By Khaled Abou El Fadl
The knowledge that is God makes all else tentative. The certainty that is God reduces all else to conjecture. The more one learns the more one asks, and the more one asks the more one discovers the Divine. In this Conference the only absolute is God; all else searches for the absolute. If one claims knowledge, humility before The All-Knowing makes the heart shudder. In this Conference, arrogance is the only ignorance and temporal knowledge is but a question.
It is reported that the Maliki jurist Sahnun (d. 240/855) once observed: “The most ready to issue fatwas are the most ignorant.” It is also said that al-Imam Malik Ibn Anas (d. 179/796) would be asked about fifty issues and he would perhaps respond to one. Through the transmissions of history, it was reported that al-Haytham Ibn Jamil said that al-Imam Malik was asked about forty-eight issues, thirty-two to which he answered, “I don’t know.” The annals of Islamic history are full of anecdotal stories demanding diligence in researching a fatwa and counseling reserve in the issuance of fatwas.
Books have been written on the qualifications of a mufti, the conditions for seeking a fatwa and the requisites for its issuance. Muslim jurists forbade al-tasahul fi'l fatwa (issuing fatwas without proper reflection or research.) Such a deed was considered to be illegal and a sin. In fact, many jurists argued that one can sue a mufti, in malpractice, for negligently issuing a fatwa. In other words, negligence in discharging one’s fatwa duties creates a legal cause of action.
But here in the United States, the comfort of a fatwa is right at your fingertips. As definite as a guaranteed-delivery pizza parlor, a fatwa is just a phone call away. With the sound reliability of a vending machine or the immediacy of an order of french fries, a fatwa is readily available. Call 1-800-95-FATWA and you will find the Fatwa Service. Monday to Thursday from 1 to 3 pm E.S.T. and on alternate days, fatwas are available in Arabic and English. Two days ago, I called the Fatwa Service and I was greeted with a message informing me that the Fatwa Service is out of order until further notice. But the point remains. Muslims in the United States issue fatwas left and right without any regard to conditions, rules, traditions, sources, or anything else for that matter. There are hundreds of self-declared muftis who, after reading a couple of books on hadith, become the viceroys of fiqh on this earth.
Every Muslim may be entitled to declare an opinion on whatever he or she wishes. But a fatwa is not a point of view; it is a legal opinion. A fatwa is not personal advice given in response to a personal problem and it is not simply an answer to a question. A fatwa is a non-binding legal opinion issued in response to a legal problem. For instance, if one asks, “How many times a day do Muslims pray?" The answer to this is not a fatwa. If one asks: “Do you think it is a good idea to marry someone older than myself?" The response to this is personal advice but not a fatwa. However, if one inquires about a problem that is the proper subject of a legal inquiry, then one is asking for a fatwa. For example, if one asks, “My father is opposed to my marrying this man, but legally, could I still marry him anyway?" This question solicits a fatwa. A fatwa assumes a conflict of evidence and a need to weigh and evaluate the evidence. In the language of fiqh, a fatwa is issued in response to a problematic matter (amr mushkil). The point is well-illustrated by the following incident: A man asked al-Imam Malik about a matter. Imam Malik responded by saying, “I don't know.” The man retorted, “But this is a simple and easy matter.” Irritated, Imam Malik said: “Nothing is easy in knowledge and fatwa.”
A dial-a-fatwa 800-number implies that the law of God is but a phone call away. God’s Will need not be searched or sought; you need not sweat nor pain; you need not reflect nor persevere. Instead, you make a phone call. The least one can ask is that we pay for the phone call.