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The Dilemma Confronting Fatwa Institutions | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Controversy escalated in Egypt’s religious circles over the fatwa [religious ruling] issued by one of the al Azhar scholars that stated upon women breastfeeding their adult male colleagues so as to offer a solution to the problem of ‘khulwa’ (situations where they would be alone in enclosed spaces such as in the work place).

The Egyptian arena roared with conflicting opinions on the issue, especially since it was one that has surpassed the scope of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) to occupy a position of utmost concern in the prominent Arab country; however it also had repercussions on other Arab countries.

It’s true that the fatwa is quite strange, in fact it has exceeded the limits of decency, and yet the al Azhar religious scholar [who proposed it] did not violate the context of the jurisprudential debate that is¬¬¬¬ customarily employed in controversial or contentious matters.

This compelling fatwa was preceded by various cases that raised similar arguments. The incumbent mufti of al Azhar who firmly rejected the breastfeeding fatwa is the same mufti who issued unprecedented fatwas about the validity, from a religious perspective, of interest in bank and savings bonds. The aforementioned fatwas resulted in generating tremendous rage amidst the jurisprudential academies.

Last year, Sudanese Islamist leader, Hassan al Turabi, introduced a number of controversial opinions pertaining to the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men, in addition to his denial of the existence of the Mahdi and the second coming of Jesus. Even Sheikh al Qaradawi wasn’t spared a similar indignation after he issued edicts that banned separating between a Muslim woman and her non-Muslim husband, and when he validated using usury loans to possess property in Western countries.

In the bloody Iraqi arena, the sectarian war coincided with a ferocious takfiri (denouncing others as infidels) war between Sunni and Shia fundamentalists that even Supreme Shia Leader [Ali] al Sistani was not spared from. An old fatwa issued by al Sistani was employed with the intention of deeming Sunnis to be non-Muslims. Meanwhile, some Salafist extremist groups were referring to edicts that were attributed to Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al Qayyim to say that Shia followers were infidels, using it as a justification to kill them.

The current war of fatwas raging in the Islamic world indicates that the institutions entitled with issuing religious edicts in our states are going through a severe crisis on two interrelated levels: the first is related to the consultative academic and doctrinal references and the second relates to the functioning of such institutions and their ability to have an effective impact on the status quo.

The first level can be tangibly sensed in the conflict between the jurisprudential references [authorities], despite the fact that the boldest and most progressive views are cautious to adhere to the fundamentalist track and the orthodox jurisprudence, ensuring that they do not violate their standards of interpretation and latent connotations. But if the jurisprudential arena has witnessed numerous calls for rebuilding the fundamentalist organization in recent years and the need to reform the basics of the fatwa industry (this phrase is attributed to the scholar, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Beih), none of them went beyond the customary mechanisms of the medieval jurisprudential mind in terms of consideration, adaptation and composition on the practical level.

Notwithstanding that fact, there has been an increasing awareness in the field of Islamic studies that the inherited jurisprudence has become incapacitated not only in terms of its perceptual structure (basics), but also in terms of its methodological mechanisms (regulations and tools of jurisprudence) so that it has been rendered incapable of providing the necessary tools to further the connotations in the text under the present circumstances.

This awareness has come as a result of the practical implications that have arisen from the fatwas required to solve various vital problems. Another factor is the openness to several fields of interpretation, which in turn provided jurists with a plethora of rich and unprecedented possibilities.

However, our scholars never tire of reminding us that judgments change and are renewed in accordance with people’s circumstances and they do not deny that jurisprudence is a hypothetical industry that cannot be equated with the holy revelation, which contrastingly is the absolute arbiter in terms of veracity and meaning.

And yet still, they prefer the safety of relying on the authority’s heritage than taking on the responsibility of Ijtihad [the process of making legal decisions by independent interpretation of the legal sources, Quran and Sunnah] and diligent interpretation. As such, they compose patchy fatwas that do not satisfy the people who are inclined to the medieval jurisprudence, neither do they persuade the contemporary Muslim who is challenged by the clash of modernity.

The second level relates to the structure of the fatwa institutions and their physical status in social affairs and in the public field. It goes without saying that these institutions, despite their existence in most Muslim countries and with all their different forms, are no longer capable of fulfilling their historic role for many reasons, some of which are related to the nature of their relationship with the modern central state. Other reasons are related to these institutions’ status in the religious field itself.

Institutions entitled with issuing edicts, which were formerly one of the pillars of civil society, are now one of the institutions of the contemporary national state. This caused these institutions to lose their independence, credibility and practical efficacy. Such institutions have mostly made the shift to either become frivolous institutions that do not play any active role, or have come to follow a fixed framework that is employed as part of the strategies of polarization and the legitimization of official governmental policies.

The religious field lost its unity and its hierarchical structure with the emergence of different conflicting sides that were competing for the monopoly of the nation’s collective capital, including the committed political trend, the traditional heritage trend, in addition to new forms of spiritual practice that fall under the privatization of religious affiliation. This in itself is one of the new social phenomena that have aroused the attention of anthropology scholars.

But the solution of this problem will not come through a coordination between the fatwa academies and institutions, and neither will it be achieved through a convergence strategy between Islamic sects, rather, it is subject to a process of radical intellectual and religious reform that reaches the institutional structure of the act of issuing fatwas and the strategies of reading and interpretation. Without this fundamental process of reform, the edicts of our scholars will remain tools of a confused political and social struggle, that is, if it comes to exceed the jokes in newspapers and among the public.