During a recent trip to South Africa, I was approached by a native South African who had recently converted to Islam. During our conversation, he let on his surprise at the distinction and sometimes absurdity in his opinion of some of the fatwas issued by some of our scholars.
To bolster his argument, he cited the long-drawn out debate on the breast-feeding fatwa promoted by some of the scholars, the gist of which allowed a female in a mixed-sex working environment to bypass the state of seclusion or khulwa by breast-feeding her male co-workers.
He was referring to a Saudi scholar's suggestion that women donate their breast milk to men in an attempt to get around the kingdom's ban on the mixing of unrelated men and women, sparking global controversy.
It seems the Shaikh in question, Shaikh Abdul Mohsen Al Obaikan, a consultant at the Saudi royal court, issued a fatwa stating there should be symbolic bond between unrelated men and women who regularly come into contact with each other. My African friend found that to be a preposterous concept indeed.
But not all of the surprising fatwas had necessarily originated in Saudi Arabia, although we have had our share of calling Mickey Mouse and Pokemon ‘evil'. In Iran, senior cleric Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi decreed in June 2010 that dogs are "unclean" and should not be kept as pets. "Friendship with dogs is a blind imitation of the West," the cleric was quoted as saying in Iranian daily Javan. "There are lots of people in the West who love their dogs more than their wives and children."
In Egypt, a prominent cleric issued a fatwa in February 2010 forbidding Muslims to use Facebook, blaming the popular social networking site for rising marital infidelity and divorce. Shaikh Abdul Hamid Al Atrash, former head of the fatwa commission at Cairo's Al Azhar University, warned that those using Facebook were "sinners" and stated that the site "endangers the Muslim family". "It's an instrument that destroys the family because it encourages spouses to have relations with other people, which breaks Islamic Sharia," he concluded.
In October 2008, Malaysia's top Islamic body decreed that Muslims should not practise yoga. Media around the world quoted Abdul Shukoor Hussain, the chairman of Malaysia's National Fatwa Council, as saying that elements of Hinduism in the ancient Indian art of exercise could corrupt them. "We are of the view that yoga, which originates from Hinduism, combines physical exercise, religious elements, chanting and worshipping for the purpose of achieving inner peace and ultimately to be one with god," he said.
Even a fatwa on emoticons, those facial expressions such as a frown or smile sent by SMS or email, to convey something annoying and dramatic decreed that they are "forbidden" under Islam because of their "imitation to Allah's creatures whether it is original or mixture or even deformed one and since the picture is the face and the face is what makes the real picture then emoticons which represent faces that express emotions … all that [adds] up to make them Haram," according to Muslim Internet Forum Multaqa Ahl Al Hadeeth, which calls itself a meeting place of students of knowledge.
So it was refreshing to note that the Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister Saleh Al Shaikh recently issued instructions that Islamic scholars intending to publish religious edicts (fatwas) on contemporary issues must contact experts at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs or Dar Al Ifta (the Saudi fatwa authority) before releasing their edicts to the public through the media. The Minister pointed out that many of the fatwas issued by individuals recently lacked balance or proper study. "They should not publish fatwas except after consulting with other experts," he told the scholars.
The minister also advised members of the public to receive religious edicts from authentic sources, which is the Presidency for Scholastic Research and Religious Edicts (Dar Al Ifta) headed by Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh.
He expressed his concern that the issuance of fatwas on silly issues by some scholars was distracting efforts to fight the real threats against Islam. "This will give a bad impression about the Kingdom being an Islamic state. We have so many other important issues to deal with. We have to confront terrorism and the move to link Islam and its Prophet with terrorism," he said.
Scholars should indeed focus on the real issues and threats to society, and encourage knowledge and growth in the sciences for an Islamic world that has been found to be lagging in these disciplines.
They should take care to abstain from dramatic and unfounded edicts that make others in different parts of the world wonder where indeed has reason vanished.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.