Fatwa fads

 
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By Khaled Diab

From fashion tips to adult breastfeeding – rulings by some clerics range from the eccentric to the downright bizarre.

23 September 2009

Baggy trousers are definitely ‘in’ this season. I have it on no lesser authority than Egypt‘s grand mufti, Ali Goma’a, that icon of clerical cool.

The esteemed Azharite’s informal fashion fatwa – you could call it a fadwa – just happened to be all the rage this summer in the form of ‘harem pants‘, as Rachel Shabi assures me.

But I doubt Goma’a is interested in developing a career as a style guru or a modish mufti or getting his mug on the cover of Elle magazine. Known as woman-friendly by the standards of the clergy, Goma’a was making it clear that he disapproved of what happened in neighbouring Sudan, where falling foul of the regime’s ‘fashion police’ can have serious consequences, as the courageous Lubna Hussein and other unfortunate Sudanese women have discovered.

Luckily, in Egypt, Goma’a and the religious establishment’s views are non-binding, although there are some worrying signs that the country is slowly developing its very own de facto ‘morality police’. Nevertheless, in principle, Egyptians are free to dress pretty much as they please – even if hijabless women are an increasingly marginalised minority, as Gihan Abou Zeid points out in this article.

Despite the fact that Sudan and some Muslim countries have laws defining what a woman can wear, the Qur’an does not actually prescribe any particular form of dress for women, beyond asking them to be modest and cover their cleavage, and the “hijab” (originally a physical curtain or barrier) was only applied to Muhammad’s wives.

Despite this vagueness, Egypt’s Dar el-Ifta’ (House of Fatwas), which is led by Goma’a and has the role of issuing opinions on matters of Islamic jurisprudence, followed the mufti’s trouser comments by issuing an official statement reaffirming the hijab’s unofficial position as the ‘sixth pillar of Islam‘, which claimed that praying and fasting were not complete without the hijab.

Interestingly, although not quite as detailed as for women, the Qur’an also carries clear injunctions on male modesty. “It is men from the eighth century onward who interpreted the passage in the Qur’an which enjoins men and women to dress modestly to mean that women should be totally covered and segregated, neither seen nor heard,” observed Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, a prominent Egyptian historian and feminist and the first Egyptian woman to obtain a degree from Oxford. How convenient. This kind of vindicates Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni’s controversial claim that if women should wear the hijab, so should men.

So the issue is more a question of fatwa (religious opinion) than divine injunction. But then how reliable are fatwas as a guide to personal behaviour for the faithful? As Islam has no centralised “church” structure and no vested clergy, any scholar with an ijazah (the academic qualification at the root of the modern university system) is qualified to issue fatwas. In addition, qualified or not, any person with a cult following also issues fatwas.

This has led to some bizarre interpretations, especially with the ratings wars between ‘satellite muftis’ on TV. As a result, a whole line in “have you heard the latest fatwa” jokes has emerged. Egyptians, when they dismiss nonsensical, uninformed talk, say: “Batal tefti” (“Stop making fatwas”).

Consider, for instance, the Little Britainesque fatwa – which caused mass public indignation – issued a couple of years ago by a cleric of al-Azhar, which purported to resolve the thorny issue of mixed gender workplaces by advising female workers to breastfeed their male colleagues, thereby becoming their “mother through breastfeeding” (umm fil reda’a).

Then, there are the fatwas on bathroom etiquette. Speaking of bowel movements, Goma’a, the Egyptian mufti, has not been immune to issuing surreal fatwas, such as the one declaring the holiness of the prophet’s urine – and, no, he wasn’t taking the proverbial.

Of course, these are extreme and extremely funny examples and most fatwas deal with mundane issues of worship and righteous behaviour, although few mainstream scholars are willing to stick their neck out and pronounce their opinion on more significant issues, such as politics, corruption, etc.

Nevertheless, sensible or not, the trouble with fatwas is that they discourage individuals from thinking for themselves, undermine the notion of individual choice, and deprive people of the moral responsibility for their own actions.

As everyone’s doing it, my fatwa for today is: enough with fatwas!

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 September 2009. Read the related discussion.

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  • Rachel Shabi

    chortled at your bad puns and at the harem pants citation :)

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