Tahir ul-Qadri and the difficulty of reporting on fatwas

March 2, 2010
ul-qadri

Muhammed Tahir ul-Qadri at a youth camp in Coventry, central England, August 9, 2009/Kieran Doherty

It never was and may never be easy to report about fatwas for a world audience. This point was driven home once again today when a prominent Islamic scholar presented to the media his new 600-page fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing. Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri is a Pakistani-born Sufi scholar whose youth workshops fostering moderation and understanding in Britain had already caught our attention. His effort to knock down any and every argument in favour of violence is certainly welcome. But the back story to this event is so complicated that it’s hard to report on the fatwa without simply ignoring many important parts of this back story.

Part of the problem was the PR drumroll leading up to ul-Qadri’s news conference.  Minhaj-ul-Quran, his international network to spread his Sufi teachings, touted this fatwa in an email to journalists a week ago as a unique event “because at no time in history has such an extensively researched and evidenced work been presented by such a prominent Islamic authority.” Hype like this usually prompts journalists to throw an invitation straight into the trash can.

man reads koran

A Yemeni man reads the Koran at the Grand Mosque in Sanaa, January 7, 2010/Ahmed Jadallah

Two days later, on February 25, the pitch was changed to present this document as “the first ever fatwa against terrorism which declares terrorists as disbelievers.” Now, that’s more likely to grab a busy journalist’s attention. But once it has accomplished that, any hack with any experience covering Islam finds two big problems with this description.

First, it plays on a widely-held (and sometimes willful) misperception that Muslim leaders have not spoken out against Islamist violence. Large numbers of Muslim leaders have denounced violence, suicide bombs, 9/11, 7/7 and many other bloody attacks by Islamist radicals (check out a long partial list here). But since there is no real hierarchy in Islam, non-Muslims don’t know who has the authority to speak out and Muslims often challenge the authority of those who do. Many of these statements end up unreported, like the trees nobody hears falling in the forest. But if a news story is written with the “first ever” tag in the lead, it gives the false impression that no other Muslim leader has ever done anything similiar before.

Second, the clause “which declares terrorists as disbelievers” is difficult terrain. It’s hard for a journalist to verify that this is the first such fatwa as no central directory of such edicts worldwide exists. Moreover, who has the authority in Islam to declare someone a non-Muslim? Al-Qaeda has been criticised for declaring its enemies non-Muslims (an act known as takfir) and either killing them or urging other Muslims to kill them.

In fact, an important group of mainstream Muslim scholars got together in 2004 to issue the Amman Message that denounces the use of takfir. On the website of the Amman Message is a list of scholars endorsing it. Among those listed under Pakistan is none other than al-Qadri…

amman messageAnother problem is that ul-Qadri issued an earlier, 150-page Urdu version of his fatwa last December and got a tepid reception — Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik welcomed it as “a positive development” and Pakistani media – see The News here — seem to have given it only short routine coverage. Maybe they’re suffering from a fatwa overload there.

Assessing the fatwa’s significance is also difficult when even Muslim views of it are quite divided. Check out these posts in the blogosphere — Qadri’s fatwa breaks no new ground (with lots about what his critics think of him) … Shaikh Dr Tahir ul-Qadri – Anti-Terrorism Fatwa Without TeethFatwas can be a force for good … plus this Guardian comment Fatwa wars are not the solution.

By this morning, the emails promoting the news conference took another angle:  “The launch of the fatwa is being regarded by many circles as a significant and historic step, the first time that such an explicit and unequivocal decree against the perpetrators of terror has been broadcast so widely.” The spin detectors go out when journalists read “being regarded by many circles” (and how many squares or triangles, one might ask). “Historic” is totally overused. But this statement at least makes sense by the end, because it talks about the first time such a fatwa “has been broadcast so widely.”

Michael Holden, a correspondent in our London bureau, dealt with all this by interviewing ul-Qadri a day in advance (click here for the story) to focus on him and his fatwa rather than the hype around it. He added useful background comments from Tim Winter, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Cambridge University, who called the fatwa “a helpful initiative” and added: “To declare the miscreants as unbelievers is unusual, because it is not really clear that the rules allow one simply to say that they are not Muslims… Those who are already hardliners will pay no attention at all. But ‘swing voters’ — poorly educated and angry Muslims, who respect mainstream scholars, will probably take note.”

This fatwa shouldn’t become another unheard tree falling in the forest, but screening out all the surrounding noise about it is not easy.  What do you think about ul-Qadri’s fatwa and how the media covered it?

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13 comments

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[...] "It (the fatwa) plays on a widely-held (and sometimes willful) misperception that Muslim leaders have not spoken out against Islamist violence. Large numbers of Muslim leaders have denounced violence, suicide bombs, 9/11, 7/7 and many other bloody attacks by Islamist radicals (check out a long partial list here)." (Reuters) [...]

Hi

i think you must think positive, This is because of your Negative thinking against muslims that you are thinking wrong about a great effort , Dr. Qadri representing the billions of people those are against terrorism, you have gaven a ref. of a Aamman confrence so just you tell me if some body start killing people on the name of religon so what your think they keep quite because they have sign Peace agrement, to stop them Dr. Qadri must need to show that on the name of religon what a terrorist is doing is not according to islam , i don’t know why you are not getting positive points from this

also want to say that he had not said any time that he is the only person of muslims scholar who is against terrorists but the different is …. he is giving the reference of Quran ,Sunnah ,Ahadees and other Islamic authorities’ view, so please read the whole fatwa 1st and then give your views again, don’t think that on 600 pages he just write this is a fatwa … this is a fatwa … this is a fatwa…. :) but just read and then make your view, hopw you will understand what i want to say Bye Bye

Posted by Nadim512 | Report as abusive

[...] justification for religious violence and calling terrorists “disbelievers.” Reuters has an interesting reporter’s notebook piece on the fatwa [...]

Man that sounds pretty cynical. Take at face value the fatwas calling for death and destruction but criticize the email of a fatwa in opposition to extremism? Sounds kind of like beating up on the wrong target.

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive

“This fatwa shouldn’t become another unheard tree falling in the forest, but screening out all the surrounding noise about it is not easy. What do you think about ul-Qadri’s fatwa and how the media covered it?”

There seem to be two ways of evaluating a piece of journalism when it comes to covering these sorts of issues.

1) The micro-level. Are the details of the story accurate? Is the information presented fact or hype? These qualities are assessed independently of the perceived knowledge level of the reading public; they are intrinsic to the contents of the story itself.

2) The macro-level. Does the story bring the audience closer to understanding broader realities? Here, the journalist would consciously try to bridge the gap between public perception and reality, possibly through selecting what kind of stories to publish in the first place, by adding analysis, or by producing a meta-story / compilation of stories that show the broader picture.

Reuters seems to focus much more intensely on (1), with high professional standards for getting the details right but perhaps with some hesitation about providing broader analysis. Perhaps that’s just the nature of its business.

The result, as you yourself acknowledge, is that people are generally unaware of how widespread Muslim condemnation of terrorism actually is, with many people still believing that a single prominent Muslim voice hasn’t been raised against it, or that only a few inconsequential voices have. See for example reactions at the CBC to this story: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/03/02  /uk-fatwa-terrorism.html#socialcomments

My comments:
1) Reuters’ (and others) reportage on the details of the story seem fine, with one exception — ul-Qadri should have been identified first and foremost as a Sunni scholar rather than as simply a “Sufi”. (a) Many people are still under the erroneous impression that Sufism is a small sect separate from the Sunni and the Shi’a, but this is not at all the case; in most cases, Sufis are simultaneously strict Sunnis. (b) More specifically, ul-Qadri’s is much more prominent in his role as a Muslim civil society figure or as theologian (a ‘Sunni scholar of the Hanafi school’) than as a sufi aspirant (dervish) in the Qadiria sufi spiritual order to which he has pledged allegiance.

2) Even though ul-Qadri is perhaps not as influential as his supporters claim he is, this story helps correct a major imbalance that has left much of the public with the impression that anti-terrorism fatwas are rare or non-existant. The simple headline “Muslim Scholar condemns Terrorism” was enough to launch the story into the BBC’s top ten; this would not have been the case if this seemed like a routine occurrence to the readership. So, these fatwas should be reported on more often, but tempered with the necessary caveats explaining which groups of Muslims are and are not likely to heed the fatwa. (i.e., with the sort of contextual information provided by Tim Winter.)

One asset that would be very helpful would be an organized list of fatwas condemning terrorism (including short biographies of the scholars indicating their weightiness/scope of influence) that reporters could reference each time they report on a fatwa or a terrorist attack. This would help readers understand that there are many such fatwas out there & the general state of Muslim scholarship on the issue, plus perhaps provide a way of gauging their relative importance. The question is who should provide such a resource. Ideally it would be an academic institution or the news agencies themselves, for objectivity’s sake.

Such lists already exist in rudimentary form. Prof. Kurzman at UNC compiled http://www.unc.edu/~kurzman/terror.htm, Prof. Godlas wrote up a rough guide at http://www.uga.edu/islam/jihad.html and the first hit for “Muslims condemn terrorism” is this helpful page — http://www.muhajabah.com/otherscondemn.p hp — which you did reference in this story. The best organized such page is probably http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/fea tures/articles/muslim_voices_against_ext remism_and_terrorism_2 . Surprisingly, there’s nothing useful on Wikipedia. Hopefully academics and journalists can fill this gap.

Posted by Jalaluddin | Report as abusive

[...] hope my new hero Dr. Qadri has taken security precautions.  There’s some debate over whether his fatwa is as “historic” as he claims, as well as how much influential [...]

Jalaluddin, it’s probably not surprising that you give us higher marks for getting the details right than delving into the broader analysis. Getting the details right is the basis of our reporting, so if we can’t do that, we shouldn’t go further and analyse. That said, we will probably always disappoint some readers by not going deeper into the analylsis, but there are levels deeper than which the analysis is no longer journalism but academic specialisation. We try to explain as best we can, but we’re very aware of the limitations of the medium.

Our main concern with this story was to present the fatwa but avoid the hype, which almost made ul-Qadri sound like the most influential Muslim scholar around and the first to come out with such a statement.

On the Sufi angle, this is another one where brevity trumped background. Since most Sufis are Sunni but not all Sunnis are Sufis, we opted for just Sufi.

Thanks for the lists of fatwas and reactions. It’s interesting to see there are several out there, but disappointing to see how badly they’re presented. I second your plea for someone to put a decent list out on Wikipedia to make it available to a wider audience.

“there are levels deeper than which the analysis is no longer journalism but academic specialisation.”

I fully agree. However, I think journalists should ask themselves if their audiences have absorbed an accurate picture of reality through these ‘micro-reports’, and if not, adjust accordingly, at least in selecting which stories to report on. For example, an amazing number of educated people still seem to be totally unaware that many major Muslims leaders have loudly condemned terrorism. That’s clearly due to a lack of prominent reportage, so this should factor in when deciding whether to report on a fatwas that may not seem so prominent.

” ul-Qadri sound like the most influential Muslim scholar around and the first to come out with such a statement.”
Yes, Reuters got the balance right in this case. His supporters do tend to use off-putting, overblown language, yet he’s not an inconsequential fellow.

“On the Sufi angle, this is another one where brevity trumped background. Since most Sufis are Sunni but not all Sunnis are Sufis, we opted for just Sufi.”

This is problematic because:
(a) the ‘Who’ question is key in this sort of story; precision is necessary to gauge its importance and not enough has been provided. People must know which area of Islamdom his words carry weight in and this is determined by the prevalence of his school of thought, his reputation within it, and the geographical dispersion of the people who take him seriously.

(b) this confuses schools of jurisprudence with spiritual/psychological practice, two very different things.
When someone issues a fatwa, the school of law (‘Hanafi’ in this case) is what’s important. There are 8 schools identified in the Amman Message; these are the categories that all fatwas should be identified with as a matter of journalistic due diligence.

For a Muslim audience, I would have described him simply as a “Hanafi scholar” or, for a South Asian audeince, as a “Barelwi”. (All of the traditional schools are linked with sufi practice, so there’d be no need to mention it.) For a predominantly non-Muslim audience, I would have described him primarily as a “Sunni (Hanafi) scholar” and made mention of his sufi-friendliness in passing somewhere in the article.

“someone to put a decent list out on Wikipedia to make it available to a wider audience”
Personally, I’m surprised that it hasn’t been done yet, given how central it is to the questions that everyone asks about Islam and terrorism. Who do you think is the right ‘someone’? Muslim structures thus far seem too decentralized / uncoordinated to produce such a resource, though the efforts associated with Prince Ghazi are promising if not-quite-there yet. (Even if a Muslim think-tank did get its act together, there’s a risk that the list might not be seen as an objective compilation.) The academic efforts thus far are underwhelming. And I don’t think amateurs can produce such a list, not without the journalists providing the basic information as just described: reporting more widely on fatwas and providing specifics on the actors and their backgrounds. Given that it’s mainly a matter of compilation rather than analysis, I think it’s not necessarily outside the purview of journalism.

Posted by Jalaluddin | Report as abusive

A big hype maker!
Changes colours between Sufism, scholarship, politics and what not. Lives a lavish life. Not a religious scholar from a seminary, hence not fit to issue fatwa. Calls himself Shikhul Islam! I dont know who gave him that title. Is he on par with Shikhul Islam Ibn-Tamiyah! Urdu poet Said about his likes:
Hawas Balaaye Minber hai tujhei rangeen bayaani ki
Haqeeata bhi teri soorat hai ik afsaanah khuani ki
(you are so desperate to make a colourful sermon on the pulpit;
even your advice sound like telling a romantic story)

May Allah bless you with modesty and sincerity.

Posted by AbuOmar | Report as abusive

Hi, the evry one , the genleman from Isalmic world has removed the dust from the face of Islam which unfortunately has been thrown at by our ignorant and extremist companions , HE VERY CLEARLY ELOBORATED AND PLEADED THAT ISLAM HAS NO TERRITORY WITH VIOLENCE AN TERRORISM, from historic islamic sources of knowlege , which r no doubt the authentic one QURAN SUNNAH THE PROPHET S COMPANIONS,HE CITED VERY SIGNIFICANT TRADITIONS THAT ALQAIDA , AN ATHREER ,SUCH LIKE ORGANISATIONS ARE MENTIONED IN THE HOLY PROPHETS TRADITIONS THESE ARE OUT OF ISLAM , THEY ARE NONBELIVERS , FOR THE FIRST TIME HE INITIATED THAT THEY ARE “TERRORISTS ” ARE SIMPLY NON /DISBELIVERS WITH OUT ANY “IF” OR BUT ” CAUSE SUCH WORDS R USED SM TIMES TO JUSTIFY THEIR ACTS OF MASSACERS WONDER FUL I WOULD LIKE THAT THE UMMAH SHOULD COME FORWARD BE IT THE ARAB WORLD OR THE WESTERN WORLD TO BACK HIM UP , REALLY THE MAN HAS THE CAPCITY TO REFORM THE OPINION, AN WISH THAT MEDIA SHOULD ALSO GIVE WARM COVERAGE

Posted by imranmakhdum | Report as abusive

“mootu beghaizkum” alQURAN i am replying the guy who quoted urdu verse, It (verse) means “oh (jealous ones)die out in ur jealousy and agony, THESE WERE THE PEOPLE OF ANRCHY LOVING NATURE , who could not the message of love and tolrence even in the times of the HOLY PROPHET S.A.W., So they used to cut their fingers when ever they came out of the COURT OF THE PROPHET S.A.W , The brother himself quoted”Changes colours between Sufism, scholarship, politics and what not” Really it was a 100%appriciation about the sheikh ul ISLAM , REALLY HE (DR. QADRI)IS A CLASSIC IN HIS APPROACH , AN THE COMPLETE EMBODIMENT OF SUNNAH , i hope voices like ur s no longer ll be heard by the youth of the era , cause now enough is enough

Posted by imranmakhdum | Report as abusive

Wasn’t it to please Americans and their puppets.
Never in history has anyone boasted of the number of pages of a ‘Fatwa’. 600 hundred pages. Good for Guinness Book of World Records. Seems he wants ‘million $’ award from Uncle Sam.

“The embodiment of Sunnah” is yet another self donned title of the Sheikul Islam. What next? “embodiment of Quran”?! Saint?! “embodiment of Light”?!

Seems he had no idea of the pain and suffering of the victims in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, N.W. Pakistan, Kashmir.

Abdullah from Kashmir

Posted by AbuOmar | Report as abusive

AbuOmar:

Do you think he had idea of the pain and suffering of the victims in New York City, the Philippines, Nigeria and other places throughout the world where militant Muslims have embraced fear and violence as a means to spread their convictions? In Palenstine and Pakistan the suffering are just as often the victims of Muslims as anyone else. In Afghanistan…who attacked who?
Do some research. In the history of the world’s wars, “religious wars” area a vast minority. However, take a guess which religion has instigated over 75% of those wars…and the pain and suffering of their victims?

I applaud the fatwa for at least defending the honor of the vast number of muslims in the world who agree with it. The radicals have misrepresented them way too long. Maybe this will be the start of “retaking” Islam from the extremist.

Posted by DRHolman | Report as abusive

Thx God someone spoke and defended Islam proving it has no relation with terosim.Some mentally sick poeple are ignoring what is stated just bkz WHO said it.
I wonder how can one kill several ppl in hospitalz n markets thinking that he iz going to do sumthng for palistine or Kashmir????????No doubt Qadri has snatched Islam from handz of so called muslim mujahidz like Osama bin Laden nd Mula omer etc.

Posted by Sadii | Report as abusive

great work by Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri. we proud of Al-Qadri.

Posted by AqeelRana | Report as abusive