Whenever I mention the word fatwa to friends in the West, they usually equate it with a death sentence. This stems from what I expect is the most famous fatwa of modern times, the one the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran leveled against the author Salman Rushdie in 1989, accusing him of blaspheming Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses and sentencing him to death. In the ensuing years, the fatwas that have attracted the attention of most foreign correspondents (I spent five years in Cairo as bureau chief for the New York Times) have been those with some manner of grim punishment involved.
But actually a fatwa, which simply means a legal opinion drawn from religious law, can be devoted to any topic, large or small, and the devout seek them out constantly like grease that smoothes all manner of daily decisions. Throughout the Islamic world, religious scholars issue fatwas on questions ranging from household quandaries to major issues of public policy. Often expressed in one terse sentence, fatwas can address mundane questions like whether a Muslim woman should ride a bicycle (usually not -- too publicly physical) or if a man ought to wear soccer shorts (only if they modestly come below his knees even when he sits down).
Sometimes the verdict is less clear. Take the conundrum of my Egyptian photographer friend, Mohammed El-Dakhakhny, who once wondered whether riding to Mecca in the same car with a female colleague who was not his wife would somehow negate any religious absolution gained by the voyage to the birthplace of Islam. He called a Saudi cleric for direction and was told, unequivocally, that sharing a vehicle was off-limits. But, as following this advice would prove a costly hassle, Mohammad later began to wonder, Maybe I can find another sheikh! He then sought direction from a second cleric, who gave him somewhat different advice, and he and the female reporter eventually shared one car to Mecca and back. Mohammeds technique is sometimes called fatwa shopping fishing around for a religious scholar who will endorse whatever the supplicant wants. That elasticity on any topic large or small underscores both the benefit and the bane of Islam having no formal ruling structure.
In theory, the proliferation of fatwas is meant to provide greater clarity. Muslims can rely on their local mosque leader or other respected figure to interpret and adapt complicated 1,400-year-old religious texts in ways applicable to their modern lives. In practice, the result is often confusion, as men with only the most tenuous religious training issue fatwas with impunity, and often with contradictory conclusions. The sheer number of fatwas now being issued raises the question of legitimacy (and sometimes provides rather flimsy religious justification for all manner of mayhem). Fatwas issued by official committees or senior clerical political leaders can carry the weight of law, but most are nonbinding, allowing states or individuals to pick and chose as they please, which just adds to the muddle.
During my time reporting in the Middle East, most fatwas or religious rulings I encountered fell into two broad categories. The first were social, the literally thousands of guidelines issued daily designed to help people navigate life; these cover myriad matters of hygiene and sex and dress and you name it. The second category can be lumped together as political fatwas, when the faithful call on religious authorities to help them decide on issues of the day; average citizens often turned to religious figures for their perspective on whether the whole process of political change, and with it the democratic political tradition taken for granted in the West, was acceptable under Islam. The welter of rulings on both these broad categories typically brought far more confusion than clear direction.
Most fatwas, especially social rulings, go largely unnoticed, although now and again one is so outrageous that the ensuing public outcry forces the religious authority to withdraw it. In Egypt in May 2007, for example, a working woman asked her imam, or cleric, whether she had to veil her hair around the one male colleague whom she had worked with every day for years and years. The cleric ruled that if she suckled her colleague on her breast five times, a traditional Islamic prescription for becoming a sanctioned surrogate mother, then he could be considered family and she could remove her headscarf at work. Naturally the idea of a grown, hirsute man slurping a female colleagues bared breast so that she could discard her more modest dress defied logic, not to mention breaking new ground, and the fatwa was shouted down amid great public brouhaha.***
Once, to understand what is behind the proliferation of fatwas, I went to Al-Azhar University, one of the worlds oldest centers of Muslim scholarship and set in the heart of Cairos teeming medieval quarter, to speak with Sheikh Khalid el-Guindi, a young religious scholar trying to modernize the whole fatwa process. Fatwas serve as the link between the various schools of Islam and contemporary reality, he told me, and are rooted in explaining sharia, or Islamic law, in a way that teaches people good morals: A fatwa is the means by which a sheikh works on repairing life through religion and closing the gap between what the religion demands and what actually occurs.
Sheikh Guindi also happens to be the main religious scholar behind a wildly popular dial-a-sheikh service then called The Islamic Line. Older scholars had criticized him because people had to pay for the service on their phone bills, arguing that fatwas should be free. But Sheikh Guindi brushed them aside as dinosaurs. As a matter of fact we -- a group of religious scholars -- understand that we have to work with the new technology and to use it to serve religion.