Fatwa against A R Rahman: Understanding the issue

Over the past few days, we witnessed the unfolding of another chain of events which seem to exemplify intolerance in our society. News reports told us of a fatwa being issued against A.R. Rahman (of all the people!) owing to his involvement in Majid Majidi’s ‘Muhammad: Messenger of God’.

I came to know of this randomly while tweet-surfing (not directly through news reports). The first thought I had was, “Ok, so they want to kill A R Rahman.” (I was mistaken, explained later in the post)

Second one, “Naah, that’s not the first time (i.e. an incredulous fatwa being issued) and surely this cannot be taken seriously”

Shameful as it is for me to admit but I left it at that.

Next day, Rahman responded to the Fatwa (which as per the paper is unusual of him-and having seen him for so many years I kind of agree).

At this point however, my curiosity had spiked enough to propel me towards understanding the whole issue more comprehensively. This time I decided to take charge of my train of thoughts.

1) Core reason behind issuing the Fatwa: Reading up on the issue answered the question and as stated in the Indian Express article

In the fatwa, they cite as the reason the Prophet’s word that no visual or picture of him be created or kept. The fatwa claims the film makes a mockery of Islam, and professional actors, including some non-Muslims, have been cast in the key roles. The fatwa adds that the Muslims working on the film, especially Majidi and Rahman, have thus committed sacrilege and will have to read the kalma again and also solemnise their marriage again. Despite repeated attempts, Rahman remained unavailable for comment.

First Thought, “That sounded nice and ominous!”

Second Thought, “Why is it so wrong to depict Muhammad? Wrong enough to warrant death threats! Why??!!” First we had Charlie Hebdo and now this. (Those irked by my misrepresentation of term fatwa-as I mentioned earlier, please stick around till the end of the post)

2) About the depiction of Muhammad being forbidden in Islam: There is no explicit prohibition of the depiction of Muhammad, but there is a prohibition of visual representation of pictures of people or animals in general, including photographs/videos, and hence depicting the Prophet is tantamount to a violation of Islamic Law.

I wish it was that simple, but there are a lot of intricacies in this issue and the above statement is an oversimplification. To name a few

  • Shia Muslims have a different take on depiction of Muhammad (they don’t consider it to be un-Islamic)
  • There are a few paintings of Muhammad from medieval times under both Shia and Sunni patronage.
  • The prohibition encompasses any kind of visual representation, so strictly speaking anything on TV also classifies as forbidden content but watching TV is not prohibited as such.

We will delve into this aspect in detail in a later post. For the moment, we can safely say that it would be natural for any such work to draw criticism from a significant number of Muslims

3) Understanding ‘fatwa’: If you google the meaning of this, you will see that fatwa is basically an opinion. It has nothing to do with issuing a death sentence.

From a religious stand-point, a fatwa is the opinion taken from a scholar of Islam by a person seeking guidance on any issue/affair. To quote an example, a Muslim who is travelling on an international flight might not be able to observe the 5 daily obligatory prayers and might seek the opinion of a scholar, who can then opine that the traveler can observe the prayers to the best of his ability and offer additional prayers once he has reached his destination.

Again, this is a topic which merits discussion separately.

Once I realized this, I tried to search for the exact ruling of the fatwa against Rahman and found it:

In its fatwa, the Raza Academy says that both Majidi and Rahman must recite the kalimas, or professions of Muslim belief, and repeat their marriage ceremonies — in essence, reestablish themselves as Muslims.

As we can see, no death threats whatsoever. Fatwa is not supposed to be a feared instrument for pronouncing judgement, in fact it is means for opening a discussion on issues which might lie in grey areas. To quote The Islamic Supreme Council of America on fatwa:

Most importantly, a fatwā is not by definition a pronouncement of death or a declaration of war. A fatwā is an Islamic legal pronouncement, issued by an expert in religious law (mufti), pertaining to a specific issue, usually at the request of an individual or judge to resolve an issue where Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), is unclear. Typically, such uncertainty arises as Muslim society works to address new issues – issues that develop as technology and society advance. “Can a Muslim be involved in cloning?” for instance.

So fatwas can in fact help in the evolution of faith with changing times, reconcile differences and bring about harmony. That’s not what we have heard about it in the media.

4) The unfair negative perception around fatwa: In my opinion, both the term fatwa and as well as the tenet have been used inappropriately. The word itself has been used generously in mainstream media, especially in conjunction with particularly negative incidents.

Moreover, random religious figures issuing questionable (even unreasonable) fatwas has done a disservice to the principle of fatwa.

Again, we can study the above two arguments in depth.

In conclusion, what I am really trying to say is that:

  • We need to work harder on trying to find the middle ground in conflicts/disputes
  • We need to be even more wary of the ‘news’ we receive and look at issues in the most elementary form to have a proper context for the issue at hand
  • There are ways for ‘faith’ to change and evolve and be a point of similarity than a bone of contention, if we are willing to have it change and evolve
  • Some people, because of their deeds, deserve the benefit of the doubt even if you think they have done something wrong, and you should not go around issuing fatwas willy nilly (assuming you have the authority to do so)
  • At all costs, let’s avoid crap like this!



About Madhur Oza

Aspiring artist. MBA. Erstwhile corporate cavalry. Live to eat. Nerd. Suburban Mumbaikar (pseudo Mumbaikar technically). After having been conditioned by society, it's time to be conditioned by the soul...

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  1. Hey! staunch Muslims (tabligh) don’t have TVs in their homes.

    And like you surmised, let’s avoid crap like this. (Irony)

    • Thanks for taking the time to delve into the topic, a few questions:
      1) Are we handing out fatwas against people who cannot be categorised as ‘tabligh’?
      2) If the ‘irony’ is that the article is ‘crap’, please suggest how we can better structure a discussion on this issue with the intent of enhancing understanding on a relevant social issue.

  2. Read Arun shourie’s – the world of fatwas.
    I fail to understand why you would not do thorough research as to what kind of fatwas are issued and the gravity with which they are upheld.

  3. And Please do, Watch from 1:03:00 onwards


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