Since Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses earned him a death threat, the fatwa has come to symbolize fundamentalist Islam. What was once simply a religious ruling or opinion, often issued in response to a specific query, the fatwa has increasingly become a tool for advancing personal, pragmatic, and political agendas. This is why the fatwa itself is controversial in the Muslim world. Rarely are fatwas issued by competent authorities, and many Muslims view them as an embarrassing violation of Islam’s anti-hierarchical edicts. Some mathhabs (Islamic schools of thought) have dispensed with them completely. Following is a selection of the many uses of fatwas in 2005.
Egypt’s number-two cleric, Ali Gomaa, Mufti of the Republic, issued a fatwa permitting Muslim shop owners in Europe to sell alcohol to their non-Muslim patrons.
In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, a prolific issuer of fatwas, declared that any Iraqi who did not vote for the United Shi’i Coalition list would be legally separated from his wife, and would also go to hell.
After a disappointing showing during the first round of parliamentary elections in Iraq, more than a thousand Sunni clerics called for a collective fatwa, this time stating that it was each Sunni’s religious duty to vote.
One Stop Shopping
In Bangladesh, the following was announced during Ramadan from a mosque microphone in the Haripur region: “No woman will be able to go to the market for shopping, and if any shopkeeper is found to sell goods to any woman, he will be fined 500 taka.” The fatwa resulted in losses for angry merchants.
Sheikh Afif al-Nabulsi, president of the Jabal Amil Ulema Association, banned any “Shi’i parties from joining the Lebanese government to replace Amal and Hezbollah.” This attempt at consolidation along Shi’i lines opposed the calls for plurality in Lebanon’s nascent democracy.
The Algerian militant Hassan Kattab, founder of the Group for Call and Combat, requested a fatwa from Saudi dignitaries that would enable him to sit down at negotiations with Algerian government authorities, whom he had previously declared impious.
In India, a senior cleric of the Sunni Ulema Board condemned the “short” skirt of Sania Mirza, the first female Muslim tennis player to be ranked among the world’s top 40. Mirza, incidentally, prays five times a day and comes from a devout family.
Setting the Record Straight
After the London bomb attacks in July, more than 500 British Muslim scholars and leaders declared suicide bombings “vehemently prohibited” and offered condolences to the victims. Gul Mohammad, secretary general of the British Muslim Forum, added, “Islam’s position is clear and unequivocal: Murder of one soul is the murder of the whole of humanity.”
Daruls Are Made to be Broken
The Darul-Uloom Deoband, a 150-year-old Muslim seminary in India, ruled that a woman allegedly raped by her father-in-law would have to divorce her husband.
Still after Salman
After Iran’s previous, reformist government, which tried to distance itself from the initial fatwa, was replaced by hard-liners, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards renewed the 16-year-old death sentence against Salman Rushdie. There was no mention of what they thought of Rushdie’s latest novel, Shalimar the Clown.
In response to the question, “If a chicken defecates in my well, has [the water] become impure? How do I purify my well?” the Darul-Uloom Deoband — the same seminary that ruled on the alleged-rape case in India — answered: “Throw out 110 buckets of water from your well. Then it will be purified and the water can be used for wazu [washing before prayer].” (Commenting on a recent spate of ridiculous fatwas this fall, Indian journalist Saba Naqvi Bhaumik said, “Ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer.”)
Law v. Law
A cleric in Madhya Pradesh, India, independently nullified a divorce granted by a civil court. He was subsequently arrested by police.
“Soccer is Forbidden Except When Played as Training for Jihad.” This fatwa, translated into English this year and attributed to the Saudi Sheikh Abdallah Al-Najdi, was complemented by numerous directives, including: “One should not use the terminology established by the non-believers and the polytheists, like ‘foul,’ ‘penalty kick’... Whoever pronounces these terms should be punished, reprimanded, kicked out of the game, and should even be told in public: ‘You have come to resemble the non-believers and the polytheists, and this had been forbidden.’”
In Iran, after a Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft crashed into a building, killing all onboard, public outcry led a group of mullahs to claim that the plane, which originally had no insurance, was actually insured by a private company and that the victims’ families would each receive 300 million rials.
Comedy of Errors
Saudi Arabia’s General Presidency for Youth Welfare forced the Al Safa sports club in Safwa to cancel a play featuring a female character played by a male. Thinking that the use of a male actor would spare them the charge of indecency, the play’s organizers obtained permission from the Ministry of Information. But they were snared by another body, the Permanent Committee for Scientific Research and the Issuing of Fatwas, which forbids plays in which men imitate women.
The Ultimate Fatwa
Salma, a novelist and poet in Tamil Nadu, India, commenting on the legitimacy of fatwas: “Nothing they say seems to affect menfolk. It is undemocratic, beyond reforms. What we really need is a fatwa against all fatwas.”