'New media' fatwas rankle Islamic establishment

The Internet, satellite television and even the telephone are increasingly being used in the Muslim world to issue fatwas — religious decrees — on issues as varied as whether women can pluck their eyebrows or good Muslims should read Harry Potter.

A fatwa is a ruling by a recognized Islamic scholar, often on a weighty matter. But the traditional definition is becoming blurred as Muslims turn to Islamic websites and "tele-imams" for advice on how to live their lives.

For example, going online turns up the fatwa on British author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, banning reading about the boy wizard because of his ties to witchcraft. Another says plucking women's eyebrows is "haram," or forbidden, because it alters God's creation. One exception: if the lady's bushy brows displease her husband.

Religious rulings have often been on grave topics. Many Westerners first heard the word "fatwa" when the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued one in 1989 condemning British writer Salman Rushdie to death, accusing him of blasphemy in his book The Satanic Verses.

More recently, fatwas have dealt with the question of whether suicide bombing is accepted under Islam, producing dueling opinions — not surprising given that Islam has no single, universally recognized source. Muslims across the world seek advice from various authorities representing different sects and schools of Islamic law.

But now the growth of so-called new media fatwas has upset Egypt's religious establishment, which fears an erosion of its authority to people without solid theological credentials.

Others applaud the increasing diversity of opinion and believe it is critical to updating Islamic theology and helping Muslims cope with modern life.

Traditionally, fatwas were been issued by a mufti, a scholar such as Ali Gomaa, Egypt's chief Sunni Muslim authority, known as the Grand Mufti. Gomaa heads Dar al-Iftaa, or the House of Fatwas; it and Al-Azhar University are Egypt's most important institutions for issuing fatwas and have influence with Sunnis everywhere.

Now, however, the proliferation of alternative outlets for religious advice offers Muslims the opportunity to seek guidance elsewhere and — some fear — to shop around until they find an opinion that may sanction questionable behavior.

"There is an opinion for every occasion and context, and evidence of people shopping around for the opinion that suits their particular need," said Gary Bunt, author of the book Islam in the Digital Age.

Numerous websites issue online fatwas in response to personal questions, including IslamOnline.net, Fatwa-Online.com and Ask-Imam.com. These sites are similar to ones that have sprung up in the West allowing people to seek opinions from rabbis or ministers.

Some of the Islamic sites are run by recognized religious figures, such as Sunni cleric Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, founder of IslamOnline. Several operate in English only, targeting the large number of Muslims outside the Middle East who don't speak Arabic.

Fatwas also are issued by satellite television programs and over the telephone, forcing traditional organizations like Dar al-Iftaa into a race to keep up. Gomaa's media adviser, Ibrahim Negm, said the institution has doubled the number of fatwas it issues daily through a year-old telephone hotline, and it is now developing a website to answer queries.

Negm said modern communications have helped fuel a growth in fatwas by making it much easier for people to solicit religious opinions. The some 1,000 fatwas that Dar al-Iftaa pumps out every day are more than six times the number it issued per year a century ago.

Gomaa has been highly critical of individuals who issue fatwas independently, especially "tele-imams" who have grown in popularity on Arabic television.

But many Egyptians complain the close ties between Dar al-Iftaa and the government compromise the religious institution, making it necessary to turn to other sources for guidance.

The reputation of Egypt's religious authorities was further clouded recently when a lecturer at Al-Azhar issued a fatwa saying work colleagues of the opposite sex could escape the ban on unmarried men and women being alone together if the woman breast-fed her male colleague five times. The lecturer's rationale was breast-feeding established a maternal rather than a sexual relationship.

Goran Larsson, an expert on religion and new media, said that history provides good reason for Dar al-Iftaa to be concerned about fading influence, noting the introduction of printing meant old theologians who depended on the oral tradition lost their sway over the masses.

"With today's new technology, we also see the rise of new kinds of theologians," Larsson said. One such figure in Egypt is Amr Khaled, a popular "tele-imam" who eschews religious garb and is good at connecting with young people.

The questions posed to the new sources of religious authority cover just about everything.

"At IslamOnline, we receive all sorts of questions, from how I should wash my hands and face to whether nuclear weapons should be used or not," said Ali Al-Halawani, IslamOnline's deputy editor and chief.

Some examples of advice gathered from websites: Working as a bouncer at a nightclub is forbidden, while building armored vehicles for Arab armies is allowed.

Al-Halawani said his organization tries to distinguish between simple lifestyle questions and those that require true fatwas, which his group obtains from a network of more than 100 muftis and scholars around the world.

Larsson said the diversity of opinion "provides Muslims with the opportunity to become their own mufti."

While the ultimate impact of this newfound liberty is unclear, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo and a well-known advocate of democracy, is excited by its potential to transform Islam.

"Muslims have not revised their theology in the last 100 years," he said. "The monolithic establishment has meant nothing but stagnation."