A few observations on Dar al-Ifta and how public law is complicated

(nb: I was asked something related to Dar al-Ifta and its fatwas. My reply didn’t address their question as well as it should have, but it spilled over into some issues that may be of interest to other ṭullāb al-‘ilm.)

Are you asking about Dar al-Ifta as an institution, and if so are you asking about the institution under any particular Grand Mufti’s direction? or are you asking about specific Grand Muftis?

First, a few things to keep in mind:

  • Fiqh is largely theoretical and decontextualized. Iftā (at least the type practiced at Dar al-Ifta) is highly practical and contextualize. In fiqh you can largely ignore the individual; in iftā you cannot. In fiqh you have a luxury of time that is often absent in iftā. While both fiqh and iftā require badhl al-wus‘ (expending all efforts), the mufti sometimes operates in context where a ruling is needed in a finite amount of time and, yes, sometimes concerning major life decisions.

  • The Dar is responsible for safeguarding the religious community in Egypt as a whole and with its entire range of Muslims, some of whom are very very observant, while others are hanging by a thread. One of the final stages in issuing a fatwā is taking into account maqāṣid, masāliḥ, and consequences. This can be complicated when dealing with private issues involving a small set of individuals. Imagine how it gets when you treat the religious community as a whole as the mustaftī?

  • Mustaftis often ask questions concerning issues which are already handled in Egyptian legislation concerning inheritance, divorce, and other issues. The general policy at the Dar is to answer these questions according to what the mustafti will receive in courts, as the sultan (or whoever takes his place) has already carried out his responsibility of deciding public law according to public interest.

These and other things make public law complicated.

Now, back to the question concerning the Dar and its fatāwā: Putting it nicely: some of the recent Grand Muftis (may Allah grant them His mercy) were not strong in fiqh compared to their peers, nor as strong as the position demands. If you’re talking about the Dar under Sheikh Ali: one of his challenges has been building up the institution itself, which had fallen into a very bad state. The Dar (when I was there) had a few muftis who are very competent fuqahā, but it also had a number of muftis and researchers who were undergoing training and were, in shā Allāh, answering questions concerning issues within their current competencies.

When I was working at the Dar, I came across some fatāwā that I found questionable. Some I reviewed with the late Sheikh ‘Immād ‘Iffat (may Allah grant him His mercy) and Sheikh Ali himself. There were some fatāwā where fiqh had been applied incorrectly according to the Dar’s own standards; these were corrected. There were other fatāwā where local custom played a role and the fatwa made sense once it was explained.1 There were other issues involving choosing amongst alternative conceptions where Sheikh Ali preferred a particular conception, and ruling in question was a result of that choice. There were also some issues where an easier ruling for a common public difficulty was preferred in order to ensure that the masses could practice Islam.

Two categories of issues where I often found myself uncomfortable concerned financial issues where a conception was picked that diverged from other scholars, and in the the way that some fatāwā evaluated public interest and maqāṣid. These fatawa were in areas requiring exercise of ijtihād, and it was not possible to say – categorically and without doubt – that the fatwā was invalid and not merely a matter of acceptable differences of opinion.

My point here is that there’s a lot more going on than is apparent. While there are examples of negligent and bad fiqh, these mistakes are a small portion compared to the good fiqh-reasoning present in the vast majority of their fatal, and things are often more complicated than we appreciate.

As always: Allah knows best.

  1. There is a whole set of issues you can never get in to without some familiarity with the local colloquial language and community. Many students refuse to learn any ‘āmiyyah, which greatly reduces their access to the local community and, in doing so, bars them from a complete conception of what is going on…and as the maxim indicates: ruling is a product of conception.