What you didn’t know about the Islamic fatwa

What you didn’t know about the Islamic fatwa

CAIRO: Breast feeding. Yes, breast feeding, was the cause for controversy after Al-Azhar University lecturer Ezzat Atiyya issued a fatwa that suggested women should allow their male colleagues to breast feed in order to limit sexual harassment. “Breast feeding an adult puts an end to the problem of the private meeting, and does not ban marriage,” he ruled. “A woman at work can take off the veil or reveal her hair in front of someone whom she breastfed.”

Of course, it sparked outrage from conservative and liberal Muslims alike. They questioned the sanity of the religious scholar and demanded a retraction. After being threatened with disciplinary action by the university, Atiyya finally retracted, arguing the fatwa was “a bad interpretation of a particular case” during the time of Mohammad and that it was based on the opinions of only a minority of scholars.

The resulting controversy led Egypt’s minister of religious affairs, Mahmoud Zaqzouq, has called for future fatwas to “be compatible with logic and human nature.”

But, with so much consternation and a lack of acceptance of the supposed “Islamic edict” as so often translated in English and Western press, the question should not be about which fatwa is issued, but really, what is a fatwa and why they don’t matter, many scholars argue.

“A fatwa is the opinion of a religious sheikh and while we would like to believe they are binding, history tells us otherwise. We have no clergy in Islam and only God and Sunna (deeds and sayings of Prophet Mohamed) are truly binding,” said a prominent sheikh at Al-Azhar’s office of conversion recently when asked about a fatwa that Muslim children should not name their teddy bears after the Prophet.

“They are kids and they are having fun. It should be taken as a sign of faith, not bigotry,” he added.

During the early years of Islam, a fatwa was provided in order to give guidance to followers, who would ask questions on how to live their lives in accordance with the Qur’an. This was due to the infancy of the faith and the need for scholars to help Believers follow the Islamic path. Today, it appears that almost all religious leaders, are able to use a fatwa in place of an opinion.

A fatwa is just that, an opinion, says Samer Ali, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “In both classical and modern times, a fatwa is simply a legal opinion by a religious scholar and does not have the force of law,” he argues.

This would agree with the results of the breastfeeding and teddy bear fatwas. Nobody seemed to notice or take them seriously. When Ayatollah Khomeini issued his famous death threats fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie over “Satanic Verses” Muslims in Britain, Ali says, paid little to no attention to the demands to kill the Indian author.

“A fatwa only gains the force of law (Hukum or ruling) if and when it enjoys ijmaa‘ or consensus, which rarely happens since there is almost always a diversity of opinions on these matters. Actually, literally literally, a fatwa in Arabic means simply ‘response to question’,” Ali continues.

Here in Egypt this is seen clearly by a hot-line number established by the Ministry of Religious Endowments that allows citizens to call in with their questions. Fatwas are then issued in response to citizens’ concerns for all to see. The ministry is basically responding to questions put forth by average Muslims, as Ali argues.

Then, why does Western press so-often report a fatwa as an “Islamic edict?” Ali argues that an edict, by definition presumes that “the person has the authority to issue a proclamation and two, the statement is ‘official’.”  Within Sunni Islam there is no “official” body or agency that officiates the issuance of fatwas, hence the massive contradictory statements.

“The effect of any given fatwa is no more than the opining of a dietitian competing with other dietitians to give advice to the overweight and the overweight audiences make up their own mind,” Ali says, attempting to show how non-binding fatwas are actually.

Just like Christians who seek out a religious leader to their liking, Muslims “shop” for the one that best fits their needs. “Shopping for fatwas is only human nature.”

While journalists and scholars continue to draw comparisons of a fatwa to a religious “edict,” the reality is far from connecting. A fatwa is simply an Islamic “opinion” or “response” that has no real authority over a population unless the people choose to make it so. Ali gives a better comparison for Western-educated scholars and intellectuals with a “Christian” upbringing and understanding.

“For example, the parallel of the Qur’an in Christianity is not the Bible, but Christ himself, since he is the vehicle of salvation, i.e. the word of God. The parallel to a Papal Edict is not a fatwa or ‘Islamic edict’ but the slow multi-generational bottom-up process of Islamic legal scholarship and consensus and law making.”

The next time Osama bin Laden issues a fatwa and commentators translate it as “Islamic edict” take it with a grain of salt. Obviously, it is not a binding statement that all Muslims must follow and kill foreigners where they stand. If that were the case, the one billion Muslims would have dominated the globe by now.

A fatwa is nothing more than an “opinion” and it seems more and more unlikely to go unnoticed.