"Fatwa Chaos" Bewilders Muslims on Sex and Suicide

A century ago, the fatwa department at Cairo's Al-Azhar University issued fewer than 200 edicts a day. Now it turns out about 1,000.

The university, a center of Islamic learning for more than a millennium, isn't alone. Around the world, an explosion in the number of fatwas -- pronouncements by religious leaders intended to shape the actions of the faithful on everything from sex to politics -- is sparking efforts by prominent Muslims to rein in the practice. That's proving a nearly impossible task, given Islam's decentralized nature and the growing number of outlets for the edicts.

Muslims in Egypt seeking religious guidance may now turn to satellite television and the Internet for opinions from as far afield as Indonesia and Morocco -- unless they follow the fatwa issued in 2004 by the Dar ul-Ulum, India's largest Islamic seminary, that ruled Muslims shouldn't watch TV.

With no pope or patriarch to arbitrate orthodoxy, ``it's the nature of Islamic thought to have many options,'' says Abdel Moti Bayoumi, who heads the Islamic Research Compilation Center in Cairo. ``But there are too many unqualified opinions being spread, and this is wrong.''

The result is what MENA, Egypt's official news agency, calls ``fatwa chaos.''

Proliferation

Mainstream Islamic scholars blame TV and the Web for the proliferation of pronouncements, which are supposed to be based on the Koran and words attributed to the prophet Mohammed. Confusing opinions are reaching millions of believers, these critics say.

Dissident preachers fault establishment clerics for issuing what they consider abstruse and sometimes ridiculous judgments. As evidence, they cite recent fatwas from the university that ban sculptures, authorize female circumcision and one in May saying women who meet alone with men ought to breastfeed them to create a ``maternal'' bond that precludes having sex.

Among non-Muslims in the West, fatwas burst into prominence in 1989, when the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini put a death sentence on author Salman Rushdie for supposed blasphemy in his novel ``The Satanic Verses.''

Clerics are supposed to have religious and legal training on which to base their authority. Even trained scholars have issued contradictory fatwas about whether suicide bombing and attacks on civilians are justified, creating political and theological controversies.

Unified Standards

After the breastfeeding edict gained worldwide notoriety, Ali Gomaa, the chief scholar at Al-Azhar mosque, suggested that Muslims establish unified standards for pronouncing fatwas.

On Sept. 28, Al-Azhar University, which is affiliated with the mosque, announced it is setting up its own TV station to issue proper edicts and avoid ``fatwa chaos,'' according to MENA. A week later, the Council of Senior Muslim Clerics in Saudi Arabia said it is creating a Web site to provide quick access to its rulings.

The mishmash of opinions has created ``crises and confusion'' at a time when Muslims are ``in utmost need of coherence and unity,'' Seif Abdul Fattah, a professor of Islamic political thought at Cairo University, wrote in an Oct. 4 article for Al-Ahram newspaper.

The Web site for Dar al-Ifta, Al-Azhar University's fatwa department, currently includes pronouncements about the propriety of keeping dogs indoors (no, because ``dogs are filth'') and theft using credit cards to strike back at the United States and Israel for ``waging war'' on Muslims (credit- card fraud ``does not conform to the teachings of Islam''). It also rejects using loudspeakers to broadcast prayers during a burial (``silence and tranquility are more appropriate'').

Today the Dar al-Ifta Web site answers the question whether it's all right to celebrate Mother's Day (yes).

Criticism

Mohammed Salmawy, head of the Egyptians Writers Union, wrote a sardonic column in the Oct. 20 edition of Cairo's Daily News newspaper criticizing fatwas that urge women to cover themselves from head to foot and travel in taxis only in the company of a male relative -- practices uncommon in Egypt.

``The competition between our revered sheikhs has reached such heights that not a week goes by, after an issuance of a new and ingenious fatwa in one country, before another fatwa crops up in another to outdo it,'' the secular commentator wrote.

Adding to the tension is a rivalry between establishment clerics and a new breed of television preachers, says Amr Khaled, a former accountant turned ``tele-imam'' who eschews the customary robes of Muslim imams for a coat and tie. His show, ``Paradise in Our House,'' appears on four Middle East satellite stations, and Time Magazine picked him as one of its 100 most influential people for 2007.

Optimistic Style

Khaled, 40, acknowledges that he lacks formal theological training and models his program on Oprah Winfrey's optimistic style seasoned with religious teaching. He says mainstream scholars are out of touch with the needs of young people, especially women. ``If I can take viewers away from following bad fatwas, I will,'' he says. ``Unfortunately, there's some injustice said in the name of Islam, and they come out of even respected institutions.''

Even if tele-imams like Khaled don't issue formal edicts, ``it is a fine line between giving advice and fatwas, and people are rightly confused,'' says the Islamic Research Compilation Center's Bayoumi.

``The real problem is that religion is being put out front at all times and injected into everything,'' says Aly Elsamman, head of Al-Azhar University's Dialogue and Islamic Relations Committee. ``This makes the need for knowledge more pressing, but the need isn't met.'' ( Bloomberg )

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