Women muftis by end of 2010

The UAE will appoint what are likely to be the world's first state-sanctioned female muftis next year.

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DUBAI // The UAE will appoint what are likely to be the world's first state-sanctioned female muftis next year, after the Grand Mufti announced details yesterday of plans to recruit and train them. Six Emirati women are being considered for the training programme, said Dr Ahmed al Haddad, who is also the head of the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department. Once accepted they will begin the course, which will last several months, early next year.

The move follows a fatwa issued by Dr al Haddad in February that sanctioned women's role as muftis. In May, he called on qualified Emirati women to apply for the programme, which includes instruction in Sharia law and legal thinking. "We continue to accept new applicants until we begin the training," said Dr al Haddad. "It is already part of the 2010 budget." The status of female muftis has caused controversy within the religious establishment elsewhere in the Muslim world, with Egypt's Al Azhar University, a powerful centre of Sunni scholarship, rejecting the possibility of women becoming grand muftis.

However, Dr al Haddad said that debate did not affect whether women should serve in other roles. "The controversy over female muftis is not necessarily over this point, but about whether or not a woman should be appointed as the grand mufti of a state," he said. "And that is not what we're trying to do at this point." The move is part of a broader push to recruit and train Emiratis to the department, especially in the role of advising and issuing decrees on religious matters.

They will be instructed according to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, one of four in the Sunni tradition and the one followed in the UAE. Instructors are typically from academic and religious institutions, including practising muftis. Although women currently serve as religious advisers at the Abu Dhabi fatwa centre, their role is limited to advising women on "women's issues". The Dubai move would mark the first time women have acted as muftis on a par with their male counterparts.

In February 2008, the Egyptian family court appointed Amal Soliman as the first female Islamic notary with the ability to perform marriages and divorces. Her duties were not equal to those of a mufti. Dr al Haddad, who has five daughters, one of whom is a student of Sharia, said his fatwa earlier this year was based on Islamic tradition, which he said was "rich in examples of highly learned women acting as muftis and issuing decrees on all matters".

"A woman who is learned and trained in issuing fatwas is not limited in her role to issuing fatwas that relate to women only, but rather she is qualified to issue on matters of worship, jurisprudence, morality and behaviour," he said. He referred to a Quranic verse to support his decree that Islamic tradition has always sanctioned women to act as muftis on all matters that concern society. A fatwa, or religious decree, is in effect a legal opinion derived from the Quran, hadith or precedents in the Islamic tradition.

"Evidence points to the fact that women too can order acts of virtue and ban acts of vice just like a man can," he said, referring to the basic tenement of a mufti's role. "And of course she can do that only with acquired scholarship and training, which is what female contemporaries of the Prophet have done as well as the women who came after them." @Email:relass@thenational.ae