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November 11, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 759

Controversy in India over Fatwa Against Celebrating Prophet Muhammad's Birthday

November 11, 2011 | By Tufail Ahmad
India | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 759


Darul Uloom Deoband seminary in northern India

India's Darul Uloom Deoband, the country's largest Islamic seminary, is caught up in a major controversy after issuing a fatwa (decree) against celebrating birthdays, including the birthday of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Established in 1866 in the town of Deoband in northern India, about 150 kilometers from New Delhi, the internationally renowned seminary, the second largest in the world after Cairo's Al-Azhar University, adheres to Saudi-backed Wahhabi Islam, opposing any practices that are seen as innovations in Islam.

According to an Indian media report, the seminary stated in the fatwa that "Islam does not permit such a practice, which is a tradition of Western countries."[1]

The fatwa came in response to a query by a student of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) who asked if it was Islamic to celebrate the birthday of AMU founder Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

Darul Uloom Deoband Vice Chancellor: "Muslims Should not Follow the Tradition of Western Culture of Celebrating Birthdays, As It is Against the Shariat Law"

On November 6, 2011, Maulana Kasim Naumani, the Vice Chancellor of Darul Uloom Deoband, said: "Muslims should not follow the tradition of Western culture of celebrating birthdays as it is against the Shariat law."[2] Nauman also noted that the Darul Uloom Deoband does not celebrate the birth anniversary of Prophet Muhammad. The prophet's birthday is marked across the Islamic world as Eid Milad al-Nabi every year.

Darul Uloom Deoband receives numerous queries from Muslims across the world to clarify various issues in Islam. It had ruled earlier also that celebrating the Prophet Muhammad's birthday is against Islam.

On May 29, 2011, a Muslim from Brunei sent the following question: "I am an employee in Brunei (an Islami nation). In Brunei the government observes the Rabiul Awwal 12th as a National Holiday and celebrates the birth of the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) grandly and conducts many grand functions (so-called Majlises) on the special day. I'm asking that Brunei being an Islamic nation, is doing all these things correct? Are there place for these type functions in our religion?"[3]

In a response to the question, the Darul Uloom Deoband issued a decree, "Fatwa: 889/653/L=1432" – noting: "Celebrating Eid Milad al-Nabi [the birthday of Prophet Muhammad]... on 12th of Rabi al-Awwal is not proved from Sahaba, Tabiyeen, Tabe Tabiyeen and Ayimah Mujtahidin...; hence it is unlawful and innovation to celebrate this day as festival..."[4]

Mumbai-Based Raza Academy: "We... Ask the Indian Government to Stop These Kinds of Fatwas Before They Result in Sectarian Clashes All Over the Country"

The November fatwa against celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad has been criticized widely by various sections of Indian Muslims – an overwhelming majority of whom follows the Barelvi School of Islamic thought and visit the immensely popular shrines of Sufis (Islamic mystics) to mark their birth and death anniversaries. Both the Deobandi and Barelvi schools adhere to Sunni Islam.

However, in contrast to the Deobandi School of Islamic thought, the Barelvi followers express an overwhelming, unconditional love for Islam's Prophet Muhammad, whose birthday is celebrated every year across most of the Islamic world by holding seminars, conferences, and public rallies.

Mohammed Saeed Noori of the Raza Academy, a religious organization at the forefront of the orthodox Islamic movement in Mumbai, wrote a letter to the editors of Indian newspapers, warning that the Darul Uloom Deoband's fatwa will lead to sectarian clashes among Indian Muslims.

His letter, written on behalf of the Raza Academy and published on its website, noted:[5]

"The recent fatwa by Deoband published in a section of media has created a stir and led to a new controversy between the Muslims at large and the Ahle Sunnat in particular. Though the basic ideological difference between the Ahle Sunnah (also known as Barelvis) and the Deoband is based upon the status and respect of the Holy Prophet but it has hardly been brought out in the open [in the past] by the Deoband for fear of backlash from their own community.

"For more than 100 years, the Ahle Sunnat have been challenging the Deobandis to prove their stand, but either they entirely ignore or otherwise claim innocence about these beliefs being practiced by their peers. Hence it was surprising and shocking for the Ahle Sunnat to read the Deoband fatwa in the newspapers today, which prohibits Muslims from celebrating the Prophet’s birthday.... and making merry or feasting on that day.

"It is a known fact that the Prophet's birthday has been celebrated since the era of the Holy Prophet and prohibiting such a grand day clearly shows the evil intentions of the school of thought they follow. In fact, according to the Ahle Sunnat a person ceases to be a Muslim if he shows disrespect even for a second, or an ounce, for the Holy Prophet of Islam.

"Hence, we condemn this fatwa from Deoband and ask the Indian government to stop these kinds of fatwas before they result in sectarian clashes all over the country, as any Muslim will accept anything in his stride but the mere thought of insult to the Holy Prophet cannot be tolerable and acceptable even if it's done by a so-called Muslim or so-called Muslim organization.

"We warn the Darul Uloom Deoband of serious consequences if it tries to influence its belief on Muslims with political support and state that no one except Deoband would be responsible for any and every reaction on this fatwa."

All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board Rejects the Fatwa: "Israel and Saudi Arabia are the Only Countries in the Middle East Who Do not Recognize Mawlid an-Nabi (the Prophet's Birthday)"

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the Darul Uloom Deoband fatwa came from the All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), which represents thousands of Barelvi clerics and Sufis (mystics) from across India and is backed by 78 Sufi dargahs (monasteries and shrines). The dargahs are immensely popular and are visited by millions of Muslims and non-Muslims alike every year.

According to a media report, AIUMB General Secretary Maulana Syed Ashraf Kichhouchhvi rejected the fatwa, arguing that most Islamic nations celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.[6]

Kichhouchhvi said: "The birth of the Prophet is the greatest favor of Allah on humanity. So, Muslims celebrate the Prophet's birth anniversary with traditional zeal on the 12th of [the Islamic month of] Rabi-ul-Awwal... Some 'mischievous elements devoid of spiritualism' are trying to impose a foreign ideology on Indian Muslims."[7]

The cleric also took the opportunity to throw in a remark about Israel, stating: "Israel and Saudi Arabia are the only countries in the Middle East who do not recognize Mawlid an-Nabi (the Prophet's birthday) as a national holiday."[8]

According to another media report, Maulana Syed Ashraf Kichhouchhvi added: "The fatwa is proof that Deoband would like to impose the foreign ideology of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism on India..."[9]

Islamic Scholar Ateeque Ansari: "[Celebrating Birthdays is] Definitely Not Anti-Islamic – But It Is Clear from the Life and Times of the Prophet That He Himself Never Participated in Any Birthday Celebrations"

Ateeque Ansari, an Islamic scholar and coordinator of the Committee of Arabic Madrassas in the northern Indian town of Varanasi, argued that the issue of celebrating birthdays is not an Islamic issue.

According to a report, Ansari said that Islam is emphatic in differentiating between farz (duty) and haram (forbidden), adding that a Muslim has to essentially observe a farz at all times but avoid anything that is haram, or forbidden in Islam.[10]

Ansari argued that the issue of celebrating a birthday is neither farz nor haram and has to do more with culture than religion, adding: "It is definitely not anti-Islamic but it is clear from the life and times of the Prophet that he himself never participated in any birthday celebrations."[11]

Arshad Alam, a professor at the Delhi-based Jamia Millia Islamia University, also questioned the Darul Uloom Deoband's monopoly on issues concerning Islam. He stated: "What gives the Darul Uloom Deoband monopoly to define Islam? Various sects, including Barelvis and Ahl-e-Hadees, contest the Deobandi position on Islam."[12]

On Darul Uloom Deoband Fatwas, Social Activist Javed Anand Says Seminary In "Gender Jihad" Against Women

Over the past few years, the Darul Uloom Deoband has attracted national and international attention for regularly issuing a series of fatwas that curb the rights of Muslim women in India and enforce an orthodox version of Islamic teachings.[13]

In February 2011, the renowned seminary issued a fatwa declaring that Muslim women cannot preach religion in the country's interior areas as per Islamic tenets. According to a report in the Urdu-language daily Roznama Munsif, the Dar-ul-Ifta, the department of Darul Uloom that issues edicts, said that only Muslim men can preach Islam in interior areas, and added: "It is the duty of men to deliver sermons in such areas under Islamic laws, but the same cannot be said about women."[14]

In April 2010, the seminary issued a fatwa banning Muslim women from modeling and acting in movies. The fatwa was issued jointly by prominent clerics Mufti Habibur Rahman, Mufti Mahmood Hasan, Mufti Fakhrul Islam, Mufti Zainul Islam and Mufti Waqar Ali, all from Darul Uloom Deoband, who were of the opinion that exhibiting and exposing a woman’s body and women making gestures and wearing revealing dress before the masses is against the very basic tenets of Islamic Shari'a and therefore haram.[15]

In August 2010, the Darul Uloom Deoband issued a fatwa that declared that women cannot become a qazi (Islamic judge) of a voluntarily established tribunal, which are set up in rural areas to resolve small disputes. Shaista Amber, an Islamic feminist and President of the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board, slammed the seminary for the fatwa, stating: "The harassed women can easily relate to a female qazi and can narrate their tale of distress more conveniently. It is difficult and at times indecent for a woman to discuss everything in detail with a male Muslim qazi."[16]

In another such anti-women fatwa, the Darul Uloom Deoband declared that talking to one's fiancé on the phone for no reason is haram (prohibited in Islam), stating: "Talking to one's fiancé on the phone even after the engagement without any reason is prohibited in Islam... Islam does not allow this."[17]

In November 2010, the seminary ruled in a fatwa that the word talaq uttered thrice by a Muslim man to his wife on a mobile phone will be considered valid divorce, adding that the unilateral talaq (divorce) will be valid even if the wife is unable to hear it all three times due to the network and other problems.[18] "It is not necessary that talaq take place when the wife hears it or when witnesses are present," the ruling said.[19]

The above examples are just a few intended to show the anti-women nature of edicts issued by the Darul Uloom Deoband. Renowned social activist Javed Anand, co-editor of the magazine Communalism Combat, last year accused the Darul Uloom Deoband of launching what he called "gender jihad" against women.[20]

* Tufail Ahmad is Director of MEMRI's South Asia Studies Project (www.memri.org/sasp)

Endnotes:

[1] www.zeenews.com (India), November 6, 2011.

[2] www.zeenews.com (India), November 6, 2011.

[3] www.darulifta-deoband.org (India), May 29, 2011.

[4] www.darulifta-deoband.org (India), May 29, 2011.

[6] www.timesofindia.com (India), November 10, 2011.

[7] www.timesofindia.com (India), November 10, 2011.

[8] www.timesofindia.com (India), November 10, 2011.

[9] www.thehindu.com (India), November 10, 2011.

[10] www.thehindu.com (India), November 10, 2011.

[11] www.thehindu.com (India), November 10, 2011.

[12] www.timesofindia.com (India), November 10, 2011.

[13] See, Orthodox Fatwas Issued by Darul Uloom Deoband Seminary of India – Blog Posts from MEMRI's South Asia Studies Project, MEMRI Special Dispatches Series No. 3900, June 9, 2011 (Orthodox Fatwas Issued by Darul Uloom Deoband Seminary of India – Blog Posts from MEMRI's South Asia Studies Project)

[14] Roznama Munsif (India), February 16, 2011.

[15] Dainik Hindustan (India), April 7, 2010.

[16] Roznama Siasat (India), August 9, 2010.

[17] www.bhaskar.com (India), August 5, 2010.

[18] The Times of India (India), November 16, 2010.

[19] The Times of India (India), November 16, 2010.

[20] Roznama Sahafat (India), May 28, 2010.

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