A Sixteenth-Century Fatwa Collection: Islamic Law in “Periphery"

Nurfadzilah Yahaya's picture

Our blog post today highlights a discrete volume of fatwas (legal opinions) from the sixteenth century compiled in South Asia. Our blogger is Mahmood Kooria, a doctoral candidate at the Leiden University Institute for History. His dissertation focuses on the circulation of Islamic legal ideas and texts across the Indian Ocean and Eastern Mediterranean worlds. He read his M.A. and M.Phil. in History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.  He has co-edited a volume with Michael Pearson titled Malabar in the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism in a Maritime Historical Region (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). He can be reached at mahmoodpana@gmail.com.

A Sixteenth-Century Fatwa Collection: Islamic Law in “Periphery”

Fatwas are legal opinions by Muslim jurists, akin to responsa in Roman, canon and Judaic legal traditions. Fatwas are presented to the public in the form of decisions and rulings in response to questions addressed to them. Fatwa collections have been analysed as a vital source for social and cultural histories. In the existing literatures on Islamic legal history and on South or Southeast Asian Islamic traditions fatwa-collections from the “peripheries” of the Muslim world (South Asia and Southeast Asia) have been largely ignored, despite the fact that both regions currently accommodate the largest Muslim populations in the world. One such collection from premodern South Asia is the al-Ajwibat al-‘Ajībat ‘an al-as’ilat al-gharībat (henceforth Ajwibat), or Marvelous Answers to Uncommon Questions, compiled by Zayn al-Dīn Ahmad al-Malaybārī (d. 1583).

Most fatwa collections tend to establish individual jurists’ authority. Often, a jurist’s students would compile his responses. Ajwibat was different in that it is a collection by a student from Malabar (present-day Kerala, southwest India) who asked several questions to his teachers in Mecca, Cairo and Ḥaḍramawt (in Yemen) and compiled their answers into a monograph. The fatwas were requested from jurists belonging to the Shafi’i school of law which is dominant amongst Muslim populations on Indian Ocean rim from South Africa to the Philippines. The same question was posed to many different jurists simultaneously, and led to the production of diverse responses.

The formation of Muslim communities across the Indian Ocean rim is greatly indebted to the oceanic trade before the arrival of the Europeans. Muslim merchants disseminated Islamic ideas and values leading to the intensification of Muslim population in certain regions of Southeast Asia and East Africa, but remained marginal in the coastal belts due to the absence of a powerful Islamic political and social structure. This became a huge concern once the indigenous scholars began to be educated at the heartlands of Islam, especially at Mecca and Cairo, by the end of fifteenth century. After they returned home, they found that many “Islamic” norms and customs in their respective regions were in fact contradictory to the Islamic law they learnt at the Middle East. Since then, they tried to address legalistic nuances of their time and space, producing a substantial amount of Islamic legal texts. Ajwibat is one among those, and its compiler Zayn al-Dīn al-Malaybārī most probably studied in Mecca in the middle of the sixteenth century.

Many questions in Ajwibat are very interesting. The questioner is concerned with many legal complications he addressed at his homeland, Malabar, where Muslims were only a minority ruled by a Hindu kingdom, the Zamorins. Hence, his questions pertain to issues which were not found in the Middle-East-centric Islamic legal texts of his period. For example, he asked about the legitimacy of a Muslim judge appointed by a non-Muslim ruler like the Zamorins, the use of non-Arabic language similar to Malayalam in religious rituals, permissibility of intermixing with the non-Muslim communities and the practice of trading with the Hindu Gujarati merchants who frequented the Calicut port. All these questions should be read against the historical backdrop of Malabar in which the so-called “Lord of the Sea”, the Hindu Zamorins of Calicut accommodated a number of foreign communities including Muslims, Christians and Jews. This practice transformed Calicut into a cosmopolitan hospice for commercial and cultural itinerants of the Indian Ocean.

The text of Ajwibat and its concerns provide an excellent opportunity for scholars to explore the nuances of fiqh al-aqalliyāt or laws pertaining to the Muslim minorities - a crucial sub-discipline of Islamic law so much relevant today in the context of Muslim minorities throughout the world. Furthermore, Ajwibat also helps us understand how the “peripheral” Muslim communities historically sought ways to solve many religious and legal issues when they found themselves in the Middle-East-centric interpretations of their religion. Also, the text is a good source for social, economic and cultural history of Malabari people whose indigenous sources have been largely neglected or undervalued in the historiography.

Mahmood Kooria

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