Argument

Fatwa Overload

Why Middle East sheikhs are running amok.

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.

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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.

One afternoon, he let me spend a few hours listening in to the hundreds of calls he got each day. The Islamic Line was designed to help listeners negotiate the dense thicket of religious tradition in minimal time. Ninety percent of the callers were women and 30 percent of all calls were about sex, which Sheikh Guindi believed indicated that many felt more comfortable asking deeply personal questions over the telephone than in person. The irrepressible sheikh himself giggled at some of the calls -- like one man asking how to use a condom or another demanding why, exactly, smoking hashish is forbidden or the woman wanting to know what the reward for her gender was in heaven given that men were promised a bevy of beautiful virgins. (The answer: one man, but such a good one that she would want no other.) The sheikh attributed the high volume of calls about sex to the fact that unemployed young people had plenty of free time on their hands and were more inclined to experiment.

Although his call-in fatwa line was in format modern, his answers hardly represented a departure from tradition. One man called asking if masturbation is a sin; the sheikh counseled prayer and lots of sports before marriage. Another man said he had a gay friend and wanted to know how Islam judged homosexuals. Sheikh Guindi said it was such a big sin that it shook the heavens and that the mans friend should repent --consulting a doctor if he is sick and getting married if he is single. The sheikh advised the caller to drop his friendship with the man lest he fall under the homosexual spell. Listening, I was struck by just how much the religious establishment still held sway over so many people.

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In Saudi Arabia, many fatwas are devoted to scolding about the evils of Western life gaining a foothold in the birthplace of Islam. Innovation, or bidaa in Arabic, is a dirty word in the kingdom. Walking around upscale shopping malls in Jidda or Riyadh, I would see bearded men in short robes, the mark of a puritan because it supposedly mirrored the Prophet Mohammeds look, handing out tracts brimming with freshly minted fatwas. The pamphlets were brief, easy to read and written in bold letters with colorful Arabic fonts.

The variations on a common theme seemed endless. One pamphlet declared that having music as your cell phone ring tone was forbidden; another denounced the Western practice of bringing flowers to hospital patients. (No Muslim ever did so in ancient times so it was clearly aping the infidel rather than benefiting the patient and therefore taboo.) Ceremonies modeled on Western practices, like passing out awards to 47 exceptional teachers on something called International Teachers Day, were decried as shameful. I read one tract that fulminated against credit cards, saying it was a sin to use them because it meant paying interest, which Islam bars. Another leaflet, distributed by an organization called The Office to Propagate Spiritual Guidance in Jidda, warned, If non-Muslims greet you on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year, you should not reply to them, explaining, What you think might be courtesy in these matters is actually acquiescence in religion.

One Friday, a friend emerged from the weekly mosque sermon and found under his windshield wipers a 47-page screed condemning the evils of the tourism industry that Saudi Arabia was trying to develop. Among its most dire warnings was that all Saudis would be forced to swim on nudist beaches -- foreigners working in the kingdom had already turned charming offshore islands into hotbeds of naked women -- and that wherever tourists gather there is sure to be alcohol and endless wanton spectacles like ballet and belly dancing. The mere entry of these infidels into the country is itself a great vice for which we will be punished, not to mention their nakedness, their uncovered women and their depravity, the tract thundered, arguing that anyone who worked in the industry was bound to become a prostitute or a pimp. In Egypt all tourists guides, women and men, specialize in sexual entertainment.

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To me, the fatwa phenomenon underscores a key problem in trying to foment any lasting change or reform in the Middle East. There are so many competing voices, all claiming legitimacy and competing for authority. The cacophony hampers singling out any one ruling as authentic. Who can sort out the contradictions, when fatwas issued on exactly the same question -- like whether the sexes can share a car to Mecca, or whether women can run in elections -- wind up promoting opinions that are polar opposites? Critics say too many fatwas are rooted in decidedly worldly objectives, such as a desire to push a particular policy, far more often than in weighty religious wisdom. The fact that some governments keep senior clerics on the payroll obviously casts doubt on their rulings. It is difficult for anyone to separate fatwas rooted in a genuine desire to interpret the faith from those formulated to achieve political goals.

On the other hand, even the most reactionary fatwas point to the simple fact that new influences are present, and being wrestled with publicly. Naturally, I found it frustrating that the public, rather than embracing political change, would turn to religious scholars to consult medieval texts as to whether or not participating in elections was a good idea. But the mere fact that more people are now asking such a range questions is itself a sign of progress, even as they cast about for answers in perhaps the only manner they know how. What is unquestionably true is that the rising tide of fatwas stems from an intense jostling between tradition and modernity across the Islamic world.

MOHAMMED AL-SEHITI/AFP/Getty Images

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