Saudis to Regulate ‘Chaotic Fatwas’

Radical Islamic decrees out of hand in Saudi Arabia, religious authorities say.

January 28, 2010 17:51
3 minute read.
A Muslim religious student.

Religious student REAL 311. (photo credit: AP)

Saudi authorities are planning to regulate the issuance of Islamic rulings by limiting the number of people allowed to formulate religious decrees.

The plan is currently being discussed by the Higher Council of Religious Scholars and could be implemented as early as next month.

“If the Saudi authorities regulate the fatwa industry, it will reduce the amount of extreme fatwas and it will send a positive message to those who are irresponsible and unaccountable with their fatwas,” Dr. Khalil Al-Khalil, a former Saudi member of parliament and an expert on Islamic trends, told The Media Line. “It will send them a message that they are not doing the right thing.”

Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmad Bin Abd Al-Aziz Bin Baz told Al-Arabiyya that the issuance of fatwas, or religious scholarly opinions, in the Saudi kingdom had gotten out of hand to the extent there was a need to regulate and unify them. 

The Saudi authorities are mainly concerned about extreme fatwas that are being disseminated via mass-media forms such as the Internet and satellite television.

Radical messages in extreme fatwas often receive much attention in western media as legitimizing terror attacks against non-Muslims.

Media experts warn that these broadcasts can have a huge impact, especially since the target audience is young and impressionable.

“[Those issuing fatwas] know very well that the people here are connected with the government and the state regulations, and no one wants to be seen in conflict with the Saudi authorities,” Al-Khalil added. “It will make those who are extreme think twice before issuing a fatwa.”

Opposition groups within are saying that allowing only a select few to issue Islamic religious opinions stifles pluralism of opinion and goes against the spirit of Islam.

Critics of the planned regulation further point out that hundreds of Arabic-language satellite stations are beyond the reach of the Saudi government, rendering the moves ineffective, as Saudis will continue to be exposed to extreme messages through the Internet and other media forms.

Al-Khalil himself believes that regulating fatwas, despite the advantages, is not only impossible to implement but is also contrary to the spirit of Islam.

“It will not be successful in any place in the world,” he said. “They want to formulate a group at the national level and the local level who will be authorized to issue fatwas. They will employ specific individuals, who will have the right to issue fatwas and this is an impossible mission.”

Al-Khalil explained that this contradicted the very nature of Islam, which allows people to choose for themselves who is qualified to issue a fatwa.

“Who will choose those people, and based on what qualifications and what orientations?” Al-Khalil asked. “You can choose for yourself but you can’t choose for everyone in your state. We know that usually selection of authorized individuals in any field in life is based on politics and the mood and not on expert qualification.”

Contrary to much popular belief, fatwas are diverse in content and are a guideline for endless mundane matters, such as how a Muslim should shake hands, if a Muslims can consume caffeine, whether it is appropriate for a man to grow his hair, whether Muslims should play football, and many more.

But Western media in recent years has often depicted fatwas as associated with edicts on warfare and death sentences, such as the fatwa seeking the death of author Salman Rushdie after the Iranians found his writings offensive to Islam. 

A fatwa can be issued by anyone who is seen to have sufficient Islamic scholarly training for the task, usually a Muslim with high standing in his community.

Those in favor of regulating these edicts say there is ‘fatwa chaos’ where anyone can issue opinions, which often serve narrow interests, be they related to politics, security, commerce or a social interest.

“The function of a fatwa in Islam is not a court verdict,” Al-Khalil stressed. “A verdict is binding when the process is complete and it has to be implemented, but fatwas from religious authorities are different.”

“It’s just an effort to give advice,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be a binding verdict that must be implemented. The state or the leader can choose to implement that fatwa and then it becomes obligatory by law, but if it’s issued by an individual, formal or informal, it’s just advice or a religious opinion and it’s not obligatory.”

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