I have been doing quite a bit of research recently on political Islam, mostly for my doctorate, but also as an exercise in attempting to broaden my knowledge of “lived” Islam, in all its various facets. The one thing that has really intrigued me is the role of the Fatwa (Islamic edict / ruling) on matters relating to all aspects of daily life for Muslims. Some years ago the Fatwa took centre stage globally when controversial writer Salman Rushie, had one issued against him by the Ayotollah Khomeini, because of his book Satanic Verses. Since then the idea that someone can “issue a ruling” to kill another person (without them being tried in a court of law), has been the subject of much debate in various public (and private) spaces, especially since such a concept does not exist in any religion except Islam.
Of late, I’ve been encountering more and more spaces where the fatwa is encroaching on various aspects of how Muslims live their lives. In the desire to be “as Muslim/ Islamic as possible”, it appears that many Muslims are turning to religious leaders to ask questions about various things (often simple aspects of daily life), and based on the answers, are behaving in certain ways. Let me stress however, that I think that the fatwa is a very useful tool, if used in the right way and articulated in a manner that takes into account the nuanced provisions that exist within the Shariah and Fiqh of Islam. So I am not opposed to its use and application. What I am marvelling about however, are the kinds of questions that are being asked of religious leaders in a contemporary context, and the kinds of answers that are being provided.
Fatwas are in essence religious rulings issued by human beings, who based on what they know, and their “training” proclaim on certain things. But I often wonder about, whether the human element can be a confounding variable in the authenticity of the fatwa. In other words, it is possible that the same question can have various fatwas issued, based on the individual knowledge of the religious leader who is being asked. Which Fatwa then is the best / most authentic/ most Islamic? Usually when there is Ikhtilaaf (difference of opinion) in Islamic practice, the idea is to engage in Shura (consultation) and emerge with Ijma (consensus). This howevever isn’t really how it works though, because the issuing of fatwas are now being done by individual Muftis (who may I guess consult, at some levels), but are also expected to deliver results on the spot.
Take for example the idea of setting up a call centre where Muslims can call in, and ask any question of the trained Mufti, taking the call, at any time of the day or night. Easily accessible, and immediate results. Or an online site, where you write in and wait patiently while the person in charge of issuing fatwahs, ponders over your question and writes back with the answers you need. Fabulous idea if you want to know for example, whether a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman, and vice versa, and in what circumstances. After all, love is something that can happen between any two people, regardless of their religions. Quick question, quick answer. Done, usually under 3 minutes (in the case of the call centre). Basically, the Shariah already provides broad guidelines for these sorts of things. What to do, however, when you want to go to the spa and get a massage. Hmm, shouldn’t really be an issue, should it. What can be unIslamic about going to a health spa, or a masseuse, in order to revive body, mind and soul? Its not so simple however, as I learnt recently.
According to a fatwa I discovered recently, you gotta make sure that as a Muslim woman, you don’t expose too much skin to a non-Muslim female masseuse. So the back, legs, arms, hips, thighs…well pretty much every part of the body that one would normally massage, are off limits. Basically no non-Muslim female masseusse can see these parts of a Muslim woman. I have to tell you, this blew my mind. There goes my massage sessions, not to mention trips to the gym (although i could forgo those maybe). Of course, I use my brain when it comes to these things, so I’m not going to give up that easily.
I’m hoping though that the Muslim schools from which young Muslim girls are matriculating, are going to encourage more girls to take up training as a masseuse. Imagine what would happen to our stressed out human population, if you can’t find a halaal masseuse to sort out that nagging muscle cramp, in that very delicate spot : )