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Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Oops - can't wish you Merry Christmas": The 2004 Fatwa Translation & Commentary

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Image taken from Roman Candles, hosting by PhotobucketAdvice, and prohibitions, against Muslims wishing someone well on the celebrations of others have been resurfacing again. This time it's wishing "Merry Christmas". And it is something that is almost routinely heard everytime there is a religion-based celebration - the last time it was Deepavali, and the stir that the Takaful Malaysia internal e-mail caused (see here and here).

The root of this, at least as far as Malaysia is concerned, apparently stems from sometime in 2004, when a fatwa (religious ruling, or edict) was issued by the Perak State Religious Department, headed by none other than Fatwaman himself (whom some have even called Pope of Perak - tongue in cheek, of course).

A reader, whom we shall call The Translator, has taken the trouble to translate the ruling, which Walski has helped edit, and add some input. You can download the translation and commentary to the fatwa (in PDF) here.

Fatwas are religious edicts - actually more rulings/opinions - formulated using the following sources of Islamic jurisprudence (per Sunni Islamic practice):

  • The Quran
  • The Hadith & Sunnah
  • Ijma (classical scholarly consensus on opinions/rulings)
  • Qiyas (analogy - based on Ijma)

The four sources are in descending order of importance, i.e. The Quran is, in theory, the definitive source, followed by Hadith/Sunnah, etc. But in practice, there is no direct interpretation of the Quran, nor the Hadith/Sunnah - rather, established interpretations by classical scholars are used, and these date to around the 10th/11th century CE. Furthermore, the Ijma selected cannot contradict the 2 primary sources, and the Qiyas cannot go against the Ijma.

The problem comes in because there actually is no definitive ijma. Literally, ijma means consensus, and it is interesting to note that even the definition of ijma does not have an ijma, much less about many things relating to Islamic law. There is an interesting essay, written by Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq, Associate Professor of Economics and Finance, Upper Iowa University, entitled "The Doctrine of Ijma: Is there a consensus?" which talks about why the claim of ijma on many matters are actually erroneous and misleading.

And because there is no real consensus on which are the definitive ijma, it is usually left to the discretion, and personal leanings, of the individual current-day religious scholar. Such is the case with the 2004 fatwa.

The classical scholar of choice in this instance was Ibn Taymiyyah, and several other related scholars.
(more non-consensus in the full post)

One can find numerous web sites to find out more about Ibn Taymiyyah. Among them:

Ibn Taymiyyah was a scholar, born is Harran (now part of Turkey) in 1263 CE, into a family of renowned Hanbali theologians. His family later moved to Damascus, due to the Mongol invasion. Later in life, he would lead the resistance movement against the Mongols. Although the Mongols later embraced Islam, Taymiyyah viewed that their conversion was superficial, and even issued a fatwa stating that is was permissible to fight them.

He had the tendency to interpret scripture literally, and is also known to have wanted to purify Islam from influences which, in his opinion, were unauthorized innovations (bid'ah). Taken in today's context, some of his teachings do appear rather xenophobic.

His experience of fighting against the Mongols, could perhaps explain these seemingly xenophobic views in some of his works. The teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah were, in more recent history, resurrected by Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabis, who took the thoughts of Ibn Taymiyyah to newer levels of puritanism.

Today, the works of Ibn Taymiyyah have become the preferred reference for many traditionalist scholars, particularly those with conservative leanings, and so it comes as no surprise that this classical Islamic scholar's thoughts became the central thesis of the 2004 Perak state ruling.

While Ibn Taymiyyah may have, to his credit, been a great scholar of Islam, even accorded the title of Sheikh ul Islam (Leader of Islam) it is his more myopic, and xenophobic views that have, unfortunately, resonated with many of today's scholars, perhaps partly due to the importance that Ibn Wahhab put on the scholar.

At the end of the day, however, the rulings and opinions of scholars, remain just that - opinions and rulings. It is incumbent upon all Muslims to decide for themselves whether or not to accept these opinions, or reject them, based on what the Quran has to say. The current practice (by many) of accepting wholesale what their mufti opine will only lead to further deterioration of the ummah (Islamic society).

After all, each individual Muslims is accountable to God, based on his or her own actions, guided by scripture, knowledge and God-given intellect. As for the 2004 fatwa translation, do give it a read, then decide for yourself: is our faith so fragile, that wishing someone Happy Deepavali, Merry Christmas, etc. actually erodes it?