A religious bureaucrat with contemporary underpinningsWritten by Muhamad Sayuti Mansor
When Datuk Dr Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri stepped down as the Mufti of the Federal Territories of Malaysia to pursue his service as the Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Religious Affairs), speculation arose as to who would fill the vacancy.
This came as a result of his phenomenal muftiship from 2014-2020, during which he completely revolutionised the office and its fatwa institution, and the high esteem in which he is held by Malaysian Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
All speculation came to a halt with the appointment of Dr Luqman Haji Abdullah. He is a prominent Muslim scholar with a distinctive religious background – son of the renowned Tuan Guru Haji Abdullah of Pondok Lubuk Tapah, who currently serves as the Head of Department of Fiqh and Usul, Academy of Islamic Studies, and also respected member of several syariah and fatwa committees in banks and Councils of Religious Affairs.
Without a doubt, Dr Zulkifli has left some big shoes to be filled in the Federal Territories Mufti's Office. However, we will not do justice by merely making a comparison between the two, as surely, Dr Luqman has his own personality and preferences in manoeuvring his office.
We may refer to the criteria that we look for in a state mufti. First, we have to comprehend the reality of a state mufti. Not many realise that the office of a state mufti is a modern phenomenon. Muftis, as an official position in the state, are influenced by modern developments and nation-state policy orientations.
Unlike the qadi (judge) who was always a state-appointed post, muftis, in earlier times, were independent of the state and acted in private capacity. To issue a fatwa, a mufti had to conduct his own independent reasoning (ijtihad) based on his religious knowledge and piety (taqwa).
The Ottomans were the first to appoint a chief imperial mufti, with the title 'Shaykhul Islam' who had the authority to appoint jurists to various other positions, and serving as head of the religious hierarchy, marked the starting point of official muftiship in the Muslim world that still continues.
For Malaysia, the official fatwa institution and the state mufti's office we see today are strongly influenced by the structure and bureaucracy of British colonialism in Malaya where Islam was increasingly furnished with a formal, institutional structure.
It was with this background that the fatwa issuance became official and a state mufti was appointed to each of the Malay states and the Federal territory. Nowadays, state muftis are responsible directly for advising the Sultans and Yang di-Pertuan Agong in all religious matters, including the issuance of fatwa. They also chair the state's fatwa/syariah committee, are members of the national fatwa council and committee of religious bodies such as the baitulmal/zakat.
As far as fatwa issuance is concerned, the mufti does not have to act alone. The mufti may himself issue his individual fatwa, but in more complex and controversial matters, he solicits the help of the State Fatwa Committee which consists of prominent Muslim scholars. The mufti as the chairman has to call upon the fatwa committee to discuss and take into account expert opinion in related fields before issuing any fatwas.
The more complex issues can also be brought up to be discussed among the state muftis and scholars at the national level during the Muzakarah Committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs (MKI). This collective approach to fatwa is the common practice nowadays in line with the concept of collective ijtihad (ijtihad jama'i).
The role of a modern mufti has also gone through considerable change. He is not necessarily required to be a full-fledged mujtahid (mujtahid mutlaq). But the mufti must have bureaucratic, administrative and leadership skills, because the job scope is no longer limited to private ijtihad activity, but involves the complexities of the state's administration of religious affairs. To be a modern mufti, therefore, is to be a religious bureaucrat.
Looking at Dr Luqman's religious and academic background, as well as his experience and expertise in both fatwa issuance and administration, he undoubtedly satisfies all the criteria stated above. If one were to judge him, then it also should be based on his own merits.
Published in: New Straits TIme, Friday 22 May 2020