A powerful Indian Islamic seminary has issued a fatwa banning Sunni Muslims from buying life insurance.

The word “fatwa” – a religious or judicial sentence pronouced by an Islamic religious leader – may not yet have been incorporated into the English language, but should not be unfamiliar.

A fatwa issued on 1 September this year by a powerful Islamic seminary in Lucknow, northern India, banned Sunni Muslims from buying life insurance policies. “A true Muslim should never go for life insurance as this is against the tenets of Islam,” said Maulana Shahid Rehan, spokesman for the Sunni-run seminary of Deoband in Uttar Pradesh. “Life is given by Allah; and to insure it or assure it is a crime in the eyes of Allah. Insurance is not permissible because it is a sort of gambling. Moreover, it also involves interest money which is illegal under the Shari'ah [Muslim religious law].”

The fatwa was issued following a question posed by a Muslim resident of Lucknow. Saleem Chisti said he had been asked by a private company to become an insurance agent and to buy insurance policies for himself and his wife. “I thought it prudent to ask Deoband before agreeing to the proposal,” Chisti said. “I am aware of takaful [Islamic] insurance, but was not sure of Deoband's ruling.” He said he was happy he had checked. Fatwas issued by the 100-year-old seminary are binding on Sunnis in India.

But Muslim scholars do not see eye-to-eye on the fatwa. “Insurance is legitimate as per Islamic laws governing the Shi'ite sect,” said Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, vice-president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, an apex body that frames civil legislation for all India's 130 million Shias and Sunnis.

But Pakistani Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman said life insurance policies in their present form were un-Islamic because they were based on interest. He called for a change to the policies to make them compatible with Islam.

Fellow-scholar Mufti Muhammad Naeem said life insurance policies were un-Islamic and could not be made Islamic through any change. “All religious scholars of Muslim sects are unanimous that all kinds of life insurance prevailing in our society are haraam [forbidden]; they are based on interest so there is gambling involved in it,” he said.