Strange Fatwās: Literalism and a Correct Understanding of the Sharīʿah

I was recently informed that a group of scholars claiming to follow the Ḥanafi school of jurisprudence in Islamic law were issuing a strange fatwā [legal verdict]: Muslims should have their teeth extracted rather than having them drilled and fit with dental fillings. Why? They argued that according to the Ḥanafī school the mouth must be rinsed entirely when taking a bath [ghusl]. Since this bath is required after intercourse [and other things] a person must bathe before becoming pure and being able to pray.

The reasoning seems fine so far. Imām Abū Ḥanīfah and his students argued that the verse in the Qur’an which obligates taking a bath includes washing the mouth and nose.[1] This is a legitimate line of reasoning which has been followed by many scholars. Furthermore, all scholars are agreed that anything which prevents water from reaching the body [such as glue, paint, etc.] renders this purifying bath incomplete. Still, so far so good.

Here is where things go wrong. These ‘scholars’ reasoned that since a tooth filling would prevent water from reaching the parts inside the mouth [i.e. the teeth] it is not allowed to have these fillings and Muslims should either leave the cavity or have the tooth extracted completely. To some people this may sound totally ridiculous. Other people, out of their sincerity and dedication to Islam might answer: if this is what Islam orders us to do then I am willing to do it and I know there must be some wisdom in what Allah has prescribed. Both of these reactions are common and understandable.

But the question is: is this what Allah has really prescribed? A more precise question is: does this view really represent the Ḥanafī school? If it does then many people might think something is wrong with the school itself. But there is another option: there might be something wrong with the one claiming to represent the school. I will argue for the latter in this case.

The view that fillings prevent a purification bath is based on faulty and overly-literal reasoning. Yes, it is true that the filling prevents water from reaching the tooth. However, are there any exceptions to the rule that all parts of the body must be washed? Of course there are, even within the Ḥanafī way of reasoning. For example, if a person has an injury with a bandage over it, that part does not need to be washed.[2] An analogy could have been made that a cavity is a type of injury that is being covered with a filling and thus qualifies to be an exception to the rule.

Furthermore, people generally have cavities nowadays [due to their, usually poor, dietary habits] and using fillings is extremely common throughout the world. Imām Abū Ḥanīfah and his students made several exceptions to rulings because they were based on general necessity in the society. Anyone who peruses the works by Ḥanafī scholars would know that this is a fact. Here are some examples:

  • Imām Muḥammad [one of Abū Ḥanīfa’s most famous students] held that dung is not impure because the streets [during his time] were filled with it.[3]
  • Al-Karkhī preferred the opinion of Abū Ḥanīfa’s students over the Imām himself in that dry semen may be scratched off of a garment without having to wash it. He took this opinion due to the principle of general necessity.[4]
  • Imām Abū Ḥanīfah and many of his followers allowed pig hair to be used in the manufacture of certain products because other hair did not have the same quality.[5] This was an exception to the rule because he considered the parts of a pig to be impure, in essence.
  • Most of the rulings considering an impurity falling into a well are built on exceptions to the general rule.

Most of the more recognized scholars in the world who represent the Ḥanafī school believe that cavities are exceptions to the rule. This is more representative of a respectable legal school than the ruling of extracting teeth.

There are several lessons to be learnt from looking into this issue. First, if something sounds really strange and contrary to common sense, there might be an error in the explanation [or it could be your incorrect understanding of the explanation]. Second, not everyone who claims to represent Islam, let alone represent a legal school of jurisprudence, actually does so in reality. A shallow, literalist reading of some texts might appear to be in line with what some scholars have written, but a deeper analysis reveals that it might not be the case. Furthermore, we also learn that the vast heritage of Islamic literature must be properly understood in depth and in context if we want to be able to actually benefit from it. This means that we must invest more time and resources into arriving at a proper understanding of Islam and produce more students and scholars who are at a sufficient caliber to give proper and well-reasoned answers to the contemporary issues Muslims face today. Lastly, we must understand and admire the complexity of reasoning involved in formulating Islamic law and must promote depth of reasoning and shun shallow literalism which is plaguing the Muslim community in many parts of the world. May Allah guide us to His true teachings.

[1] His argument is very sophisticated and beyond the scope of this article.

[2] There are other details I am omitting for the sake of brevity.

[3] Al-Lubāb fī Sharḥ al-Kitāb, 1:52.

[4] Al-Ikhtiyār li Taʿlīl al-Mukhtār, 1:32.

[5] Al-Muḥīṭ al-Burhānī fī al-Fiqh al-Nuʿmānī, 1:476; Al-Lubāb fī Sharḥ al-Kitāb, 1:24.