A multiple-choice question about fatwas
- more open
- less transparent
- all of the above
- none of the above
The number of fatwas, or religious edicts, has exploded in recent years as sheikhs, muftis and others use the Internet, satellite television, radio, telephone call-in services and the print media to globalise the practice. Once limited mostly to scholars in their cities or countries, Muslims can now put their questions to experts around the world — and often get quite different answers depending on where they ask.
One might think the decision of Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti to launch a fatwa Web site might help bring some order into this confusion. The Saudi government says it wants to challenge radical Islam on the Web, which is why Sheikh Abdel-Aziz al-Sheikh has ventured into cyberspace in the first place. But with so many sites now up and running, as Senior Correspondent Andrew Hammond reports from Riyadh, his site may turn out to be just one more pious portal.
The plethora of fatwa sites is not the only hurdle he faces. As Hammond writes, “the mufti isn’t everyone’s favourite, though. His edicts condemning Muslims who take up arms against the U.S.-allied Saudi government and advising the devout not to fight with al Qaeda in Iraq are seen by hardliners as blatant examples of fatwas-for-hire. Governments often elicit politically expedient fatwas from their favoured sheikhs.”
Modern technology has also put the spotlight on odd fatwas that are ignored or laughed at in the Muslim world. There was a Saudi fatwa against camel beauty contests last month, but it seems to have had no effect reining in this popular tribal custom. Another one in Egypt had an effect its author never imagined. Cairo’s al-Azhar Islamic University suspended a lecturer in May after he suggested that men and women office colleagues could use “symbolic breastfeeding” to get around a religious ban on being alone together.
With so many edicts about, Osama bin Laden has also issued what he calls fatwas, even though Islamic scholars would dispute his qualification to do so. These are usually quite political in spirit, but they get referred to in media reports as fatwas, as if they were somehow equivalent to a well-considered religious opinion issued by a competent sheikh.
Fatwas are clearly important for believing Muslims, otherwise there wouldn’t be such demand for them. But the confusion surrounding them makes it difficult to report on them. Is it worth writing about serious fatwas that might be ignored anyway? If we only report on the unusual ones, are we making fun of Islam? Please let us know what you think — and how you would answer the multiple-choice question above.