(The Majalla) - The issuing of fatwas, or religious rulings, by sometimes badly trained Islamic scholars is proliferating all across the Muslim world. The purposes of some of these fatwas, which are supposed to be based in the knowledge and wisdom of those who issue them, are quite disturbing and are tarnishing the image of Islam. For Muslim governments, this expansion of fatwa-issuing is becoming a growing concern.
RIYADH–A well-known Saudi religious scholar recently advised that a woman could become kin to a man—and thus be alone with him without violating the Islamic ban on gender mixing—by giving him five sips of her breast milk. This religious ruling, or fatwa, followed one in Somalia prohibiting Muslims from watching the soccer World Cup; one in Malaysia saying Muslims should not do yoga; two in Egypt, one saying married couples should not disrobe when having sex and the other one labeling Facebook users sinners; and one in Pakistan forbidding polio vaccination because it’s a Western plot to harm Muslims.
These rulings on trivial matters are not the most disturbing fatwas these days. Far more worrisome are takfir rulings, which declare someone an apostate from Islam, usually to justify killing him. Takfir rulings, favored by extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, first came to prominence in the West in 1989 when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa sanctioning the murder of British author Salman Rushdie for his controversial novel Satanic Verses. The writer spent many years in hiding as a result.
Questionable religious rulings, sometimes by badly trained Islamic scholars, are proliferating in Islam, tarnishing the image of this global faith. This fatwa chaos, as some Muslims call it, stems from Islam’s lack of a central authority comparable to, for example, the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican. For centuries, this wasn’t a problem because most people could not read and write. They were content to follow the religious advice of scholars respected within their communities.
But the explosion of literacy and global communications created conditions in which more Muslims could aspire to be fatwa-issuing scholars, and transmit those rulings to a wide audience—sometimes with political agendas. In remarks to a January 2009 international conference of Muslim scholars in Mecca, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz lamented that “the Islamic world has been plagued by an extremely negative phenomenon, which is the tendency to deliver fatwas by unqualified persons, especially on satellite television channels, the Internet and other modern channels of communication … Issuing ill-considered fatwas without following any criterion offers biased, ignorant, extremist or careless individuals the opportunity to pose as religious experts qualified to issue fatwas,” added the king. The modern proliferation of fatwas raises a key question: When is a fatwa a fatwa, and when is it just the personal opinion of someone who calls himself a sheikh?
Traditionally, fatwas addressed major life issues and were presented by a scholar after careful consideration of Islamic scriptures, prior relevant rulings, and the current conditions in which Muslims lived. But today, many “rulings” are issued on the spur of the moment by scholars in response to questions called in by television viewers. For Muslim governments, this expansion of fatwa-issuing is a growing concern because it challenges the state’s authority and control. And “battling” contradictory fatwas confuse their citizens.
Saudi Arabia, once a bastion of carefully controlled fatwa-giving, has sought for more than a year now to resolve this predicament. Its most far-reaching move came in the first week of Ramadan when King Abdullah issued a royal order that only clerics on the Council of Senior ‘Ulema, a body of religious scholars appointed by the king, are permitted to issue fatwas on matters of public concern. The decree does not apply to personal fatwas that address specific issues for individuals. "All those who violate this order subject themselves to accountability and punishment, whoever they are, because the interests of the religion and the nation are above anything else," the decree warned.
A few weeks prior to the king’s order, the Council of Senior ‘Ulema had announced that it is setting up regional panels to issue fatwas in each of the kingdom’s 14 provinces. The idea is that residents of the provinces should go to these official panels for religious guidance. The measure comes just months after the Ministry of Islamic Affairs banned the issuing of fatwas by anyone not on the Council of Senior ‘Ulema—a ban widely ignored.
Earlier, in January 2009, the Saudi-led Muslim World League sponsored an international gathering of scholars in Mecca to establish guidelines for issuing fatwas. “The occupation of issuing religious edicts,” stated its final communiqué, “should not be looked upon as a mere office for expressing personal opinion.” Addressing takfir fatwas, it also cautioned Muslims “to take every possible precaution not to call an individual Muslim infidel as it is not permissible at all...unless he commits an act that clearly violates Islam.”
Another major effort by the Saudi government will occur in September when Al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud University stages an international conference on takfir aimed at limiting fatwas on this topic to scholars allied with Muslim governments. Saud Al-Sarhan, a Saudi doctoral student specializing in the kingdom’s Islamist community, said he doubts these efforts to control fatwa-giving will be successful, partly “because it’s a big business” now as “every TV channel” has fatwa-issuing programs with their own scholars.
The breast milk fatwa, which came from Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Al-Obeikan, an advisor to the royal court, was an entirely novel interpretation of an ancient story in Islamic tradition and of an old custom in which Muslim women breastfeed an infant so the child becomes the equivalent of her own. The fatwa was met with outrage from all quarters in the kingdom and sparked ridicule of Islam by non-Muslim commentators. But weird fatwas like these are not the only ones causing controversy in the kingdom. Rulings that please progressive Muslims often draw fire from conservatives. That was the case, for example, with Sheikh Ahmed Al- Ghamdi’s ruling in December that Islam allows men and women to mingle in public places like universities. And more recently, conservatives were upset by Riyadh scholar Adel Al-Kalbani’s finding that singing is permissible as long as lyrics are decent. Al-Kalbani later reversed himself, telling Al-Hayat newspaper he had been wrong.
Official scholars denounced such rulings and the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh, told a religious television station that "those who offer abnormal fatwas which have no support from the Quran should be halted." Other conservative sheikhs resorted to personal attacks, calling authors of such fatwas “ignorant” scholars who risk going to hell.
Observing this fatwa chaos, Abdullah Bajad Al-Otaibi suggested that ordinary Muslims do their part to stop it. “The permissible and the non-permissible are quite often self-evident and may be resolved through the application of commonsense,” Al-Otaibi, who writes about Islamic affairs, said in an essay in the Saudi Gazette. “People do not need to solicit a fatwa for each and everything they do,” he added. “It is rather strange and unfortunate that people have become so reliant on fatwas that they do not try to think for themselves.”