Some characteristics of Ulema Medžlis fatwas and their role in determining...

Ayşe Zişan Furat1




Fatwas as “written or oral opinions/answers issued by a religious scholar to a question concerning Islamic law” are one of the most important sources for under- standing socio-cultural life and its changing dynamics since they contain information about two interrelated aspects of religious life: the problems facing Muslims and the decisions issued by the religious authorities corresponding to them. Whereas determining and evaluating the questions asked by Muslims enables us to familiarize ourselves with the real life situations in which Muslims were living, the answers pro- vide details about the general policy of the fatwa giver, especially if it is the highest religious authority in a country as is the case in this paper. Moreover, the practice of issuing fatwas should be considered as one of the efficient instructive tools for pre- serving and creating a distinctive Islamic identity, by providing authoritative advice for those who are unfamiliar with the provisions of Islamic law or uncertain about the compatibility of their behaviour with Islamic rules. Therefore, fatwas should be taken into consideration not only as answers given to a particular religious question, but also as a living text which provides us with information about the role and the functions of religious authority as a moral leader in society.

The main purpose of this paper is to give a general overview on the fatwas found in the primary resources of Ulema-Medžlis, namely Ulema-Medžlis Records and Protocols. The paper covers only the period from 1883 till the proclamation of Statute for the Autonomous Administration of Islamic Religious, Waqf and Educational Affairs in 1909. Since the statute granted Bosnian Muslims their religious autonomy, it also considered Mešihat as the authority for issuing the ultimate fatwa in cases when there was any uncertainty or lack of clarity about an issue. As is presented in the paper, working on fatwa texts in Ulema-Medžlis archives has much significance for two main reasons: firstly, for ascertaining the general situation of Muslims at that time; and secondly, for tracing the impacts of socio-cultural changes on Bosnian Muslims. From a more methodological perspective, it also allows researchers to

1 Assistant Professor of Religious Education at Istanbul University, Faculty of Theology.

compare the techniques or procedures of fatwa issuing in the Ottoman and Austro- Hungarian periods.

The paper does not to evaluate fatwas from the point of view of Islamic law, but focuses primarily on the characteristics of fatwas and their use in shaping the Muslim community under Austro-Hungarian occupation. Therefore, after giving the general framework of the work, the inventory and the documents related to the fatwas are outlined. Secondly, structural features of fatwas in the Records and the Protocols as well as the fatwa issuing procedure are introduced. Finally the content of fatwas and their relevance along with the general policy of Ulema-Medžlis is evaluated.

Keywords: Ulema-medžlis, fatwa.

Fatwas, even in its simplistic definition , as “written or oral opinions/ answers issued by a religious scholar to a question concerning Islamic law” might be regarded as one of the most important sources of interpreting and understanding the socio-cultural characteristics and the changing dynamics of a society as they contain information about two interrelated aspects of reli- gious life: problems faced by Muslims and decisions given by the religious authorities corresponding to them.2 Even though fatwas are not considered as binding, their relation with the sacred and the position of fatwa giver among people ascertain their significance for the person who asks the question and obviously cares about the relevance of the issue with Islamic law.

Whereas evaluating the questions enables us to familiarize ourselves with the real life situations in which Muslims are living through, the answers provide details about the general policy of the fatwa giver, especially when it is the highest religious authority in a country as is the case in this paper. Therefore, fatwas should be viewed not only as an answer given to a particu- lar religious question, but also as a point of reference which provides us more details about the role and the functions of a religious authority in the society. Although it is hard to verify whether and/or how the legal ruling was regarded and implemented by the one(s) asking for it, my contention here is that the practice of issuing fatwa should be also considered as one of the efficient instructive tools in preserving and creating a distinctive Islamic identity. Such a socio-religious constructive function is mostly achieved through delivering

2 Even though the fatwas are based on the main Islamic sources, they are bound with the certain socio-cultural factors surrounding the society. By keeping this fact in mind, fatwas provide a wide range of details on changing structures of societies. For further information see, Muhammad Khalid Masud, Brinkley Messick, David S. Powers, “Muftis, Fatwas and Islamic Legal Interpretation”, in Islamic Legal Interpretation, Muftis and Their Fatwas, ed. by Muhammad Khalid Masud, Brinkley Messick, David S. Powers, Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 4-5.

of authoritative advice for the ones who are unfamiliar with the provisions of Islamic law or uncertain about the compatibility of their behaviors with Islamic rules.

Regarding the fatwas discussed in this paper, the above assumption acquires certain relevance as they belong to a period in which Bosnian Muslims had to grapple with the reality of being under non-Muslim rule and administration. Bosnia had been first occupied and later on annexed to Austro-Hungarian Empire according to the clauses of the Berlin Treaty signed in the end of Berlin Congress held after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.3 During the ensuing 40 years of Austro-Hungarian Administration in Bosnia many reforms concerning the various aspects of socio-cultural life were intro- duced. Most of them aimed at changing the existing Ottoman infra-structure in the country. In this regard the appointment of Reisu-l-Ulema in 1882 and the establishment of Ulema Medžlis in the same year as the executive body of Rijaset presided by Reisu-l-Ulema were two of special importance. They were interpreted as a secession from the Mesihat, the main religious authority of Muslims, by most of the scholars and most importantly by many Muslims of that time.4

According to the regulation issued in 1883, Ulema Medžlis was decreed as the highest authority empowered to govern, supervise and direct all the religious affairs related to Bosnian Muslims. In other words, as it happened to all fields related to Muslim religious affairs, issuing fatwa was also considered among the responsibilities of the newly established Ulema Medžlis.5 As in the traditional fatwa issuing practice religious knowledge and piety were the only requirements the Mufti should meet, the appointment of Ulema Medžlis by a non-Muslim authority constituted by itself a special case. This act evokes some interpretations that can be briefly summarized here. It can be viewed as

  1. For further information about the Congress of Berlin and its aftermath see Willi Medlicott,

Congress of Berlin and After, Routledge, 1963.

  1. Fikret Karčić, The Bosniaks and The Challenges of Modernity, Late Ottoman and Hapsburg Times, Sarajevo, el-Kalem, 1999, pp. 123-139.

5 Even though it hasnt been stated explicitly in the regulation that Ulema Medžlis should issue fatwas, obviously it was regarded inside the Article nr.1 “…. empowered to govern, supervise and direct all religious affairs related to Bosnian Muslims”. Moreover, with the 3rd article “guidance to religious and ethical issues” was regarded as a responsibility for Reisu-l-Ulema. Istorijski razvoj institutije Rijaseta, ed. by Omer Nakičević, Sarajevo, 1996, pp. 126-134. For further details on the establishment of Ulema Medžlis see “Memorandum o organizaciji Islamske zajednice u Bosni i Hercegovini”, ibid, 102-125. Also a general overview on Ulema Medžlis’ field of activities can be found in the chapter of “Die Neuordnung der mohammedanischen Kultusverhältnisse” in Ferdinand Schmid, Bosnien und die Hercegovina, Unter der Verwaltung Österreich-Ungarns, Leipzig, 1914, pp. 674-695.

an attempt to establish a control mechanism by the Administration over the decisions of the highest Islamic authority in Bosnia - Ulema Medžlis6. Still, although it might be expected that due to its legal status the Ulema Medžlis should have been vested with the highest priority before the people, it most probably was not the only religious authority accepted from the people of being in the capacity of issuing fatwas. However, verifying the above assump- tions requires further research as the time period 1883-1909 remains largely uncharted with only few works done on the topic.

Aside from the institutional foundations and authority issues, the fatwa texts in Ulema Medžlisi Fonds are one of the most valuable resources which can contribute to understand more about the general situation of Muslims at that time. Moreover, they allow us to follow the socio-cultural changes and their effects on Bosnian Muslims. From a more methodological perspective, the fatwas in the Fonds also provide the researchers with the rare opportunity to compare the techniques/procedures of fatwa issuing in the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian periods.7

This paper covers only the period from 1883 till the proclamation of Statute for the Autonomous Administration of Islamic Religious, Waqf and Educational Affairs in 1909. While the statute granted the Bosnian Muslims their religious autonomy, it also regarded the Mesihat as the ultimate author- ity for issuing fatwa in the case there were any suspicions or obscurity about the issue.8 Although this new state of relations between the Rijaset and the Mesihat did not necessarily mean that Bosnia was put literally under the juris- diction of the Mesihat in Istanbul, it might be assumed that it was probably interpreted by the Bosnian Muslims as a new dimension of their long awaited re-bound with Istanbul.

However, the scope of this paper does not allow us to explore further this question or to make any comparisons with the traditional fatwa giving; we will rather focus on the content and the style of the fatwas thriving on the above assumption that they are among the most useful tools for sketching the socio-cultural transformation of a specific community. Thus, this paper will

6 For some different examples of religious legitimization and the relation between the administration and fatwa givers throughout the history see Masud, Messick, Powers, ibid., pp. 8-15.

7 Although Ulema Medžlis Fonds have not been yet researched largely, there are some available academic works on fatwas issued in later periods. For example, Muhamed Hodžić, “Nekoliko fetvi iz arhivskog fonda Gazi Husrev-begove Biblioteke u Sarajevu”, Anali Gazi Husrev-begove biblioteke u Sarajevu, Knjiga XXV-XXVI, Sarajevo, 2007, pp.161-192.

8 Article 142, Štatut za autonomnu upravu, islamski vjerskih i vakufsko-mearifskih poslova u Bosni i Hercegovini, Sarajevo, Zemaljska Štamparija, 1909, p.71.

be mostly focused on the characteristics of fatwas and their role in the devel- opment of the Muslim community in Bosnia under the Austro-Hungarian Occupation. Therefore, after giving the general framework of the work, the inventory and the documents related to the fatwas will be outlined. Secondly, structural features of fatwas in the Records and the Protocols as well as the fatwa issuing procedure will be introduced. Finally, the content of fatwas and their relevance with the general policy of Ulema Medžlis will be evaluated.9


Two of the remaining resources of the Ulema Medžlis belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Period, namely Ulema Medžlis Records and Ulema Medžlis Daftars are currently preserved in Gazi Husrev Begova Library in Sarajevo. Combination and, to some extent, comparison of these two resourc- es provide substantial information for following many events of Bosnian Muslims’ life at that time.10 Since Ulema Medžlis Records provide informa- tion about the questions addressed to the Medžlis and the Protocols cover the decisions, in order to be able to understand completely the cases referred to in the fatwas both resources should be merged.11 Such a general methodology was used in this paper.

Even though documents related to these religious questions cover a small portion (2%) of the Ulema Medžlis Records in comparison to other topics12

9 Research conducted on Ulema Medžlis Documents has been carried out in two different periods of time, September 2010 and February-July 2011. I would like to express my cordial thanks to the Director and officials of Gazi Husrev Begova Library for giving me the opportunity to work on these documents.

10 Whilst Ulema Medžlis Daftars (hereinafter will be mentioned as GHB UM PD) cover the whole period between 1883 and 1918 with some deficiencies, Ulema Medžlis Records start with the year of 1885 and continue till the end of 1918, again with some deficiencies. In brief, Daftars are consisted of three different types of record books: incoming documents, outgoing documents and session minutes. On the other hand, Ulema Medžlis Records (hereinafter will be mentioned as GHB UM) include only the documents which were addressed to Ulema Medžlis. Thus, they only offer information about the subject and technical content of the incoming documents.

  1. For today, unfortunately it is unlikely to merge all the documents for many different reasons. In many cases the questions (a) were responded quickly without being brought to the Medžlis meetings, (b) got lost over time or, (c) were replaced with a note saying that the document was returned back to the owner of question (an individual or a legal personality) or relocated. As far as the daftars are concerned, luckily, apart from some years missing, they provide more tractable information.

  2. In the first classification attempt made on the Ulema Medžlis Records (1883-1909), 7756 documents, in total, were identified. Among these documents are appointments of religious functionaries such as kadis, imams, hatibs, mudarrises and muallims etc., the

Chart 1: Distribution of Fatwas per Years

they still constitute one of the very interesting document groups in the Fonds as they are directly related to the concerns which Bosnian Muslims faced with in their everyday life at that time and provide insights about Ulema Medžlis’ religious policy corresponding to them.

In the documents of the period under discussion here, 88 records related to the fatwas were found. These documents include 82 separate cases of which 38 cases were discussed during Ulema Medžlis meetings13 and docu-

exam papers conducted for appointment of future religious functionaries, regulations related to the religious institutions sent by the Austro-Hungarian Authorities, documents related to the reform acts and their implementation in religious schools and in religious education offered by public schools, reports on educational institutions, documents related to the organization and regulation of waqf properties, fatwas and religious questions and documents related to private matters (e.g. family, inheritance, conversion etc). It is very difficult to estimate the amount of different types of documents in the Ulema Medžlis Records for our todays knowledge owing to the fact that one document may include only one document (e.g. report or petition) or different kinds of documents (e.g. an appointment paper includes usually an official request, a regulation, candidates diploma and sometimes the exam paper).

  1. There is only one case which could not be located in the Medžlis Minutes (GHB UM 1903/172), since that part of the Daftar is missing despite the decision of the Ulema

ments of 57 cases were identified inside Ulema Medžlis Records.14 While asking for a fatwa is explicitly mentioned in 16 of them; the rest includes only the question.

As seen on the chart 1, it is difficult to say whether there is a relation between the number of the documents and the year they were issued in. Rather it looks like the documents show a random dispersion among the years with the exception of three years in which no religious questions had been filed. A more detailed analysis of the documents showed that they originated from three different sources: the individuals, governmental agencies and pri- vate associations. Whereas 61 of 89 documents were sent by governmental agencies such as the Provincial Administration, the Provincial Appeal Court, Waqf Commission, different regencies (Niyabets), two of them were sent by some associations like Visoko Reading Hall (Visoko Kiraathane). Even though some generalizations can be made, e.g. Waqf Commission was mostly interested in asking questions about the Waqfs as a natural consequence of its jurisdiction, it is hard to draw a link between the senders and the top- ics because of the wide variety of the cases. Nevertheless, the existence of individual questions underscores the fact that Ulema Medžlis not only was designed as an advisory body for the governmental offices but it was also accepted by the people as the constituent religious authority.


As it was mentioned above, in order to comprehend the whole process of fatwa giving, all resources of Ulema Medžlis should be cross-referenced and evaluated together. Although this process might present us with a general picture of the fatwa issuance, methodologically speaking it is a very chal- lenging issue due to two main reasons.15 Firstly, because of the binary nature of the Ulema Medžlis Fonds, it is unlikely to find one group of documents in a specific order, be in contextual or formal order, rather in a scattered docu- ment bulk. Secondly, neither the Records nor the Protocols were recorded or

Medžlis is mentioned in the registration notes of the document. Nevertheless, the records of other cases are available in the Ulema Medžlis Session Minutes.

  1. Since some documents in the Ulema Medžlis Records were interrelated, these were considered as parts of the same case in this paper. By re-arranging the documents in this way, 84 separate case/questions have been identified. Also, two entries, the document nr.9 and nr.10, were not included in this classification since they are related to the administrative issues.

15 Therefore, these materials should not be confused with the fatwa compilations. For further information on fatwa compilations see Seda Örsten, “Osmanlı Hukuk Tarihi Kaynağı Olarak Fetva Mecmuaları”, Türk Hukuk Tarihi Araştırmaları, no. 4, 2007 (Spring), pp. 29-40.

preserved for the purpose of providing samples for practical or pedagogical reasons. Thus, as evaluation of the documents from the diplomatic point of view is far beyond the limits and scope of this paper, here only some distinc- tive features will be pointed out in order to give a general introduction to the documents.

Ulema Medžlis Records

Ulema Medžlis Records are the main resource for determining the reli- gious question addressed to the Medžlis. The documents in the Records are written on A4 size paper generally in the form of a petition, regardless of its sender. In most of the cases a bigger paper was folded into the A4 format and used as two pages. While the first page of the paper contains the question, the back side of the second page is left for the registration notes.16 The docu- ments were mainly written in Ottoman or Bosnian whereas in some cases both of these languages were used.17 Even though in some cases German was also used, it was restricted to very few documents, especially the ones which contain the regulations from Vienna.

Another interesting point is the use of Arabica in some documents.18 Due to the regulation of 1883 which stipulated that only the documents sent to the provincial administration from Ulema Medžlis should be in local language (Bosnian), it is very hard to evaluate the Ulema Medžlis’ policy in regard to its inner correspondence. However, it can be observed that the use of lan- guage was gradually changing from Ottoman to Bosnian.19

16 After 1898, it is also seen in some cases that this part is used for mentioning the addressee.

Sometimes even the document started from this part. GHB UM 1899/213; GHB UM 1905/375 etc.

17 Of the total number of the documents 53% is in Bosnian (f=31), 37% is in Ottoman (f=22) and only 10% uses both language, Ottoman and Bosnian (f=6). For example, as in the case nr. 24, on asking permission to get married with another person, has been sent to Ulema Medžlis from Appeal Court in Bosnian language (document nr. 1891/19), while Ottoman was used in the paper which was written by the complainant (document nr. 1891/20). The appendix of second document which came from Bihac Regency (Bihke Niyâbet) was also written in Ottoman.

  1. For example, the document in GHB UM 1909/69, sent from Visoko Kiraathane, was written in Bosnian. Most probably language preference was related to the correspondence policy of the Kiraathane owner.

  2. Roughly speaking, the Ottoman language is still used till 1898 as the main language of documents or at least the language of the cover letter with some exceptions. Nevertheless, after this period Bosnian language has become overwhelming and Ottoman has started to appear as the language of appendices, especially when there was need for a decree or statement from the court or a legal authority. This change should be related to the development of language policy by the administration. For further details on the language

The body of the documents usually starts with “Bismih, a short form of “Bismillahirrahmanirrahim”, then, the addressees name is mentioned. Many different addressing modes can be found here. In Ottoman documents “Bosna ve Hersek Heyet-i Ulema Riyaset-i Aliyyesine, Bosna ve Hersek Ulemâ Riyâseti Cânib-i Aliyyesine, Umum Bosna ve Hersek Ulemâ-i İslâmiye Riyaseti, Bosna ve Hersek Meclis-i Ulemâ Riyâseti Cânib-i Semûhilerine” are among the most commonly used modes. However, Bosnian documents show more variety in this sense. In many cases the addressee was formulated in long forms as Presvjetlom Medžliss-ulema u Carevoj džamiji u Sarajevu, Visokoslavnom predsjedništvu Medžliss-ulema u Sarajevu, Presvjetlom presjedništvu Heyeti Uleme za Bosnu i Hercegovinu u Sarajevu or only Reisu-l-Ulema was mentioned as Presvjetlom Velenčenom gospodinu H. Mehmed Tevfik ef. Azabagić, Reis-el-ulemi za Bosnu i Hercegovinu itd itd u Sarajevu”. In telegrams especially a short form of “Reis el Ulema, Sarajevo” was used.

Since the documents were not designed in the form of classical Ottoman fatwas20, rather in the form of an official letter submitted to a superior office for requesting an answer to a question or a controversial issue, they include all the possible details embodied with the real characters and incidents explain- ing the reason why asking the compatibility of issue with Shari‘a was impor- tant. If the place was not sufficient for completing the body of the text, the back side of the paper was also used.

While Ottoman documents usually end with olbâbda emr u irâde efen- dim hazretlerinindir (the right to give command and edict in this respect belongs to my lord, the Excellency) or a different formulation of the same expression olbâbda emr u fermân hazret-i men lehu’l-emrindir (the right to give command and decree in this respect belongs to the one who possesses the right to give commands), in Bosnian documents such kind of an epilogue was not used. In both types of documents the date of the letter was added in

of policy applied at that time see Dževad Juzbašić, “Jezička politika austrougarske uprave i nacionalni odnosi u Bosni i Hercegovini”, in Politika i privreda u Bosni i Hercegovini pod austrougarskom upravom, Sarajevo 2002, pp. 383-421.

20 For further information on the forms of classical Ottoman fatwas see Atar, ibid. and Seda Örsten, Osmanlı Hukukunda Fetva, unpublished MA thesis, Ankara University, Ankara 2005, pp. 11-20. There found only two exceptions in Ulema Medžlis Records between 1883 and 1909, i.e. GHB UM 1885/18 and GHB UM 1894/23 of which formulation were made very similar to the classical Ottoman fatwas. Whereas the first one was already prepared in the classical form, the question was rewritten in the classical fatwa form and added to the back side of the paper in the second.

the end along with the signature of the owner of the letter. It is very hard to say whether there were any standards followed in the appendices as they were prepared at different places.

The back side of the document was usually assigned for registration notes written in Ottoman language regardless of the language of the docu- ment. Here, firstly the arrival date and the number of document along with a registration note “kayıd şod” (recorded) were mentioned. Then, it was noted whether the case was brought into the Medžlis meetings or immediately responded to. Also, the procedure for the decision making, and in some cases, the decision was also mentioned here.21

However, there is one document among the Ulema Medžlis Records which requires more attention and enables us to make possible inferences about the fatwa texts at that time. This is one of the two fatwas found in the records between 1883 and 1909.22 Asking about the appointment of one of the sons of the late Mutawalli of Šarić Hadži Osman Aga Waqf in Stolać (İstolçe), this document, sent from the Provincial Waqf Commision (Meclis-i İdâre-i Evkâf-ı Bosna ve Hersek), encloses 4 appendices including the copy of Waqfiyya and a related Fatwa.23

The fatwa found in this document contains similar patterns which were used in classical Ottoman fatwas.24 It starts with “Huwa” and states that this is a copy of the fatwa. The body of the text is formulated as follows:

Zeyd-i vâkıf vakfiye-i ma’mulunbihâsında vakfının tevliyeti Amr’a ve ba’de vefâtihi evlâd-ı zükûrları eslah ve erşed olanlar olalar deyu yazdıkdan sonra Amr vakf-ı mezbûrun tevliyetine mutasarrıf iken Amr’ın salâh ve rüşdde velevki mütasâvi müteaddid evlâd-ı zükûru kalmış olsa lakin içlerin- den Bekr rüşd ve salâh ile berâber âlim dahî olmakla merkûm Bekir tevliyet-i mezbûrede müteveffânın sâir evlâdı üzerine recceh olur mu?25

  1. For example, GHB UM 1892/28; GHB UM 1894/230.

  2. The second fatwa text was found in GHB UM 1908/341. The fatwa was added to a petition asked for a solution to a conflict arose from the appointment of a second imam to a džemaat. Both fatwas have the similar features. However, GHB UM 1902/32 has been chosen as a sample as it provides more details.

23 GHB UM 1902/32.

24 For content of styles of fatwa giving in Ottoman tradition see Uriel Heyd, “Some Aspects of the Ottoman Fetva”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 32, no.1, 1969, pp. 35-56.

25 The translation of the text is, briefly, as following: Zayd, who is the Endower (Wâqif), mentioned in his endowment charter (waqfiyya) that the requirements of the waqf shall be