Some fatwas are dangerous... and some are ridiculous, says renowned Muslim scholar Hamza Yusuf

A member of the new Emirates Fatwa Council, Sheikh Yusuf commended efforts to provide a modern authoritative approach to Islam

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 26:  American Islamic scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College in the USA Hamza Yusuf speaks during the 'Imams Online' digital summit on March 26, 2015 in London, England. The event was focused on "reclaiming the digital space" from extremists and to launch the 'Imams Online' website, which aims to show the real face of Islam. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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The Muslim world is in desperate need of councils such as the UAE’s to counter an inundation of fatwas issued without knowledge of tradition and modern context, an internationally renowned Muslim scholar said.

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf was named on Sunday as a member of the Emirates Fatwa Council, after the Cabinet approved a resolution leading to its formation.

The American scholar, who is president of Zaytuna University in California, is considered to be one of the West's most influential Islamic scholars.

The chairman of the council is his teacher, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, who asked him personally if he would join.

Sheikh Yusuf said he immediately agreed, seeing the need for an authority to offer clarity to a muddied dialogue.

“There is a need for authoritative and intelligent responses to the problems facing Muslims and it should be based on a sound knowledge of the tradition itself and also a knowledge of the context,” Sheikh Yusuf said.

“Sharia is very sophisticated and can only be applied with a deep knowledge of the context and ruling."

He said a major task will be to bring religious rulings into the present while still maintaining the key teachings of Islam.


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"You have fatwas that might have been appropriate 800 years ago, but are not appropriate today. Religion is dynamic. It is not static … but its principles cannot be compromised."

This has been the approach of the UAE, Sheikh Yusuf said. But some fatwas issued elsewhere, he said, at times outraged or confused young Muslims.

“Unfortunately, a lot of young people are confused by all the different messages they are getting. There are a lot of different opinions about everything, from extremely dangerous to extremely liberal.”

Sheikh Yusuf hopes the new council will tackle this issue and offer a unified voice.

“It is important that you have guidance and help young people navigate their lives and how they can be devoted Muslims in an environment that is very often antithetical to their faith.”

The biggest obstacle, Sheikh Yusuf said, is ignorance “and compounded ignorance – often not being aware of how ignorant we are”.

He said many issues could be resolved if “we go back to basic Quranic principles”.

He said some of the worst fatwas in Islamic history were currently being issued in other parts of the world, encouraging violence and murder.

"Fatwa… requires a lot of knowledge. Islam isn't a cookie-cutter religion. Every situation has considerations. It is very important for a mufti to be aware of the country he is in and to be aware of its traditions."

Muftis have often, he said, issued fatwas for countries they do not live in. “They didn’t know the people or conditions of the people.”

He said  in a globalised world, fatwas that are appropriate for some people in one place are not appropriate in another. 

"For instance, in some places in the Muslim world, people still live in simple societies and there are other places where life is extremely complex. We can't use the same response… the rulings might differ because of the time and place."

Some of the worst fatwas issued over the years were related to violence, he said.

“Some of the worst has been on the premises of vigilante violence, which was never mentioned in Islam or accepted

… I would put that on the top of the list because it sheds innocent blood and that’s the worst thing you can do.”

While those fatwas are dangerous, some are borderline ridiculous, he said.

“We have people giving fatwas on the prohibition of chess and yet we’ve got a whole generation of kids addicted to online gaming.

“Chess would actually be a much better waste of time than video games because it is at least an intellectual game.”

Sheikh Yusuf commended the UAE's efforts to address this crisis and said Sheikh Abdullah was ideal to lead the council.

He is among the world's most renowned Islamic figures and helped to secure the release of Florence Aubenas, a French female war correspondent for French daily Liberation, who was held hostage in Iraq with her Iraqi translator, Hussein Hanun, in 2005.

He is a strong advocate for moderate Islam.

“It is important to note that the UAE has been active in addressing the crises of fatwa. Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah’s approach is the only one that will enable Muslims to navigate the modern world without losing their way by going from one extreme, which is the violent extreme, to the other, which is losing the religion altogether,” he said.

The council is yet to hold its first meeting.