Dated fatwas direly needed for demands of the global digital audience

My fatwa web alerts have been abuzz with articles concerning Muslims saying “rest in peace” when expressing condolences for the death of non-Muslim. Initial reports claiming that a fatwa was issued in response to a recent death were subsequently retracted upon examination of the date of the initial article’s source for the fatwa. This blog post concerns the role of dates in the development of this story, and the need for fatwas to be dated. It does not concern the deceased, the contents of the fatwa, nor the circumstances which triggered it to be spread.

Karpal Singh, a Malaysian lawyer, politician, and Member of Parliament, passed away on April 17. That day, several articles began circulating concerning Muslims giving condolences for his death. Initial articles claimed that after his death, the National Fatwa Council issued a new fatwa or simply a reminder that Muslims should not say “rest in peace” for the passing of non-Muslims. The source cited for the fatwa is an entry on the National Fatwa Council’s blog, dated 12 December 2013. These and similar reports prompted accusations of religious extremism, as well as requests for the National Fatwa Council to clarify their position. Yesterday the headlines and articles changed. Now lawyers say there really isn’t a fatwa against saying “rest in peace”, the reason being that the contents of the blog entry are not included in the Council’s official bank of fatwas. Several other articles clearly state that although fatwas are advisory in nature, the Malaysian government does sometimes gazette them.

A common theme on this blog is how an initial report of a fatwa gets the fatwa tragically wrong. The initial erroneous report is then spread throughout mainstream and social media without any attempt at verification. If the report on the fatwa is found to be wrong, the media that spread the error refuse to acknowledge their mistake.

In the story here, the initial report was definitely erroneous and it was spread through mainstream media and social media. But where this story differs from the others is that once the error was discovered, many of the mainstream media that carried the initial erroneous report have now printed articles clarifying the error. Some have even corrected their earlier articles to agree with the verifiable facts, often with a notice at the bottom to inform readers of the correction. These corrections and notices show a degree of journalistic integrity and professionalism that seems particular lacking in their colleagues to their west and in the west.

As with so many other cases where mainstream and social media find a fatwa interesting enough to repeat for days: the initial report gives a partial or incorrect presentation of a fatwa that, upon being verified at its source, ceases being very interesting. This lesson is not new.

The new lesson here is how important it is that fatwas include information about the time, place, context, and scope of the fatwa. Here the inclusion of an absolute date make it possible to verify – and correct – the chronology of events (i.e., that the fatwa was not issued in response to a recent death).

But imagine a scenario where a mufti has issued several fatwas or statements concerning a single topic, and where some of them are not open to reconciliation. In such a case we would use the more recent fatwa. Knowing which fatwa is more recent requires that we place the fatwas in chronological order. The easiest and most convincing way to do this is when each fatwa bears a date that is absolute and explicit. Things become both more difficult and less convincing when dates are missing from some fatwas, and when the order must be reconstructed from clues within the fatwa itself (like concluding that fatwa a comes later than fatwa b because a mentions b). Establishing which fatwa is the most recent is required before one can claim that the mufti supports an idea (present tense), since the existence of multiple fatwas proves only that he did (past tense) – not that he still does. This is especially dire when one claims that a mufti has put his support behind a controversial issue and one’s own sources state that the mufti has changed his opinion on the issue under duress.

So given the way that fatwas are being issued, disseminated, archived, and indexed, in this global digital age, it has become necessary that issuers of fatwas include the time, place, context, and scope of the fatwa, and that fatwa consumers hold fatwa reporters accountable for making improper use of (or ignoring) this information. Many written fatwas record the date of the question’s receipt, the issuance of the fatwa, or both. We should all be suspicious of the veracity of a fatwa that lacks both – especially when one fatwa has them and another does not.

For more information on this topic, please see Muslim Confidence in Validity of Fatwas and Their Dissemination Channels and Elements of a Fatwa & Their Contribution to Confidence in Its Validity, on this blog.

UPDATE If you’re interesting in the “RIP” fatwa story: it gets even stranger.