Ifta is a serious and honorable vocation in Islam. The mufti holds the place of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) with respect to clarifying rulings that originally proceed from Allah the Almighty. As much as ifta is an honorable task and entails great reward, it is nonetheless a perilous enterprise and a transgression for those who undertake it without possessing the requisite knowledge. Conscious of the seriousness of ifta, the Companions and scholars of the first generation of Muslims were hesitant to give their legal opinion out of fear of communicating a ruling from Allah without knowledge. And when approached for the legal verdict on a point of law, they would relegate the question to one another until it returned to the one who was consulted first. It is precisely due to the gravity of the matter that Allah the Almighty delegated this task to “the people of knowledge,” proficient experts and scholars; He says, “… Ask those who have knowledge if you do not know” [Quran 16: 43].
Definition and Etiquette of Ifta
The linguistic Arabic meaning of ‘ifta’ and ‘fatwa’ denotes clarification. Accordingly, “aftahu fi `amr” means “he explained and made the matter clear to him.” Technically, the words refer to a non-binding legal pronouncement [pertaining to a specific issue] in response to an inquiry. The words ‘non-binding’ serve to distinguish a fatwa from qada` (arbitrating controversies between litigants), and a mufti from a qadi (judge). A mufti explains and responds to a question brought by inquirers but does not obligate them to follow the ruling he issues. The verdict of a judge, on the other hand, is binding on those to whom it is dealt.
It is, by all means, necessary to observe fatwa etiquette. A fatwa should be made in clear and unambiguous language and it must be comprehensive and cover all aspects of the question. It is not necessary for a mufti to mention the legal premise of his response because the inquirer may not understand it and because it may serve another function.
Just as there are rules of etiquette associated to fatwa issuance there are similarly rules of etiquette associated to the mufti. A mufti should not issue a fatwa when his mind is preoccupied or when he is in a state of mind that prevents him from giving careful consideration to the case before him lest this render his fatwa invalid or deter him from accuracy. Such states include anger, hunger, thirst, intense grief or great joy, drowsiness and sleepiness, boredom, painful illness, or the need to relieve himself.
As for the rules of etiquette concerning the mustafti (the inquirer), these include being polite and respectful with the mufti when posing the question and speaking with him, not asking about the school of jurisprudence he follows, and seeking the appropriate time to solicit a fatwa i.e. he must not ask for a fatwa when the mufti is preoccupied.
It is mandatory for anyone undertaking ifta, whether individuals or fatwa institutions, to follow a methodology based on the order of precedence of legal evidences. When asked about a certain case, a mufti must search for its ruling in the Quran. If there is not a text in the Quran on which to base the ruling, the mufti is to look into the Sunnah. If the Sunnah does not provide a text on the particular issue in question, he is to employ qiyas (analogical reasoning). The ruling issued by the mufti must not contradict ijma’ which is the consensus of all scholars of the universal community of Muslims at a certain time on a certain religious issue. These four parameters comprise what is known as the agreed upon bases of inference. Other noncontroversial bases of inference such as the authority of the laws revealed prior to Islam and the opinion of a Companion operate on the basis of the mufti’s ijtihad.
A mufti is to reference the opinion of any mujtahid from the four established schools of jurisprudence unless his own ijtihad points to another school. He should formulate his ruling based on a sound understanding of the sources of law as well as on a profound awareness of the surrounding context. A mufti should rely for his fatwa on the four accredited schools of jurisprudence though he must not exclude recourse to other schools such as the Ja’fariyyah, al-Zaydiyyah, Al-Ibadiyyah, and al-Zahiriyyah which are followed in some parts of the world. Besides, he may sometimes even need to reference them due to the [progressive] needs of the people or to achieve the objectives of Islamic law.
A mufti may look further into the opinions of other great mujtahids such as al-Awza’i, at-Tabari, al-Layth Ibn Sa’d and others who number more than eighty. Their opinions are recognized and preponderated based on the strength of their evidences, the extent of the people’s need for them, to serve the interests of the people, or to achieve the objectives of Islamic law. The scholarly community of our times across the globe has approved this methodology in issuing fatwa.
A mufti must abide by the resolutions of the Islamic assemblies especially when it comes to pronouncing a ruling related to unprecedented issues of public concern. Foremost among these bodies are the Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy; the Islamic Fiqh Academy, subsidiary to the Organization of the Islamic Conference at Jeddah; and The Islamic Fiqh Academy, subsidiary to the Muslim World League at Mecca.
Stages of a Fatwa
A fatwa passes through four essential stages before it is issued in the medium received by the petitioner. These are conception, adaptation, determining the ruling, and response.
The first stage: Conception
During this stage, the inquirer gives an objective description of all the particulars of his or her issue of concern. This allows the mufti to give careful legal consideration to the question.
The second stage: Adaptation
During this stage, the mufti correlates the petitioner’s case to the relevant branches and cases of fiqh that correspond to it. For instance, an inquiry may be categorized as belonging to the branch of mu’amalat (mutual dealings and transactions) and not ‘ibadaat (worship) or to a certain category of transactions or a new contract. This stage paves the way to the response (legal ruling) and requires the meticulous attention of the mufti.
The third stage: Determining the ruling
After the mufti arrives at an accurate understanding of the petitioner’s case and classifies it under the relevant fiqhi category, he can then identify the legal ruling to the petitioner’s question.
The fourth stage: Ifta
This stage is wherein the mufti applies the ruling he has arrived at to the case before him. It is necessary at this stage to ensure that the ruling does not contradict the objectives of Islamic law, a definitive legal text, ijma’, or an established legal maxim in which case the mufti must re-examine his fatwa until he meets all the conditions.
Elements determining a change in the ruling
Change and variance in fatwa occur due to temporal, spatial, individual, and circumstantial changes.
Temporal changes: The customs and conditions of people change from one period to another. Custom-based rulings consequently change in tandem with the dynamic customs and traditions of the people.
Differences of locality: The influence of locality changes and variances, along with the accompanying changes and differences in customs, traditions, and behavior, is another factor that elicits a change in fatwa. Muslim minorities follow fatwas that are relevant to their non-Muslim context.
Individuals: The rulings that apply to natural persons are different from those that apply to juridical persons such as governments, companies, and legal entities.
Conditions: The Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us to take new circumstances and conditions into account when formulating a fatwa. This requires changing the ruling if it is based on ijtihad, delaying its implementation, or suspending its effects if it is based on a definitive text. A case in point is the hadith recorded by Abu Dawud waiving the theft penalty during wartime even though it is imposed by a divine injunction.
Changes and variances in the factors effecting a change in fatwa stipulate a corresponding change in the rulings without violating the objectives of Islamic law. In this manner, Islamic jurisprudence strikes a balance between upholding Islamic law and taking into account the consequences of rulings.
Reality and its Components
Understanding reality, the importance of which was aforementioned, is part and parcel of the process of ifta. Reality is made up of a group of realms: the realms of objects, persons, events, and ideas while the realm of systems encircles and connects them all. It is necessary to understand and consider all the interrelations between those realms when striving to understand and deal with reality.
People’s interests and concerns about the realms around them varies according to their culture. Urban and rural people have different interests and concerns while the interests and concerns of a student who is a frequent visitor to academic institutions and research rooms differs from both. A mufti must thereby scrutinize those realms with their different approaches and interrelations before issuing a ruling. He must also take into consideration the consequences that would ensue from the concrete pragmatic application of his fatwa.
For instance, a mufti may be asked about the legal ruling for a certain new product or commodity. This commodity belongs to the realm of objects and thereby the mufti needs to have a certain understanding of it to be able to convey the ruling of Allah concerning it. If, for example, the question is about the ruling for apple cider vinegar, he is to ask a specialist in the field about its smell, composition, and effects. He will also need to ask whether it contains porcine fat or alcohol. And if it does contain alcohol, is it ethyl that causes intoxication or methyl? And what is the percentage present in the vinegar? This knowledge lies within the domains of chemistry, physics, nutrition analysis, medicine, and physiology. The mufti may need to consult experts in these fields to know the extent of the health benefits or adverse effects of the components of apple cider vinegar as the validity and accuracy of his fatwa depend on it.
The same applies to the realms of events and ideas. However, it is important to draw attention to an issue of utmost importance. During the process of understanding reality, we must bear in mind the sources and texts of law to be able to synthesize them and find the link that regulates the application of the ruling to the prevailing context. To do this, we must take the following into account:
1- The universal objectives of Islamic law. These are the preservation of life, intellect, religion, honor, and property.
2- Ijma’. The mufti must consider and remain within the confines of the loci of ijma’.
3- The Arabic language and the meaning of Arabic words. The mufti is not to choose or assign meanings to words other than those that were transmitted to us from the Arabs. This is because the sources of Islamic law are Arabic texts.
4- The Islamic cognitive paradigm which is referred to as ‘aqida or the universal perspective.
5- The maxims of Islamic jurisprudence or general principles of Islamic law. This is because they form the bridge that connects the sources of Islamic law to understanding of the prevailing context.
Based on the above, understanding reality is an essential pillar of ifta so that a fatwa may not be limited to clarifying the legal ruling independently of reality and the different elements that make it up. It is important to note that the emergence of numerous aberrant and extremist opinions and fatwas are only due to the absence of fiqh al-waqi’ (jurisprudence of reality) and the lack of full knowledge of its requisites and consequences.
Ifta is a Craft
It may seem strange to use the word ‘craft’ in relation to ‘ifta’ and ‘fatwa’. Ifta is a complex underlying process that ranges from understanding the sources of law and having a keen understanding and a good grasp of contemporary reality. Additionally, a fatwa goes through several stages of excogitation before the mufti deduces the ruling for the matter in question. Because a craft is a complex task that needs understanding and skill, it was only fitting to describe ifta so that non-specialists may understand its gravity and refrain from venturing legal opinions, leaving them in the hands of “those who have knowledge.”