Monday, January 28, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Islamic Scholar Wants Limits on Issuing Fetwas

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – Like their co-religionists in other countries, Russia’s Muslims now must deal with an explosion in the number of fetwas,  according to a Moscow Islamic scholar, because “unfortunately, today, everyone issues fetwas – every imam, every parishioner of a mosque, absolutely everyone.”

            Ruslan-khazrat Baishyev, who graduated from the Islamic University at Medina and now teaches at the Moscow Islamic University, notes that Cairo’s Al-Alzhar University has now collected and published “about a half million fetwas” many of which contradict each other and for that and other reasons leads to confusion among  the faithful (

            There is a great deal of confusion about what a fetwa is, who may issue it, and what to do when the flood of fetwas contain mixed messages, Baishyev says.  He explains that in Arabic, “fetwa” means an explanation of shariat norms to someone who seeks guidance about a particular situation.

            “Not just anyone may issue a fetwa,” the Moscow scholar continues, saying that “only someone who has achieved the level of ijtihad, that is an alim, a scholar of shariat” and who thus has the ability to consider and apply shariat norms from the Koran and the Sunna. If, however, someone only knows the opinion of other scholars … then he can only give their opinions without distortion and does not have the right to decide religious issues on his own.”

            Unfortunately, many Muslims have forgotten that, Baishyev says, and they have forgotten that even at the time of Muhammed, very few of his followers issued fetwas.  That is because “the fewer people who gave fetwas, the more effectively could the unity of Musliims be preserved.” If many people do, that only leads to “the splitting of society and other problems.”

            According to the Moscow researcher, Islamic scholars have long established the qualities that an individual must have to be able to issue a fetwa: a knowledge of the Koran as well as the traditions and sayings of Muhammed, a knowledge of the Arabic language, and the wisdom to be able to consider the implications of any decision contained in the fetwa.

            But even individuals with all these qualifications ought not to issue a large number of fetwas, Baishyev continues. “An individual who publishes a fetwa must know the theological decisions of past centuries. And therefore scholars say that an individual who does not know the past cannot issue a fetwa on contemporary issues.”

            There are two kinds of fetwa, he points out: a fetwa ‘hass” which applies only to a particular individual or a particular place and which must not be generalized, and a fetwa “amma” which is given for all Muslims and applies in all circumstances. And in many places, there are fikkha academes which study various questions and decide when to issue fetwas.

            It would be a good thing, Beishyev argues, if such an academy were to be established in Russia, one that would include “scholars and specialists of various branches of knowledge from various regions” and that would assembly “several times a year” to consider religious ssues and only then publish fetwas about them.

            “Such an institution,” he suggests, “would be very useful for all the Muslims of Russia and would promote their unification and the establishment of a single umma” within the country. And what he does not say but implies is that such a group would help overcome clashes among the country’s Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) by significantly reducing their authority.

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