What is the real value of a fatwa from India’s biggest Sunni Muslim seminary?

Darul Uloom Deoband, the seat of the Deobandi school of Sunni Islam, issues hundreds of fatwas every year from its headquarters in Uttar Pradesh. Some of them notoriously make it to the headlines, for being either discriminatory towards women or simply incongruous with the modern world.

The latest to land Darul Uloom in the midst of a media controversy is its fatwa, issued on April 1, asking Muslims not to chant “Bharat Mata ki jai” because it goes against the basic Islamic principle of worshipping one god.

Headlines about Islamic fatwas are almost always dramatic, but this time, much of the drama preceded the Deoband school’s decree. It began on March 14, when Asaduddin Owaisi – leader of Hyderabad's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen – declared that he would never say “Bharat Mata ki jai” even if a knife was put to his throat.

Owaisi’s remarks were in defiance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s emphasis on chanting patriotic slogans to hail Mother India. Two days later, AIMIM leader Waris Pathan was suspended from the Maharashtra Assembly by a unanimous vote after he refused to say “Bharat Mata ki jai” in the house.

Darul Uloom’s fatwa against the slogan came, it says, in response to “thousands” of letters from Muslims seeking to know if Islam permits the chanting of a slogan that personifies the nation as a goddess. As expected, the fatwa instantly drew the ire of right-wing Hindutva politicians and groups who slammed the Deoband seminary for being fundamentalist.

But is the fatwa against “Bharat Mata ki jai”, or any other Darul Uloom fatwa, really worth getting so worked up over?

Agony aunts

After the infamous Iranian fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie in 1989, most of the non-Muslim world has associated the word “fatwa” with extremist diktats that, if not followed, could result in extreme consequences.

Muslim scholars, meanwhile, have had to repeatedly explain the true meaning of fatwa: it is merely a legal opinion based on the interpretation of Islamic texts, given by qualified priests or muftis to any Muslim who seeks answers to any kind of question.

The fatwa page on Darul Uloom’s website, in fact, reads more like an agony aunt column. Muslims send in letters seeking advice on a range of life problems, and Deobandi scholars make Quranic references to offer practical or didactic solutions. How do I refrain from sins? Sit in solitude and meditate. How do I quit smoking? Cut down the number of cigarettes you smoke, week by week. How do I end my illicit affair? Dissociate yourself from that person.

Of course, Darul Uloom is no different from other patriarchal seminaries, and its conservatism is evident in some of these fatwas. This, for instance, was the fatwa board’s response to a woman who complained of her husband ignoring her and treating her like “dirt”:

“A wife generally has such intense love for her husband that she always tends to regard her husband’s love for her as deficient and lacking...Whatever difficulties you experience from your husband, regard it as a means of the forgiveness of your sins.”

Infamous fatwas

Such mundane fatwas, however, sexist though they are, rarely make it to the news. When Darul Uloom is written about, it is usually for decrees like these:

Working women: In May 2010, a fatwa from the Deoband seminary claimed it is haraam (forbidden) under Sharia law for Muslim women to work alongside men, and for a family to accept her earnings. The fatwa was a response to a citizen’s query whether Muslim women can work in the government or private sector.

Women receptionists: The fatwa against working women must have been rather ineffective, because in 2012, Darul Uloom came out with a more specific fatwa against employing Muslim women as receptionists, because it required interacting with men without a veil.

Mobile divorce: In November 2010, a Deobandi fatwa claimed that a divorce served via cell phone – by uttering “talaq” thrice over a phone call – would be valid even if the woman didn’t hear the words clearly due to network problems.

Photography: In September 2013, the Darul Uloom’s fatwa board declared photography to be a sin, and also claimed it is un-Islamic to take wedding videos or preserve photos as mementos. This fatwa was a response to a Muslim youth who wanted to find out if a career in photography would be permissible in Islam.

Shaving: In August 2015, two barbers from Saharanpur asked scholars at Darul Uloom if Islam allows the shaving of beards. A panel of three muftis responded that cutting anyone’s beard would go against the Sharia, so it would be better for Muslim barbers to seek another vocation. While the two barbers in question chose to stop beard-shaving, news reports Deoband’s fatwa as a diktat that would leave barbers and clean-shaved Muslims in a dilemma.

The Deoband seminary, of course, is not the only Islamic institution issuing fatwas in India. Just this week, the competing Barelvi school of Islam issued a fatwa against Wahabis entering Sufi Sunni mosques; in December, a Muslim institute in Tamil Nadu banned the use of Patanjali products; there have been fatwas against wearing ties and fatwas against AR Rahman. And in the past year, multiple Muslim institutions have come out with fatwas against terrorist organisation ISIS.

Not so effective

Do Muslims in India religiously follow the fatwas churned out by Darul Uloom or any of the other ceremonies? Have Sunni Muslim citizens given up photography or wearing ties? Are Muslim barbers nowhere to be found? Not really, say most Muslim scholars.

“Everyone knows that fatwas are not binding ordinances, even if they come from the Darul Uloom,” said Maulana Mehmood Daryabadi, general secretary of the All India Ulema Council. “The Deoband school has a huge following – everyone except the Barelvis and the Shias follow them – but agreeing with a fatwa and implementing it in daily life are two different things. Many people find it difficult to implement the advice given in fatwas, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

Zakia Soman, a co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, believes that Darul Uloom’s fatwas don’t really impact the lifestyles of most Muslims in India. Many Muslim women, she says, have to work and earn because of their socio-economic conditions, and the fatwa against women working in jobs hasn’t changed that. “Today we are citizens of a democracy with all kinds of avenues to seek advice and opinions on various aspects of life,” said Soman. “This one institution cannot impact people alone.”