he represents in his fatwas, and believe with certainty that he shall be questioned tomorrow and stand before God.’ Given the stark warnings on offering fatwas, why would anyone decide to do so?

God took a pledge from those who were given the scripture – make it known to people; do not conceal it.
Qur’an 3:187

It is astounding as to how many come to speak on behalf of God indifferently, the lack of reverence and the casual tone with which they propose an answer is as if they offer trivial directions to someone on the street. In various (physical and online) forums one finds imams, preachers, and activists discuss mad’habs (schools of law) with an air of deference, only for the discussion to turn to a specific legal issue and an attitudinal transformation that provokes an impulsive suggestion or whimsical opinion posited on behalf of God.

(These days) they answer a legal issue, which, were it to be presented to Umar he would have gathered the people of Badr (for its consideration).
Uthman b. Asim

The capricious attitude is troublesome for it intimates a triviality about the more serious matters of faith, along with the way in which scholastic precedence is abused to provide legitimacy without the slightest hint of context. The desire to play up to people’s expectations is not the role of the mufti, it is simply to offer clarification with an attitude to intimate what has been revealed.

A man asked Ibn Umar about touching the black stone (hajr’l-aswad). He said: “I saw the Prophet touch it and kiss it.” The man said: “What if I am overcome and prevented? What if it is crowded?” Ibn Umar replied: “Leave your ‘what ifs’ in Yemen, I saw the Prophet touch it and kiss it.”
Reported by al-Tirmidhi

Abu Hurairah relates that the Prophet said, “People, God has made Hajj obligatory for you; so perform Hajj. A person asked “Messenger of God, every year?” The Prophet said: “If I were to say yes it would become obligatory (to perform it every year) and you would not be able to do it.” He then said: “Leave me with what I have left to you, for those who were before you were destroyed because of excessive questioning, and their opposition to their Prophets. So when I command you to do anything do it as much as it lies in your power and when I forbid you to do anything, then abandon it.” (Muslim)

The desire to advocate the will of the people in matters of faith is misguided, muftis are themselves meant to be guides and cultivators, a fatwa doesn’t simply tell people what to do, but offers the most godly, righteous and productive way to proceed. On this basis, it is incumbent upon the mufti to astutely probe the questioner since communication itself is a skill and many are not very good at articulating themselves precisely. Any response should be measured and painstakingly articulated so as to limit the possibility of misunderstanding or misrepresentation. Sometimes, questioners may ask a pertinent question yet envisage the nucleus of the matter to be something that in reality is trivial. In such a situation, the mufti responds by addressing the more important considerations; in fact God himself provides precedence for this. Al-Qurtubi and others narrated that Mu’adh b. Jabal asked the Prophet about the moon after having been questioned about it by the Jews of Madinah, seeking an explanation as to why it would grow and then shrink. God revealed, “They ask you about the new moons. Say it is a time for people and the pilgrimage.” (Q 2:189) Here the Most High responded, but did so in a fashion that offered a meaningful explanation which would become the basis of righteous actions rather than intellectual banter. Similarly, the Prophet informed some Companions upon being asked about using seawater for ablution: “It is a purifier and its dead are permissible to eat.” (Abu Dawud et al) The Prophet’s explanation added the law on consuming seafood although they didn’t ask about it, which was to provide believing seafarers a holistic understanding as to what was at their disposal so as to remove any difficulty in living out godly lives.

It is also from the etiquette of a mufti to respond to a questioner in a serious manner that denotes a sense of severity leading the questioner to desist with the probing due to its consequence. It is reported from Ibn Abbas that he was asked about the repentance of a murderer to which he implied that there is no forgiveness, but on being asked by another he affirmed divine clemency. (Ibn Abi Shaybah) In explanation he said, “In the first I saw the intent of murder in his eyes, so I prevented him. As for the second, he came humbly after having killed, so I refrained from causing desolation and despair.” (al-Nawawi, Rawdah al-Talibin)

As those seeking a fatwa with the desire to meet God and have a favourable end, it behooves us to remain mindful of the above. Acting out religious counsel from anyone must be precipitated by the consideration: “Will this get me to paradise?” The leader of the faithful, Ali b. Abi Talib, spoke of some of the tribulations to occur at the end of times. Upon being asked by Umar as to when that would be, he said, “When people acquire fiqh for other than religion, and learn (religion) for other than action. And the world is sought through acts of the hereafter.” Similarly, Abdullah b. Mas’ud put it,

“What will happen to you if there is a trial that causes the young to be old, the old to grow older, and it becomes so entrenched that where it changes merely for a day it is said: this is strange!” They asked, “When shall that happen?” He said: “When your trustworthy people are few and your leaders are many; your jurists become few and your reciters become many. The faith is studied for reasons other than religion and the world is sought through the actions of the hereafter.”
Abdullah b. Mas’ud; Musannaf Abdur Razzaq