RIYADH // A prominent Saudi columnist has taken the well-known Muslim cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi to task for issuing political opinions in the guise of religious rulings - a practice that the columnist laments has become widespread and harmful to the reputation of religion.
Mshari al Zaidi's criticism of the Doha-based Egyptian cleric is the latest skirmish in a long-running argument over the proper role of clerics in modern Muslim societies, what their religious rulings should address, and who exactly has the authority to issue a fatwa. The argument, which spans the Muslim world, has become even more pointed and crucial since the appearance of extremist groups such as al Qa'eda, which seek to justify their violence with religious rulings from sympathetic clerics.
The dilemma has been heightened in recent decades with rising levels of literacy and education in Muslim countries. As a result, more Muslims are rejecting traditional religious authorities - usually allied to the state - and preferring to interpret the Quran and hadith themselves, or to find a cleric who issues rulings that they find acceptable. It is not uncommon nowadays to find Muslims who have no traditional training issuing fatwas in order to gain a popular following. And they easily spread their messages by radio, television and the internet.
The upshot in the view of many Muslims has been fatwa chaos. In remarks to an international conference of Muslim scholars held in Mecca a year ago, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz lamented that "internally the Islamic world has been plagued by an extremely negative phenomenon, which is the tendency to deliver fatwas by unqualified persons, especially on satellite television channels, the internet and other modern channels of communication.
"Issuing ill-considered fatwas without following any criterion offers biased, ignorant, extremist or careless individuals the opportunity to pose as religious experts qualified to issue fatwas," added the king, whose speech was read for him at the conference. No one disputes Mr al Qaradawi's mainstream Islamic credentials, nor his authority to issue fatwas. He is widely regarded as a renowned and popular scholar with a deep background in Islamic scripture.
The issue raised by Mr al Zaidi in his January 16 column in Asharq al Awsat, rather, deals with what he and some other Muslims regard as the misuse of sermons and fatwas to deal directly with divisive political issues. "A religious scholar cannot give preference to one political party over another or interfere in political affairs, using his immunity and status to do so, without actually inflicting harm on the political status quo and the reputation of religion," wrote Mr al Zaidi.
"One clear example of this is Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, whose Friday sermons have become 'a weekly political statement'", he added. In a recent sermon in which he discussed the Egypt-Gaza border dispute, Mr al Qaradawi "attacked Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and sided with Hamas", suggesting that Mr Abbas should be punished "by stoning him to death", wrote Mr al Zaidi. Mr al Qaradawi also issued a fatwa ruling that Egyptian plans to build a wall along its border with Gaza violated Islamic law, according to Mr al Zaidi. "In response," he wrote, "members of the Islamic Research Academy in Al Azhar issued a Fatwa that invalidated al Qaradawi's fatwa."
The danger "of religious scholars getting involved in political disputes", the columnist continued, is that most people "do not look at these views as personal opinions of a political activist called Yusuf al Qaradawi, but rather as instructions given by a great Muslim scholar and jurist". Mr al Zaidi cited Iraq's sectarian strife, fuelled by Muslim clerics issuing political opinions, as an example of this danger.
"I wish our scholars and preachers would calm down a little and focus on explaining jurisprudence and reviving the moral principles of faith rather than getting involved in political wrangling," Mr al Zaidi concluded. Of course, governments in Muslim majority countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, like fatwas that support their policy decisions. But increasingly they are trying to monitor and control the issuing of fatwas, and are encouraging people to listen only to state-sanctioned clerics.
Given Islam's liberal nature when it comes to religious authority, however, the state is limited in what it can do in this area. A year ago, the Mecca-based Muslim World League organised a conference of more than 170 religious scholars from around the world to deal with the problem of proliferating fatwas by unqualified persons. "In view of the significance of fatwas in the lives of Muslims, the Fiqh Academy, a subsidiary of the Muslim World League, is organising a conference to determine the methods and terms and conditions that should govern fatwas," Abdullah al Turki, the secretary-general of the League, told local reporters at the time.
"Some people make their fatwas on issues that they do not know in-depth and without due consideration for the Sharia requirements. Issuing a fatwa is a very serious matter as it involves making a decision on the basis of the law laid down by Allah and explained by the Prophet, peace be upon him," Mr al Turki said. The final communiqué of the conference sets out guidelines for issuing fatwas as well as requirements for those who seek to make such rulings. It urges that the "occupation of issuing religious edicts ... should not be looked upon as a mere office for expressing personal opinion".
It cautioned Muslims "to take every possible precaution not to call an individual Muslim an infidel as it is not permissible at all ... unless he commits an act that clearly invalidates Islam. Figurative interpretation is not acceptable in this matter." The communiqué also urged Muslim scholars "to be cautious not to issue misleading religious edicts that entice people to shed the blood of Muslims without due right".
These last two recommendations strike at the basis of many fatwas by extremist preachers, who use the apostate or infidel label to justify violence against other Muslims. firstname.lastname@example.org