Fatwa Chaos
A Philippine Muslim woman puts an 'X' mark on a placard with a picture of 
former president and presidential candidate Joseph Estrada during a rally in 
Taguig, south of Manila on 23 March 2010, that supports the religious edict or 
'fatwa' recently issued by a group of Islamic scholars and elders in the south 
that declared Estrada an enemy of Islam.

By Caryle Murphy 

Published: Monday 23 August 2010 Updated: Monday 23 August 2010 

The issuing of fatwas, or religious rulings, by sometimes badly trained Islamic 
scholars is proliferating all across the Muslim world. The purposes of some of 
these fatwas, which are supposed to be based in the knowledge and wisdom of 
those who issue them, are quite disturbing and are tarnishing the image of 
Islam. For Muslim governments, this expansion of fatwa-issuing is becoming a 
growing concern. 

RIYADH-A well-known Saudi religious scholar recently advised that a woman could 
become kin to a man-and thus be alone with him without violating the Islamic 
ban on gender mixing-by giving him five sips of her breast milk. This religious 
ruling, or fatwa, followed one in Somalia prohibiting Muslims from watching the 
soccer World Cup; one in Malaysia saying Muslims should not do yoga; two in 
Egypt, one saying married couples should not disrobe when having sex and the 
other one labeling Facebook users sinners; and one in Pakistan forbidding polio 
vaccination because it's a Western plot to harm Muslims.           

These rulings on trivial matters are not the most disturbing fatwas these days. 
Far more worrisome are takfir rulings, which declare someone an apostate from 
Islam, usually to justify killing him. Takfir rulings, favored by extremist 
groups like Al-Qaeda, first came to prominence in the West in 1989 when Iran's 
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa sanctioning the murder of British 
author Salman Rushdie for his controversial novel Satanic Verses. The writer 
spent many years in hiding as a result. 

Questionable religious rulings, sometimes by badly trained Islamic scholars, 
are proliferating in Islam, tarnishing the image of this global faith. This 
fatwa chaos, as some Muslims call it, stems from Islam's lack of a central 
authority comparable to, for example, the Roman Catholic Church's Vatican. For 
centuries, this wasn't a problem because most people could not read and write. 
They were content to follow the religious advice of scholars respected within 
their communities.  

But the explosion of literacy and global communications created conditions in 
which more Muslims could aspire to be fatwa-issuing scholars, and transmit 
those rulings to a wide audience-sometimes with political agendas. In remarks 
to a January 2009 international conference of Muslim scholars in Mecca, King 
Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz lamented that "the Islamic world has been plagued by an 
extremely negative phenomenon, which is the tendency to deliver fatwas by 
unqualified persons, especially on satellite television channels, the Internet 
and other modern channels of communication . Issuing ill-considered fatwas 
without following any criterion offers biased, ignorant, extremist or careless 
individuals the opportunity to pose as religious experts qualified to issue 
fatwas," added the king. The modern proliferation of fatwas raises a key 
question: When is a fatwa a fatwa, and when is it just the personal opinion of 
someone who calls himself a sheikh?           

Traditionally, fatwas addressed major life issues and were presented by a 
scholar after careful consideration of Islamic scriptures, prior relevant 
rulings, and the current conditions in which Muslims lived. But today, many 
"rulings" are issued on the spur of the moment by scholars in response to 
questions called in by television viewers. For Muslim governments, this 
expansion of fatwa-issuing is a growing concern because it challenges the 
state's authority and control. And "battling" contradictory fatwas confuse 
their citizens.

Saudi Arabia, once a bastion of carefully controlled fatwa-giving, has sought 
for more than a year now to resolve this predicament. Its most far-reaching 
move came in the first week of Ramadan when King Abdullah issued a royal order 
that only clerics on the Council of Senior 'Ulema, a body of religious scholars 
appointed by the king, are permitted to issue fatwas on matters of public 
concern. The decree does not apply to personal fatwas that address specific 
issues for individuals. "All those who violate this order subject themselves to 
accountability and punishment, whoever they are, because the interests of the 
religion and the nation are above anything else," the decree warned.

A few weeks prior to the king's order, the Council of Senior 'Ulema had 
announced that it is setting up regional panels to issue fatwas in each of the 
kingdom's 14 provinces. The idea is that residents of the provinces should go 
to these official panels for religious guidance. The measure comes just months 
after the Ministry of Islamic Affairs banned the issuing of fatwas by anyone 
not on the Council of Senior 'Ulema-a ban widely ignored. 

Earlier, in January 2009, the Saudi-led Muslim World League sponsored an 
international gathering of scholars in Mecca to establish guidelines for 
issuing fatwas. "The occupation of issuing religious edicts," stated its final 
communiqué, "should not be looked upon as a mere office for expressing personal 
opinion." Addressing takfir fatwas, it also cautioned Muslims "to take every 
possible precaution not to call an individual Muslim infidel as it is not 
permissible at all...unless he commits an act that clearly violates Islam." 

Another major effort by the Saudi government will occur in September when 
Al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud University stages an international conference on 
takfir aimed at limiting fatwas on this topic to scholars allied with Muslim 
governments. Saud Al-Sarhan, a Saudi doctoral student specializing in the 
kingdom's Islamist community, said he doubts these efforts to control 
fatwa-giving will be successful, partly "because it's a big business" now as 
"every TV channel" has fatwa-issuing programs with their own scholars. 

The breast milk fatwa, which came from Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Al-Obeikan, an 
advisor to the royal court, was an entirely novel interpretation of an ancient 
story in Islamic tradition and of an old custom in which Muslim women 
breastfeed an infant so the child becomes the equivalent of her own. The fatwa 
was met with outrage from all quarters in the kingdom and sparked ridicule of 
Islam by non-Muslim commentators. But weird fatwas like these are not the only 
ones causing controversy in the kingdom. Rulings that please progressive 
Muslims often draw fire from conservatives. That was the case, for example, 
with Sheikh Ahmed Al- Ghamdi's ruling in December that Islam allows men and 
women to mingle in public places like universities. And more recently, 
conservatives were upset by Riyadh scholar Adel Al-Kalbani's finding that 
singing is permissible as long as lyrics are decent. Al-Kalbani later reversed 
himself, telling Al-Hayat newspaper he had been wrong.            

Official scholars denounced such rulings and the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz 
Aal Al-Sheikh, told a religious television station that "those who offer 
abnormal fatwas which have no support from the Quran should be halted." Other 
conservative sheikhs resorted to personal attacks, calling authors of such 
fatwas "ignorant" scholars who risk going to hell. 

Observing this fatwa chaos, Abdullah Bajad Al-Otaibi suggested that ordinary 
Muslims do their part to stop it. "The permissible and the non-permissible are 
quite often self-evident and may be resolved through the application of 
commonsense," Al-Otaibi, who writes about Islamic affairs, said in an essay in 
the Saudi Gazette. "People do not need to solicit a fatwa for each and 
everything they do," he added. "It is rather strange and unfortunate that 
people have become so reliant on fatwas that they do not try to think for 

Caryle Murphy - An independent journalist based in Riyadh and Pulitzer Prize 
Winner in Journalism in 1991. She is the author of "Passion for Islam."

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