Fatwa centre doubles scholars to handle huge rise in queries

The number of calls has grown tenfold since the Islamic Affairs Authority fatwa centre in Abu Dhabi was established in August 2008.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - Aug. 28 - 2008:  Workers take calls at the newly expanded Fatwa center.  (Galen Clarke/The National) For story by Rasha Hass *** Local Caption ***  GC-Fatwa-06.jpgGC-Fatwa-06_Cropped.jpg

ABU DHABI // The Islamic Affairs Authority fatwa centre in Abu Dhabi is planning to double the number of scholars to answer the increasing volume of questions posed by Muslims across the country. The number of calls has grown tenfold since the call centre was established in August 2008. The questions to scholars often appear with the answers on screens in mosques, a way of informing people and letting them know about the relatively new service.

The call centre now employs 50 scholars, the majority of whom are men, and it is in the process of hiring more staff. "Our target is 100. We want to get quality and experienced staff so we have not set a specific time by which to achieve this goal," said Mohammed Obaid al Mazrouei, the executive manager for the Islamic Affairs Authority. "The crucial part of our authority is to respond to society's needs and wants."

There is also a plan to launch a similar initiative in Ajman, which should ease the pressure on the hotline. In the first few months after the centre opened, 48 scholars answered about 150 calls per day. Now 50 Islamic experts are inundated with some 1,500 calls daily. Scholars also deal with inquiries from other countries. A fatwa, or religious decree, is a legal opinion derived from the Quran, hadith or precedents in the Islamic tradition.

The male scholars on staff speak a variety of languages, including Arabic, English and Urdu. The female workers speak Arabic and deal only with women's issues. Twelve men and two women work every shift. Mr al Mazrouei said he is on the lookout for women who speak more languages, although most callers tend to speak Arabic. Prof Meenaz Kassam, who teaches Women's Empowerment at the American University of Sharjah, said the increase in calls from women could be due to confusion over their changing roles in society.

"Earlier women did what they were supposed to," she said. "But now women have way higher education levels than men; that is documented. "So women are starting to think and they're questioning, not doing merely what was told to them. It's not a bad thing." While people might be worried about women going against traditional Muslim doctrine, Prof Kassam found the opposite in her research. "Religion is the thing they most value. Connect the two: if religion is important and they are questioning things then this is why they are calling the fatwa hotline. "

They are looking for sanctioning of their actions, not to go against religion." Among the top questions are issues related to the five pillars of Islam: prayer, fasting, Haj, charity and believing in the oneness of God. After that, people tend to ask about Islamic practices relating to daily life, such as banking, marital problems, dress code and diet. Mr al Mazrouei said, after assessing the category of calls, in 2009 the most-commonly asked questions related to zakat, or Islamic charity. In an effort to provide more information, the centre held more seminars relating to zakat.

If a high number of calls come in about a particular subject, it may influence the subject of the Friday sermon, which is set by the authority. The number of calls tends to peak during Ramadan. Many people have converted to Islam over the phone, said one of the scholars who has worked at the centre since its inception. After accepting Islam, a caller is then referred to the Islamic Court. Last year, more than 3,000 people converted to Islam in Dubai, according to the Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities in the emirate.