Will anyone heed an Indian fatwa against photography?

A renowned Indian Deobandi seminary issued an Islamic ruling last week declaring photography 'sinful.' But the derisive reaction of many Indian Muslim point to waning influence.

One of Asia’s most influential Islamic seminaries has triggered a furor among Muslims in India with a religious ruling that calls photography forbidden and sinful.

While odd fatwas are hardly anything new, the furious pushback by many Indian Muslims underscores changing attitudes toward the faith in the country. The Indian Darul Uloom Deoband seminary may have issued a fatwa, or official edict, against photography, but it isn't likely that many Indian Muslims will pay it much heed.

Many Muslims here have disagreed with the seminary’s decision, calling the clerics out of touch with the modern world and labeling the fatwa “irresponsible.” Maidul Islam, a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, called the fatwa "ridiculous" and said that average Indian Muslims consider the pronouncement irrelevant to them.

“Most Muslims do not care about such fatwas... Muslims have wholeheartedly accepted modern science and technology, including photography and video in their everyday lives. Yes, we don't see Muslims holding public protests against such ridiculous fatwas, but that does not necessarily mean that they endorse such diktats,” said Mr. Islam, who is writing a book titled "Indian Muslims in a Globalized World." “While such conservative views of (Muslim scholars) are routinely reported by the press, the silent majority among the Muslim community stays away from such debates on the so called Islamic conduct.”

As with Christianity, there are many different interpretations of Islam, and the rules associated with Islam. Different Islamic seminaries often hold different interpretations of what is and isn’t acceptable in Islam. The significance of this decision lies in the fact that Darul Uloom is influential among the 520 million Muslims across south Asia - not with all of them, of course, and increasingly not with most of them.

But the Sunni Deobandi school, named after the northern Indian city where Darul Uloom was founded in the middle of the 19th century, is a leading advocate for a rigid interpretation of the faith that has frequently put it at odds with reformers and, in many eyes, modernity itself. The school is highly intolerant of other faiths, and of Muslims like Shiites that do not share its views.

Though founded as a Muslim revivalist movement and as a reaction against British colonialism, the school remains regionally influential, particularly in Pakistan, to this day.

Many Muslims in the region often send questions to the seminary on various issues involving personal or social life, and those asking usually follow whatever the respected clerics from the seminary advise. Some more conservative adherents have been known to go so far as to act as vigilante police to ensure fellow Muslims follow such edicts. 

No pictures

A Muslim engineering graduate recently asked the scholars at Darul Uloom if he could pursue his passion for photography. In response, the clerics issued a fatwa that Muslims are not allowed to photograph themselves unless it’s for an identity card or passport. “Photography is unlawful and sin in Islam. Hadith [recorded Islamic tradition] warns sternly against it. Do not follow this course,” the fatwa said.

Vice chancellor of Darul Uloom Deoband Mufti Abdul Qasim Nomani told news agencies that Islam did not permit photography or videography of any event and save them for future because it makes the human form into a graven image, which is frowned upon in the Koran. On being reminded that both are allowed in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the vice chancellor said that he did not believe that the authorities in Saudi Arabia were right. “If they are allowing photography there, they will be answerable on the Day of Judgment in the court of God," he said.

At various times in Islam, the warning against idolatry in the Koran (chapter 21 contains verses saying Abraham carried a message from God against the worship of idols) has been taken to be ban on all depictions of the human form, or specifically of Mohammed, the faith's last prophet. Another verse on how God has given man and beasts the power of procreation is sometimes taken to mean that duplication of the human form – by art or photograph – is an insult to the power and edicts of God.

Thought not universally accepted (there is a tradition of figurative art in Islam, including depictions of Mohammed), there more extreme interpretations have been behind rioting in response to Western cartoons depicting the prophet and also behind the rich tradition of artistic calligraphy.

Since the invention of the camera, there have been fatwa insisting that reproducing the human form in this way is sinful, though with the dominance of broadcast media in modern life, most schools long ago abandoned the fight.  Abdul Aziz, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), one of the country's largest Muslim non-profit organizations, is one of the many who say photography is a necessity of modern life and that the fatwa had sullied the image of Darul Uloom.

“Photography and videography are tools of modern communication. The photos and videos help us get vivid descriptions of wars, riots, natural disasters, and all other events in which we have a justified interest. Cameras including the CCTV ones are helping curb and solve crimes. They help solve many problems of our daily life,” the Kolkata-based leader said in Urdu. “If they are banned, we can never know what’s happening around the world and we shall turn practically blind. This fatwa leads us nowhere.”

For the good of the faith?

A member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and Lucknow’s Shahi Imam, Maolana Khalid Rasheed Firangi Mahali, points out that the fatwa runs counter to many Islamic activities around the world.

“We eagerly see the live telecast of the holy Hajj [the pilgrimage to Mecca] and other religious activities in Saudi Arabia regularly. [By] using their video top Islamic preachers are spreading their messages to Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. Many scholars of Islam are using this modern tool of communication to counter misinformation about Islam,” says Maolana Firangi Mahali. “If we have to follow this fatwa, all such positive activities have to be stopped. This fatwa is not in the interest of Muslims and Islam.”

Two weeks ago, Darul Uloom issued a highly criticized fatwa against cartoons, saying that animated shows make a mockery of what, it said, "are Allah’s creations." The fatwa said that Muslims should not produce animated films and that the community's children should not watch them. Since cartoons are live pictures, said the fatwa, "watching them is against the tenets of Islam."

"Rigid and literalist scholars of Islam still think that photographs and photography are unlawful,” says Zafarul-Islam Khan, an Islamic scholar who holds degrees from Manchester University in the UK and Cairo's Al-Azhar University.  “They base their argument on the Quranic prohibition of ‘tasween’ [making images, i.e, sculptures or idols which were worshiped in pre-Islamic times]. But this is not the view of the majority of modern scholars of Islam as they differentiate between what was originally prohibited and what is in vogue now, especially that there is no question of anyone worshiping photographs."

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