Thursday, June 14, 2007

A fatwa free-for-all in the Islamic world

CAIRO: First came the breast-feeding fatwa: It declared that the Islamic restriction on unmarried men and women being together could be lifted at work if the woman breast-fed her male colleagues five times. Then came the urine fatwa: It said that drinking the urine of the Prophet Muhammad was deemed a blessing.

For the past few weeks, the breast-feeding and urine fatwas have proved a source of national embarrassment in Egypt, not least because they were issued by representatives of the highest religious authorities in the land.

"We were very angered when we heard about the Danish cartoons concerning our Prophet," wrote Galal Amin in the newspaper Al Masry Al Yom, referring to the 2005 publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that caused an international uproar. "However, these two fatwas are harming our Islamic religion and our Prophet more than the cartoons."

For many Muslims, fatwas, or religious edicts, are the bridge between the principles of their faith and modern life. They are supposed to be issued by religious scholars who look to the Koran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad for guidance.

While the more sensational pronouncements grab attention, the bulk of the fatwas involve the routine of daily life. In Egypt alone, thousands are issued every month.

The controversy in Cairo has been more than just embarrassing. It comes at a time when religious and political leaders say there is a crisis in Islam because too many fatwas are being issued and many rely on ideology more than learning.

The complaint has been the subject of recent conferences as government-appointed arbiters of Islamic standards say the fatwa free-for-all has led to the promotion of extremism and intolerance. The conflict in Egypt served as a difficult reminder of a central challenge facing Islamic communities as they debate the true nature of the faith and how to accommodate modernity. The fatwa is the front line in the theological battle between often opposing world views. It is where interpretation meets daily life.

"It is a very critical issue for us," said Abdullah Megawer, the former head of the Fatwa Committee at Al Azhar, the centuries-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning in Egypt. "You are explaining God's message in ways that really affect people's lives."

Technically, the fatwa is nonbinding and recipients are free to shop around for a better ruling. In a faith with no central doctrinal authority, there has been an explosion of places offering fatwas, from Web sites that respond to written queries, to satellite television shows that take phone calls, to radical and terrorist organizations that set up their own fatwa committees.

"There is chaos now," Megawer said. "The problem created is confusion in thought, confusion about what is right and what is wrong religiously."

In Egypt, there are two official institutions responsible for religious interpretation. The House of Fatwa, or Dar al-Ifta, which technically falls under the Ministry of Justice, and Al Azhar. All court sentences of death must be approved by Dar al-Ifta, for example.

"These people in fact are defined as agencies of the government," said Muhammad Serag, a professor of Islamic Studies at American University in Cairo. "They are not trusted anymore."

While that view is disputed by officials from both institutions, everyone acknowledges that those who issue fatwas serve as mediators between faith and modernity and as arbiters of morality. They are supposed to consider not only religious teachings, but the circumstances of the time. The position is without parallel in the West, and it combines the role of social worker, therapist, lawyer and religious advisor.

In fact, the relationship between the Koran and a fatwa is a matter of dispute. Some Muslim scholars view the Koran's words and ideas as fixed with little room for maneuver. Others see their job as reconciling modernity with the text by gently bending the text to fit new circumstances.

A second issue is the basis for interpretation. The sayings of the Prophet, known as the hadiths, also serve as the basis for many fatwas. But those sayings, of which there are thousands, have been passed down orally and may or may not be legitimate. Some seek to limit fatwas to the written Koran, as a result.

"Brother Citizens, the Azhar Fatwa Committee welcomes the masses of citizens and announces that fatwas are free of charge and of fees." The sign hangs on the back wall of a small room that serves as a fatwa center for Egyptians looking for guidance. Tucked just inside the entrance of the historic Azhar Mosque, the center is open six days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It is a worn room with a soaring ceiling, tattered black couches patched up with packing tape and rickety metal kitchen chairs. Five sheiks sit on the couches and receive people.

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