The Making of a Mufti

By Mawlana Saaleh Baseer | Darul Qasim College

Building upon the Advanced Program & Dawrah al-adīth, the Iftāʾ program is the culmination of Islamic study. That is, after a student studies Arabic, adīth, Tafsīr, logic, discursive theology, and Islamic law, how may they marry that theoretical knowledge into practical life for the ummah? Darul Qasim College understands the mufti as one of the most crucial members of Muslim society. The mufti is a public intellectual, socio-cultural critic, lawmaker, legal philosopher, and meta-ethicist, par excellence. The proper training of one mufti is the elevation of a whole culture. The holy Prophet ﷺ was the first mufti. As the Qurˈān teaches us: wa yastaftūnak. So, in the fashion of remaking our values in the vision of the holy Prophet ﷺ, Darul Qasim College seeks to gift legal sophistication to the mufti-trainee as first blossoming in Madinah and then migrating to Kufa, under the gaze of Imām al-Aʿẓam, Abū Ḥanīfa. From there, exploding to all the frontiers of the ummah: Samarqand, Herat, Tehran, Istanbul, Cairo, Konya, Sarajevo, Tashkent, Kashgar, Delhi, and Lahore. Under empires like the Abbasids, Mamluks, Timurids, Ottomans, Mughals, and Nizami Hyderabad.

The year is 1543, and ships have anchored in Istanbul. The cargo is primarily coffee beans from the newly conquered Ottoman province of Yemen. The istiftā[1] arrives at the desk of the Grand Mufti Mehmed Ebüssuûd Efendi. Culled from the various provinces of the Ottoman Empire, like Syria and Albania, the muftis now meet to decide on a ruling. They pose a variety of questions: What is the nature of coffee beans? Do they ferment like grapes and dates? What are the stimulating effects of coffee? Has any previous Hanafite Mufti, from Samarqand, Bukhara, Balkh, Ankara, Damascus, Baghdad, or Cairo, in their thousands of judgements, ruled on it?

As we have seen through more than a thousand years of fatāwā from the muftis of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Istanbul, the mufti must not only be a Master of Law, but a master of the moment. The closest parallel to a mufti in Western Civilization is the jurisconsult.[2] The mufti was this, but more. Mufti is rooted in the Arabic word futuwwah, or youthfulness. The mufti injects freshness into lawmaking, through posing questions that are rooted in the moment.

Cultivating Legal Sophistication

The Iftāʾ program is a two-year intensive with classes on the protocol of writing fatāwā, Islamic bioethics, Islamic finance, Islamic contracts, legal endowments (awqāf), civil marriage and divorce vis-a-vis Fiqh, and much more. In line with the postclassical training of muftis, students are under the direct supervision of Mufti Hisham Dawood, faculty head of the Islamic Law Department. The trainee studies the art of writing, editing, and researching fatāwā. Every fatwā is approved by either Mufti Hisham, or the two other muftis: Mufti Amin Kholwadia and Mufti Ehzaz Ajmeri. Many times, the approval of all three will be sought, as Darul Qasim College maintains that collaboration in fiqh is a paramount practice of the aḥābah. Our master, commander of the faithful, Sayyiduna ‘Umar (raḍiya’llāhu ‘an-hu) once received a legal petition, saying: “qadiyyah! wa la Abu al-Hassan (raḍiya’llāhu ‘an-hu) laha! (A legal ruling and there is no Sayyiduna Ali t to discuss with!)”

The trainee is required to cultivate a hawk’s eye view of the Hanafi doctrine and its attendant literature. One fatwā may require a student to explore Muḥammad al-Shaybānī’s Al, then Kāsāni’s Badāiʿ al-anāiʿ, followed by Mullā Niẓam al-Dīn’s Fatāwā-i Ālamgīri, then concluding with Ibn ʿĀbidīn and Mawlānā Ashraf ʿAlī Thānwī’s works– with perhaps some rasāil of Zāhid al-Kawtharī and Muftī Muḥammad al-Shafī.’ The Iftāʾ student is granted intimate exposure to all genres of Islamic law: ‘Alā al-Dīn’s Bukhāri’s Kashf al-Asrār, Ibn Māzah al-Bukhārī’s Al-Muḥīt al-Burhānī, Tatārkhān’s Fatāwā Tātarkhāniyyah, Muftī Kifāyatullāh’s Kifāyah al-Muftī, Marghīnānī’s Al-Nawāzil, Abu al-Barakāt al-Nasafī’s Madārik al-Tanzīl wa-ḥaqāʼiq al-Taʼwīl.

As a student pores through each text, he has the opportunity to dialogue with Mufti Hisham on the granularities of what he reads. What did the author intend? How does one passage fit or chafe with another text? Whose opinion will we give preference to? Can this ruling even be applied amidst the vagaries of today? What do Muftis of recent, like Mufti Rida al-Haqq and Mufti Taqi Usmani suggest? Under Mufti Hisham, one learns how to sift through and account for the diversity of thought in Hanafi schema.

The purpose of this perusal is not passive reading but to expand the legal imagination of the jurist. To impress upon them that writing fatāwā is not simply qira’ah[3] but a refined practice of thinking, dialogue, determining ratio legis,[4] and editing. How may one connect oneself to the legal reasoning of the master-jurists of the Hanafite doctrine? The practice of fatwā-writing is scarcely one of blind mimicry but of legal-sophistication, where the text, the pretext, and the context all meet in one ruling. The student will gaze through fourteen centuries of legal thought and through a civilization unmatched in legal brilliance and production.

More broadly, the Iftāʾ student at Darul Qasim College will be trained meta-ethically. How does one think about the practice and ripples of corporations and LLCs through fiqh? The trading of debt and equities? Organ transplants and donations? Porcine medication? Blood transfusions? The conceptual approach of the Hanafi jurist, in ethically addressing legal predicaments, is unraveled. The mufti must also provide solutions consistent with the ethical spirit of Islam.

Theoretical Underpinnings of Fatwā Writing

At Darul Qasim College, the student of Iftāʾ is required to research two hundred fatāwā. Submitting them to a senior mufti for approval, while discussing, debating, analyzing, deconstructing, and constructing from the legal reasoning of Hanafi jurists of the past. These questions will emerge from the bank of istiftās, ranging from questions on ritual law, divorce law, Islamic finance, Tafsīr, theology, theosophy. Questions range everything from Islam to VCs, to the limits of the authority of masjid and waqf trustees, to the lawfulness of colors for each gender in Islam. The student is trained in the genre of ʾUṣūl al-Iftāʾ,[5] reading texts from Ibn ‘Abidin and Mufti Taqi Usmani. Gifting to the student the sensibility that the fatwā is scarcely a cavalier act, but one anchored in methodology and genealogy.

The theory of writing fatāwā is further amplified in class sessions where one analyzes fatwā-writing from other muftis in the modern age using debate as an analytical tool. Questions are posed: What is his method in writing a fatwā? What theory is he employing? Does he neglect any legal canons, like al-wilāyah al-khāssah aqwā min al-wilāyah al-’āmmah? Does the mufti even understand the question?

Shah Waliullah and the Modern Mufti

Iftāʾ, or any graduate study at Darul Qasim College, is shatteringly bound up with Shah Waliullah and his family. The very first days at Darul Qasim College, as a madrasa graduate, are, in truth, your first days with Shah Waliullah and with Mufti Amin Kholwadia, under whom the entire mission of Darul Qasim College unfolds. What need does a modern mufti have for Shah Saheb? Why would a text, grizzled in metaphysics, theology, ontology, prophetology, and angelology, provide for an ummah besieged by Straussian post-structuralism, liberal constitutional law, and secular psychoanalysis? Isn’t a mufti’s role to address the blistering needs of his ra’iyyah?

The truth is that it has everything to do with the ummah. It is perhaps the last (and nearest to us temporally) attempt by a theologian to gaze at all of Islam, with a soul-shattering, piercing penchant for unraveling the hikmah ilāhiyyah[6] in the irādah and murad of Allah ﷻ. My goal is not to analyze Hujjatullah, as that would demand a dozen volumes. Rather, I aim to highlight the fissures erupting in the neglect of Shah Waliullah and his magnum opera (s. opus) for the modern mufti. Too often, madrasa graduates return, after six-seven years abroad, assaulted by the centuries-long aftermath of Heideggerian, Hegelian, Kantian social and political thought, manifested in popular and academic culture. They encounter the brute reality that reciting a hadith or a fiqh ruling of Imām al-Aʿẓam simply will not cut it. Shah Waliullah’s Hujjatullah, comprised of sweeping discussions on Alam al-Mithal, Hazirat al-Quds, Asrar-i Qadr and Rumuz-i Taqdir, Shakhs al-Akbar, Nasamah, Ananiyyah, Sirr al-Qalb, Mazahir Suriyyah wa Batiniyyah, and limitlessly more, culminates in his arguments on the Shariah as the divine expression of the iradah of Allah ﷻ. Elevating the reader to a position where he holds a hawk’s eye view of the shariah-where the varied rulings of Islamic law across the madhāhib, the development of hadith, and the metaphysical import of Quranic verses are, in truth, part of a single tapestry. 

Because Mufti Amin is one of the few living scholars who has a mastery of the Walīullāhī tradition and Hujjatullāh, his ability to slice open the meaning of Shah Waliullah’s cosmology is anything but cavalier. It is marked, systematic, and genealogical. The emphasis on the text is to shine a floodlight to the mufti-trainee that he is in utter need of a philosophy, a theory, on how to present Islam to the literati and intelligentsia of the West. It is a task which Muslim scholars have unflaggingly failed at. The modern mufti will only hope to watch YouTube reels of a self-touting Muslim intellectual to foreground his knowledge of and in modernity. Whereas Mawlana Qasim Nanotwi appeared in Shahjahanpur[7] before a crowd of Zoroastrians, Protestants, Hindus, Jains, and atheists, armed with Shah Waliullah. He countered colonial and indigenous accusations against Islam, deploying a wide array of arguments grounded in metaphysics and discursive theology. Mawlana Qasim, deploying Shah Waliullah and Hanafi legal theory, was able to prove, per the judgment of Sayyiduna Abu Bakr (raḍiya’llāhu ‘an-hu), that fadak could not be distributed to his heirs (peace be upon them). The modern mufti may only yet rehearse tertiary arguments, hardly convincing to his followers, let alone his opponent.

To read Shah Waliullah is to open oneself to the underpinnings of Fiqh, Hadith, Tafsir, Kalam, Falsafah, Ilahiyyat, ʾUṣūl al-adīth, ʾUṣūl al-Fiqh, and Mantiq. Any instruction in him will demand this of the teacher. It is only by reading through this text over the course of sixteen to twenty months that a student can even begin their journey with Shah Waliullah. For migration into the realm of Shah Waliullah, unpacking his highly creative terminology is the tallest order. Yet, through discussions and cross-pollinating his other works, the universe of Shah Waliullah begins to chip away. The unrivaled, sparkling, blazing joy of poring through Tafhimat; where he discloses what wisdom signals vis-á-vis the personhood of the holy Prophet ﷺ; where he lists out why kings have largely been Shafi’i or Hanafi and why theologians have largely been Hanafi, or al-Budur al-Bazigah;  where he labors to explain why Prophets surpass and transcend the role of Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato; where he psychoanalytically breaks down the various emotions of humans (anger, courage, sexual passion) and how they work within a Quranic cosmology; or his al-Khayr al-Kathir, where he offers a discussion on the part- physical and part-spiritual dimensions of the ‘arsh; or his ‘Iqd al-Jid, where he existentially discloses his understanding on the origins of legal differences in Islam, which then assists with Shah Ismail’s Dehlavi’s Abaqat and Shah Rafi al-Din’s various philosophical treatises.  All of this is perhaps too steep to put to paper. However, I will say that the roots of cracking open Shah Waliullah’s project, his authorship, and providing oneself with a philosophy of Islam, by which one may begin to write fatāwā, or provide futuwwah[8] to the practice of legal responsa in Islam, can only be accomplished by a MuftiMutakallim like Mufti Amin Kholwadia. His wide-ranging grasp allows for the many realms of Shah Waliullah to reveal itself. In a world as myriad and fragmented as ours, we have never been more in need of a thinker as devastatingly holistic as Shah Waliullah. 

The Iftāʾ Student & the Study of Hadith

The ether of a figure like Mawlana Bilal Ansari, who teaches Sahih al-Bukhari and ʾUṣūl al-Hadith, in the educational air at Darul Qasim College smooths the trammeled avenues towards study of Hadith. The Iftāʾ student is gifted with a whole other dimension by which to read and write fiqh. Although the specialization was pedaled towards Iftāʾ, encountering Mawlana Bilal’s towering scholarly presence in the ether of Darul Qasim College opens astonishing horizons. The journalistic and monographic debates between Zahid al-Kawthari and al-Mu’allimi; the various ‘Ilal treatises and Maqalat and Hawashi of Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah,[9] his student Muhammad ‘Awwamah, and his student, Nur al Din ‘Itr; the blistering and blinkered dialectic between Abu Zur’ah al-Razi, Ibn Abi Hatim al-Razi, and Imām al-Bukhari, rasail of al-Maqdisi and his canonization of the Sihah Sittah; the reformism(s) of Muhammad Hayat al-Sindhi; the shattering parley of Jarh works like that of Ibn al-Jawzi and Mulla Ali Qari and al-Dhahabi. What I found to be most somberly beautiful from Mawlana Bilal over these years are: the rhythms, arcs, counterpoints of Shah Waliullah’s mastery of ‘Ulūm al-adīth, and his world-defying labors that launched an empire-like rooting of hadith in the earthy soil of Hindustan.

Tracing the genealogy of Al-Hafiz Abu al-Hajj Jamal al-Din al-Mizzi’s Tahzib al-Kamal to Ibn Hajar’s Tahzib al-Tazhib and Taqrib al-Tahzib or al-Dhahabi’s Tadhkirah al-Huffaz with a Hadith-expert like Mawlana Bilal leaves a student speechlessly in wonder at the utter breadth of classical Muhaddithin in their marriage of encyclopedic knowledge and raw artistry. The cross-generational dialogue between Fath al-Bari and Fayd al-Bari is, then, not the end, but only a precursor to the study of ‘Ulūm al-Hadīth.

Gazing at All of Islam

At Darul Qasim College, the opportunity is not limited to Shah Waliullah. One is guided to read Mawlana Qasim Nanotwi, Ibn al-’Arabi, Shah Ismail al-Dehlawi, Mujaddid-i Ahmad Sirhindi, Qari Tayyab Qasmi, Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, Abu Mui’n al-Nasafi, Sadr al-Din al-Qunyawi– thinkers and theologians and philosophers abandoned wholesale by the ummah.[10] To guided study of these works is to gaze at all of Islam.  Such becomes the opportunity for the Iftāʾ student at Darul Qasim College, where one is seasoned in metaphysics and the intellectual landscape of tasawwuf and kalam. In an age of radical secularity, it is all the more important to unveil the most brilliant dimensions of the Islamic Intellectual Tradition.

Ijtihad, as Mufti Amin teaches, and Shah Waliullah and Mawlana Qasim before him, is to be able to gaze at each fragment of Islam and weave a seamless tapestry. This, in truth, can only be achieved when the student has acquired the disciplines of Islamic law and metaphysics. Both help in understanding the irādah of Allah ﷻ as without that law would be as good as non-existent!

July 20, 2023 | Mawlana Saaleh Baseer, Darul Qasim College

[1]petition for a legal judgment
[2] composed of iurista meaning jurist or legal authority and present participle consultare or consult meaning to take advice from.
[3] reading
[5] the theory behind writing fatāwā for the Hanafis
[6] Divine wisdom
[7] lit: “the town of Shah Jahan”
[8] youth
[9] like his comments on Tadrib al-Rawi and al-Raf’ wa al-Takmil or his al-Fawaid al-Mustamiddah
[10] we may think of Muhammad Abduh’s decision to ban the printing of Ibn Arabi in Egypt