Part I | Part II
When Can A Mufti Refuse to Answer a Question?
1. The Situation Being Asked About Does Not Exist.
Often times, the questioner (mustafti), will approach the scholar and ask him a question involving a scenario which has not yet happened. Sometimes the question may make assumptions which can result in changes to the situation that would affect the legal outcome in ways that are as of yet unforeseen. Other times, it can simply be a ridiculous question not worthy of the time and effort of the legal scholar due to its non-reality, or low likelihood of becoming a reality.
Examples of such questions are:
“If we find out that there are aliens on other planets, do we need to give them da’wah to Islam?”
“If there was water on Mars, but the color of the water was slightly tainted, but I didn’t know what it was, and if we had drinking water but had to conserve it, should I make tayyammum or use the Mars water after a water filter?”
And so on.
Though we find that the Hanafi ‘ulama who, in contrast to the Maliki scholars, did not shy away from answering theoretical questions in order to ensure that future situations could be dealt with in case they arose, this is still a valid reason why a Mufti could simply refuse to answer a question.
Theoretical questions can often arise from the inquisitive mind which seeks to understand the deen and provide solutions for people, but can also arise when a person has become so involved in academia and issues of knowledge, that the focus on action, practicality, and implementation of knowledge has taken a backseat.
As questioners, we should be wary not to burden a scholar with a question which has no bearing on practical reality, and might be a waste of time and energy. Furthermore, it is always a good check for ourselves to identify what kinds of questions we intend to ask our teachers. Are they questions that are simply “intellectual gymnastics”? Are they questions to which we already know the answers? Knowing the nature of our own questions will help us stay away from frivolous intellectual pursuits, and from asking unproductive questions to the scholars.
2. The Questioner Seeks to Follow His Desires or Cause Confusion (Amongst the People)
In situations in which the scholar feels that the questioner is “Fatwa Shopping,” or that he/she is asking questions in order to bring about debate or argumentation of sensitive issues within the community, the scholar can also refuse to answer or respond to a question.
What is “fatwa shopping”? Well, Islamic Law is primarily studied around the four established schools (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali). Students of knowledge who have studied under teachers who are experts in the process of extracting Law from the Texts can in certain circumstances, venture between the schools for particular acts based on their understanding of the fundamentals and methods of Islamic Law and the source texts.
The advice often given to the layman and novice students is to stick to a trustworthy source of knowledge when seeking advice or legal opinions. Often times however, due to the availability of various opinions, instead of aiming to seek the most reliable opinion, a person may try to ask every scholar available, waiting until he/she finds the most lenient scholar who might give the easiest possible answer.
The aim of the person is not to find the opinion that is the most reliable or the most in line with what the Prophet (ﷺ) might have responded. The aim becomes to play battleship with the issue, until he/she hears a yes. Although Islamic Law aims to bring about ease for people in general, as stated by Ibn al-Qayyim, the intention here is to seek permissibility, not to seek the truth. If the scholar recognizes such a situation or has reason to believe that such intention exists, he may decide to refuse to answer a question.
A second related reason is when a person may ask a question in a gathering aiming to bring about a controversial answer that in a particular gathering, which may lead to debate or argumentation. For example, knowing that there is a diverse crowd from different theological schools within Ahl as-Sunnah or from different orientations in a group, a person may ask specific pointed questions aiming to bring about debate, about `aqeedah, minutiae of fiqh which may confuse the audience, or other subjects. Especially when the topic of the lecture, gathering, or class may be about something entirely unrelated, such a question may be put aside for personal discussion in order to prevent harm or inappropriate debate in a public forum.
3. It Will Lead to Greater Harm
If anwsering a question may lead to greater harm, the Mufti may refuse to answer the question or give a fatwa. Situations may exist that are related to politics (war, defense, political participation), family issues (divorce, abortion, rape), or financial matters, in which, if the Mufti were to answer with a public fatwa that is meant for the consumption of a large group of people or community, it may lead to conflict, family separation, or extreme financial hardship for the one affected.
This scenario is different from Reasons 1 and 2 in that Islamic Law inherently possesses a mechanism to try and bring about ease and a practical resolution of difficult political, family, and financial matters. However, it may be that a Mufti’s personal legal opinion may lean towards a stricter opinion that would bring about extreme hardship or even a person’s leaving Islam. In this case, he may refuse to answer the question and pass it on to another scholar who may be able to provide a solution to such a situation.
Part III (next time): What are the Requirements for the One Asking the Question?