'chaos of fatwas'?
Over 400,000 religious rulings, or fatwas, are now issued each year in Egypt, but does this prove Egypt is a truly religious society, asks Omnia El-Desouki
International media reports routinely describe Egypt as a "conservative religious society", and it is true that the Dar Al-Iftaa at Al-Azhar in Cairo now issues some 465,000 fatwas -- or religious edicts -- a year, either verbally or in written form via SMS or e-mail. However, some religious scholars believe that this huge number of religious rulings may not demonstrate that Egyptian society is conservative. In fact, they say, there are reasons to believe the opposite.
For Muslims in Egypt and around the world, fatwas are a bridge between the principles of Islam and modern life. People ask religious scholars who have studied the Quran, the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed and the relevant jurisprudence for guidance to help them meet the needs of the contemporary world.
However, the increase in the number of fatwas issued and the rise in the number of people professing religious habits have raised questions about the motivation behind at least some of those demanding guidance. Are they looking for a way of dealing with the difficulties of daily life?
One indication of contemporary religious habits can be had by observing people's behaviour when visiting the Sayeda Zeinab or Sayeda Nafisa mosques, or when they visit other mosques dedicated to God's righteous. People congregate at the mosques in order to pray for intercession, asking those to whom the mosques are dedicated to mediate between them and God and to help them overcome their hardships.
"She is the granddaughter of the Prophet. God will listen to our prayers for her sake," said one woman who visits the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque in Cairo on a weekly basis in order to pray and seek help. Thousands of other men and women go to other mosques dedicated to the grandchildren of the Prophet Mohamed, sometimes mosques where these figures are believed to be buried.
"Some people go in order to find moral or psychological security, while others are looking for a refuge from the increasing problems of daily life. There may also be others who are joining a bandwagon," commented Madiha El-Safti, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo.
According to reports from the Dar Al-Iftaa, in the past scholars of Islam used to gain prominence by issuing fatwas characterised by their objectivity and integrity, but in 2010 many fatwas dealt with issues that are being debated in the media, such as whether or not one should find out the sex of an unborn child, what attitude to take towards suicide bombings and the use of drugs.
"The recent increase in fatwas and the increase of religious habits that are not properly Islamic have nothing to do with being a good Muslim," said scholar Sheikh Saber Talaab. Some people may even be using Islam as a way of legitimating their actions, some religious scholars say, acting in an ostensibly religious way without in fact being aware of the rulings of Islam or of how to be a proper Muslim.
"One example is praying to God through the Prophet's grandchildren, when the correct way would be to pray to God directly. Instead of appealing to the grandchildren of the Prophet, people should learn from them and implement their example in their own lives," Talaab said. "Some people have become shallowly religiously, perhaps because they have become too aware of their own difficulties."
However, the misuse of religion can also have more serious consequences, particularly when individuals are tempted to carry out violent or criminal acts in the name of Islam. "There is a lot of violence in the world," said Sheikh Mahmoud Ashour, a member of the Islamic Research Centre at Al-Azhar, and there are people who may use religion wrongly, perhaps even as a tool to deceive others.
Over recent decades, there have been terrorist attacks throughout the world blamed on Islamist militants who have followed beliefs linked to fatwas issued by Muslim clerics. In order to help resolve this situation, Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, has issued a warning against what he called the "chaos of fatwas" being offered on satellite TV channels, otherwise known as "satellite fatwas".
Any fatwa, Gomaa said, should be in line with Islamic teachings and could in no case depend on personal whims. However, the situation needed to be properly regulated, and "this will not take place until we go back to having a proper fatwa body and jurisprudence boards," Gomaa said in a lecture delivered in Khartoum last week.
There is no regulation of the television programmes that issue religious guidance in the form of fatwas, but according to some sheikhs interviewed, some of the shows are hosted by scholars trained at Al-Azhar, while others are hosted by people who lack a proper knowledge of Islam.
"People have in some cases not been properly taught religion at school, which means that they are not able critically to understand any given fatwa. As a result, they may be unable to tell a correct from an incorrect opinion, and they may opt for shallow religiosity instead of true religious feeling," Ashour said.
Safti explains such religiosity by adding that there has been a "disruption in social values over recent years, and this has led people to seek ever-greater numbers of fatwas in the hope of receiving guidance. However, not all these fatwas are accurately based, and there has been a lot of distortion."
Egypt, of course, has always been a profoundly religious country, even in ancient times when the ancient Egyptians built their civilisation on religion and spirituality. Egyptians today are profoundly spiritual and religious people, and religious scholars believe that this is something that people should build on. However, they also warn against listening to the siren calls of false religion, instead of attending to the true core and principles of religion.
"It may be that people should reduce their thirst for fatwas and instead start acting for the betterment of future generations," Talaab said.
Controversial religious edicts
Yemeni Sheikh Abdel-Maguid Al-Zein issued a fatwa (religious edict) to facilitate marriages in the form of "Zawag Friend", ie young dating couples get officially married while studying and living with their parents.
Qatar-based Egyptian Islamic scholar Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, who heads the European Council on Fatwa and Research, has finally cleared up the controversy surrounding his recent fatwa, which appeared to allow the killing of US civilians in Iraq, while condemning -- at the same time -- the abduction of innocent journalists and the mutilation of dead bodies as blasphemous. El-Qaradawi, a scholar known both for his strong stance against the 9/11 attacks (when he also urged Muslims worldwide to donate blood to help the victims) and his anti-terrorist writings, explained to the press in Doha that "Islam only allows killing those engaged in combat, and definitely not civilians." But, for El-Qaradawi, whether there are actually "any innocent US civilians in Iraq" remains an open question.
A fatwa was issued by Al-Azhar allowing people suffering from "limited mental handicap" to marry and have children. The fatwa came as a response to a question posed by Mohamed Salah, head of the "Last Wahdak" (You Are Not Alone) Foundation for the handicapped. "I sent a question to the Mufti Ali Gomaa and two months later I received the response," explained Salah, which was that "the mentally handicapped can indeed marry."
Another controversial fatwa issued in 2005 was right after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, when the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi was quick to rule that normalisation with Israel was religiously acceptable. "Islam does not prohibit normalisation with other countries, especially Israel, as long as this normalisation is in non-religious domains and serves some worldly interests," Tantawi told a gathering at a festival held to mark the national day of Sharqiya governorate.
In reaction to the fatwa, Prominent Palestinian Islamic scholar Sheikh Hamed Al-Beitawi, who is also head of the Palestinian Scholars League, was quick to denounce the fatwa on the grounds that it "greatly serves the Israeli occupation, which is unacceptable in Islam," and urged the grand imam to retract it.
Sheikh Gamal El-Banna ruled that smoking does not break the Ramadan fast ---- a fatwa that proved extremely controversial -- stating that he believed smoking to be makrouh (undesirable if not haram, or prohibited) due to its adverse effects on health, and that he himself is not a smoker, he explained that, since it involves no liquid or solid entering the body, smoking does not break the fast, prompting the official fatwa-issuing body, Dar Al-Iftaa, to issue a declaration to the contrary, reasserting orthodox beliefs.
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, issued a fatwa, in which he appeared to call for the flogging of those found guilty of libel. They should, he said, be lashed 80 times, his reference being a passage in the Quran which, as his critics have pointed out, refers explicitly to those impugning the reputation of a virtuous woman. The fatwa gained notoriety since it followed the prison sentences passed against seven journalists found guilty of libelling senior members of the National Democratic Party, foremost among them President Hosni Mubarak and his 43-year-old son Gamal.
Al-Azhar scholar, Ezzat Atia, issued a fatwa claiming that if a female employee wanted to sit alone with her male co-worker, she should breast-feed him five times to the full so that he becomes like her son, thus they can sit together alone in the office.
The first event to raise concern about the content of the religious channels came in the form of a fatwa issued by Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, which allowed people to do as they see fit with antiquities or other items found on their property and to destroy statues or images in their possession or found on their land, since these could be considered haram, or forbidden, in Islam. However, in an interview with the television channel Al-Jazeera, Hassan appeared to go back on his original ruling, saying that it did not take proper account of its possible effects. Antiquities are a legacy entrusted to humanity as a whole, Hassan said. That being so, they could not belong to individuals alone, and anyone finding antiquities on land he owned should deliver them to the state.