Saudis to Regulate ‘Chaotic Fatwas’

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

Religious student REAL 311 (photo credit: AP)
Religious student REAL 311
(photo credit: AP)

Saudi authorities are planning to regulate the issuance ofIslamic rulings by limiting the number of people allowed to formulate religiousdecrees.

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

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

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

The Saudi authorities are mainly concerned about extremefatwas that are being disseminated via mass-media forms such as the Internetand satellite television.

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

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

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

Opposition groups within are saying thatallowing only a select few to issue Islamic religious opinions stiflespluralism of opinion and goes against the spirit of Islam.

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

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

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

Al-Khalil explainedthat this contradicted the very nature of Islam, which allows people to choosefor themselves who is qualified to issue a fatwa.

“Who will choose thosepeople, and based on what qualifications and what orientations?” Al-Khalilasked. “You can choose for yourself but you can’t choose for everyone in yourstate. We know that usually selection of authorized individuals in any field inlife 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 shouldplay football, and many more.

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

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

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

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

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