A multiple-choice question about fatwas

December 11, 2007

www.alifta.com fatwa siteHere’s a multiple-choice question about fatwas — in the information age, the Islamic practice of issuing fatwas has become…

  1. enriched
  2. chaotic
  3. more open
  4. less transparent
  5. all of the above
  6. 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.”

Saudis at a camel beauty contestModern 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.


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I’m not a Muslim, but I’d say #5. I started researching fatwas during a debate with a member of Hizb ut Tahrir. I wanted to answer his points from the same perspective a Muslim might who believed differently than he did. You’ve pointed out the more chaotic nature as anyone who wants can post what he or she calls a fatwa. It’s less transparent in the sense that often you don’t know the background of the poster so cannot evaluate their knowledge of Islamic law, nor if they even follow a traditional Islamic school of law.

Posted by fern | Report as abusive

Thanks for alerting us to “symbolic breastfeeding”… unfortunately, the article doesn’t say exactly what the scholar had in mind when he said that. How exactly does a woman symbolically breastfeed her male colleague? It seems like HR would have to be involved, at the least.
The interesting thing about that opinion/fatwa, however outlandish, is it shows Muslim scholars engaging with the real-world issues of women and men working together in the secular workplace.

Posted by ReligionWriter | Report as abusive

Andrea (ReligionWriter) – Neither our article nor any other I found on this explained exactly what “symbolic breastfeeding” entailed. Most add another detail, though: it has to be done a minimum of five times to be valid. The Wikipedia entry “breastfeeding fatwa” has about as much as has been written on this in English, including some reaction. If anyone out there has more from the Arabic-language media, please let us know.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive