Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Recently, a number of strange fatwas [religious rulings] carried on satellite television channels have been the cause of much controversy.
People question how today’s Muslims can benefit from a religious ruling that concerns the urine or the sweat of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)? What about the fatwa that examines breastfeeding adults? Who is responsible for these religious rulings? Is it the responsibility of religious scholars or media figures in light of the absence of constraints that govern their work on these satellite channels?
For his part, the former head of the religious rulings department at al Azhar and current head of the office of Sheikh Al Azhar, Sheikh Abdullah Mujawer said that the timing behind raising such fatwas is surprising and causes confusion.
Mujawer mentioned that there are several factors that have led to the spread of this phenomenon such as satellite channels that could be considered, “media of the private sector”. Ten years ago, for example, this trend did not exist. He pointed out that amid the raging competition between satellite channels, all channels are in search of whatever will raise their profiles and increase the number of viewers. Unfortunately, in most cases, this is achieved by looking for unusual issues. Mujawer attributed this to the fact that satellite channels host unqualified individuals to talk about religious rulings. He questioned why these satellite channels do not resort to scholars from al Azhar or pious clerics who are trusted and well informed of the Holy Quran, the Sunnah, and Quranic studies such as the reasons behind the revelation of different Quranic verses, the process of compilation, and the various readings that must be understood by those who issue fatwas so that incorrect information is not portrayed. He added that there is a new category of modern religious scholars who keep pace with modern technology and who believe that opportunities to appear on satellite channels are beneficial in the sense that they would lead to an increase in popularity, therefore, they look for unfamiliar edicts that would attract attention.
Mujawer stated that the aim of tackling such religious rulings is to cause confusion and discord between the people of one nation. This is not a new phenomenon. He pointed out that the media was in fact the first to be blamed for this chaos, since it presents unqualified figures that are not suitable to issue religious rulings and others who issue edicts that are irrelevant to this era. Mujawer accuses certain media currents of blaming religion for the Arab world’s underdevelopment and wishing to marginalize the role of religion in the everyday lives of Muslims, considering such action as the first step towards enlightenment. These trends look for odd issues and work on strengthening matters that fuel discord.
Mujawer accused certain forms of media of fishing for mistakes made by scholars in addition to focusing on some sayings of the Prophet (PBUH) that are classified as weak or are unknown in order to support their repeated claims regarding the need to change religious discourse. However, if there is no urgent necessity behind these discussions, why do the media insist on using them? Those who are given the responsibility of issuing religious rulings should take into consideration the modern nature of our contemporary reality and should not bring strange or obsolete issues to the table for discussion [that are no longer relevant today].
Media figure Jamal Sultan stated that the responsibility of promoting these kinds of opinions is shared whereby all participants have failed to estimate the sensitivity of religion and the rejection of presenting such material as subjects of provocation. Jamal added that the media searches for matters that are fresh and surprising; on the other hand there are some religious scholars who are infatuated by the idea of a media presence and what this status would bring, adding that some scholars believe that they need these odd fatwas in order to achieve fame. Sultan pointed out that despite the dominance of secularism in the media it is not the main reason behind this deteriorated status. In fact, there is an academic vacuum in the religious arena which has led us to this state. He explained that the scope of forbidden issues has expanded and that the number of taboos has increased for religious scholars. If a cleric were to tackle political issues, he might face unwanted consequences. Also, if he were to issue religious rulings regarding economic affairs especially in light of the large and extremely influential scope of “business” today, then the scholar may face many problems. He added that nowadays, clerics tackle impractical issues that have nothing to do with reality or this era.
Majid Youssef is the director of Al Tanweer Channel and a member of the religious department of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union headed by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Ali Gomaa. He stated that he had personally asked the Mufti why religious rulings that do not serve Islam and Muslims in any way are being issued. The Mufti answered that he receives an average of 1.3 million questions every year and according to Youssef, the Mufti added that if any of these inquiries are not tackled, a lawsuit would be filed against him in court accusing him of abstaining from carrying out his duties. There are certain parties that wait for such opportunities to arise, and at times, the Mufti would lose the case.
Youssef stated that these fatwas would never have flourished if they were not popular amongst the public that now encourages their circulation. Accordingly, this issue reflects a state of a spiritual, political and cultural vacuum that is present throughout the nation.
Youssef holds some religious scholars responsible for disorder in society, adding that he is not a specialist in religion and that media figures would address clerics from religious institutions such as Al Azhar, the Islamic Research Academy and the Ministry of Religious Endowments. When these scholars appear in front of the cameras, they promote corrupt ideas and when media figures argue against their opinions, they are attacked and accused of ignorance.
Youssef added that a number of satellite channels that do not discuss various social issues for known reasons end up presenting the idea in a stereotypical manner that does not suit the modern era. This is part of the spread of ignorance that deliberately presents trivial issues amid significant levels of illiteracy in the Arab world.
The head of the mass communication department of the American University in Cairo (AUC), Dr. Hussein Amin, stated that such fatwas are not controlled or legalized, nor do they fall under any certain codification of religious media. Accordingly, this creates confusion and distortion in the Islamic world.
Amin pointed out that a strange trend prevails nowadays in the issuing of edicts and that there is a great deal of confusion. Furthermore, these fatwas are presented under the framework of topics that have not been addressed and their content will not add any scientific development or achievement to the Islamic nation, as much as it will create a state of ignorance, accordingly, causing time to be wasted on futile issues.
Amin added that what is happening is primarily attributed to the state of ignorance in which we live especially as some people wish to become famous amid fierce competition between satellite channels to attract a higher number of viewers.
The way that these channels draw in viewers is by addressing [outlandish] issues such as witchcraft and views that may incite hatred and agitation. For example, an unknown cleric appears on screen and issues a fatwa that fuels discord within the Islamic nation then later apologizes for his opinion, however, he is not held accountable. Amin questioned where the fate of the religion lies and what shape Islam will take in 20 years if conditions were to remain the same. He rejected accusations against the secular trend of the media.
ِAmin called for developing regulations through the media committee, the Arab League and the Union of Arab Broadcasting and Television. He added that the Arab nations are accustomed to control and restraints and that they do not enjoy dealing openly with several religious issues. Media authorities must be responsible and reliable; also there is the fundamental role of religious institutions and civil society organizations. Only through solidarity we can stop this sea of fatwas and other material that spread a culture of ignorance at a time in which we are in desperate need to achieve progress and bridge the gap between us and the world around us, Amin said.
Amin suggested that a board of specialists should be established so as to discuss fatwas with a mufti before they are presented to the public so as to stop any backtracking after these fatwas are issued. This backtracking reflects a state of confusion. Satellite channels in Egypt play an influential role in people’s lives, especially if we consider that eight million Egyptians own satellite dishes, whilst 10 million others have links that enable them to watch satellite channels, Amin explained. This percentage is very influential and in turn it is affected by what is happening on screen that may lead to an increase in ignorance, intolerance and hatred. These are matters that must be dealt with in a serious manner.