Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
5 - 11 August 1999
Issue No. 441
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Frailty, thy name is mufti

By Youssef Rakha

From the point of view of architecture, at least, Al-Azhar Mosque -- once the centre of learning not only in Egypt but in the entire Arab world -- retains the overwhelming vastness and imposing grandeur of the great mashayekhs' days. The recently established Al-Azhar University grounds in Nasr City, by contrast, are a drab, unimposing sight. Aesthetically, they are an inferior version of the Cairo University campus. The corridors are interminable and bare, and the staff offices are disturbingly reminiscent of bureaucrats' rooms.

Yet this, it would seem, is the heart of religious learning in Egypt today. Never mind the fact that parts of the buildings are, physically, in a state of disrepair. The intellectual interaction undertaken within their walls makes them the religious establishment's foremost educational fortress. Many of the subjects taught here are not offered by secular universities. Unlike other claims to religious truth, moreover, those being made by Al-Azhar most often enjoy the full sanction not only of the government but also of history, and the religious scholars who make them may even view themselves as the direct descendants of such eminent educators/public figures as Sheikh Mohamed Abduh and Sheikh Abdallah Daraz.

The fact that there are among them, however, complicates the issue somewhat. If not for a long history of exclusion and the relative novelty, in contemporary Egyptian society, of the notion of a female religious leader, the desire of Professor Soad Ibrahim Saleh to occupy an official position in Dar Al-Iftaa' would not have attracted attention in the first place. Since then, however, the media worldwide have shown an exaggerated interest in "the woman who would be mufti", and attempts have been made, albeit controversially, to relate the question to issues of gender equality and the place of women in the religious community.

Among other eminent positions, Saleh heads the fiqh (jurisprudence) department of the women's college in Al-Azhar University. Fiqh, she explains, is the most relevant of Islam's major disciplines to everyday life. Unlike tafsir (Qur'anic exegesis) or hadith (the study of the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed), to mention but two examples, fiqh deals directly with the question of how to make it from one day to the next. What to eat, how to dress and when to have a shower: these issues are all subsumed within the sphere of this most practical of disciplines, Saleh insists; and it is those with a sound grounding in fiqh who are best equipped to administer to the faithful the necessary day-to-day doses of advice.

Unlike the general precepts of the faith, the fundamentals, that part of the Shari'a which was subject to change remained (remains?) open to debate, and to the ijtihad (independent interpretation) of whoever took it upon himself to acquire the knowledge necessary to make judgements. But after the four major madhahib (doctrines) were established, the door to ijtihad was shut for good -- to borrow the phrase most often used in describing the event -- and all that scholars of fiqh had left to do was to expound the positions of the madhahib in detail, as they were determined by their respective fuqahaa (scholars of jurisprudence), adapting them only when absolutely necessary.

This interpretative adaptation, among other things, is the mufti's job: delivering legal opinions on questions pertinent to the sacred law. The Grand Mufti of the Republic is officially an employee of the Ministry of Justice, but he is appointed by the president upon advice from the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the minister of justice and the minister of awqaf (religious endowments). Invariably, the mufti is a man. Yet sometimes it is more convenient for women to pose their questions to a woman, and there is nothing in the Shari'a itself to prevent a woman from acting as a mufti where and when appropriate.

"I've simplified things as much as I can," Saleh says apologetically. "All that is required of a scholar in order for him or her to become a mufti is knowledge of the madhahib and the ability to communicate them. I lack neither. I do that all the time anyway. I appear on television in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries. I also participate in public gatherings, at social clubs and sometimes even in people's homes, and my phone number is widely available to all those women, and even to some men, who need my counsel. The current mufti, in fact, has been a colleague of mine. Our academic and professional careers have been exactly contemporaneous. And we deeply respect and value each other. But the point is that I wasn't allowed to practice in Dar Al-Iftaa even though I have exactly the same qualifications as him. The only difference between us is that he is a man while I am a woman. As I say, though, none of it makes that much difference to me. I'm already as well recognised as I ever wanted to be, and my services are available to as many people as possible."

So what, exactly, has triggered the controversy surrounding Saleh's alleged desire to be the mufti? She recites a number of Qur'anic verses and hadith to establish her point about the role of women in Islam. "I should also make it clear that I never demanded an official position. That would be out of the question, practically speaking. All I wanted to do was to meet women in Dar Al-Iftaa." While her role as a "herald" -- an increasingly widespread occupation, particularly among self-appointed women -- may remind some of evangelism, it remains true that this kind of voluntary service is in great demand. And from the point of view of the establishment and society alike, Saleh is more qualified for it than others.

"Often women will feel uneasy discussing certain topics with men. And whatever advice I give, I justify from the madhahib. People circulate all sorts of falsehoods, and it's easy for women to fall prey to them, if they fail to find someone qualified with whom they feel comfortable enough." Why, indeed, should Dar Al-Iftaa remain the sole province of men? "The Grand Mufti himself was very enthusiastic about my suggestion," says Saleh. "He really welcomed the idea when I first spoke to him about it. But since then I have heard nothing."

Nearly a year has passed since Saleh's initial attempt to penetrate Dar Al-Iftaa', only to encounter this silence, but she has been careful not to put the blame on Islam. "These are social attitudes that date back a long, long time," she says, "which we must not attribute to Islam because Islam, which honoured women and gave them all their rights, can never be guilty of them."

The problem, she points out, is not restricted to the religious establishment, nor even to Egypt. "How many women have managed to become presidents or even reached high-ranking positions of any kind? In Egypt, women are still unable to become judges. It is backward and lamentable, but it may take centuries to change."

What does she plan on doing about it? "As I said, whether or not I can work in Dar Al-Iftaa doesn't really affect my own life. Of course, it is up to them now. But I doubt whether anything will happen very soon." Saleh adjusts her position behind the table and asks me what I would like to drink. "Have you understood everything, then? Does anything remain unclear?" she asks. "Really, the important thing is not to confuse these attitudes with Islam. After all, the university is still here, and women can still perform their duties, whether or not they are acknowledged by Dar Al-Iftaa."

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