Fatwas and modernity. By Sheikh Ali Gomaa


Almost two years ago the citizens of London were victims of a great atrocity. Those who perpetrated those crimes would like you to believe that they were inspired by the religion of Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing in Islam that could ever justify these blatant acts of aggression. Islam calls on Muslims to be productive members of whatever society they find themselves in. Islam embodies a flexibility that allows Muslims to do so without any internal or external conflict. This is why we see a vast variety of cultural, artistic and civilisational phenomena all of which can be described as Islamic, ranging from the Taj Mahal in India to the winding streets of Fez to the poetry composed by English converts that represents not only the rigor of English verse, but also encompasses the beauty of Islamic piety.
This flexibility is not just present in the cultural output of Muslims; it is an integral part of the Islamic legal tradition as well. In fact, you could say it is one of the defining characteristics of Islamic law. Islamic law is both a methodology and the collection of positions adopted by Muslim jurists over the last 1,400 years. Those centuries were witness to no less than 90 schools of legal thought, and the twenty-first century finds us in the providential position to look back on this tradition in order to find that which will benefit us today. This is one of the first steps in the issuing of a fatwa (religious opinion/ruling).
Fatwas represent the bridge between the legal tradition and the contemporary world in which we live. They are the link between the past and the present, the absolute and the relative, the theoretical and the practical. For this reason it takes more than just knowledge of Islamic law to issue a fatwa. A Mufti who does not know the contemporary world in which he/she lives is like a person who has the ability to walk and might also have the ability to run. However, they move through a dark path without a light in their hand. It is possible that they will make it, but in most cases they will fall and perish.
Muftis must also have an in-depth understanding of the problems that their communities are facing. When those who lack these qualifications issue fatwas the result is the extremism we see today, the kind witnessed on 7/7. We have to be clear about what is at stake here. When each and every person`s unqualified opinion is considered a fatwa we lose a tool that is of the utmost importance for reigning in extremism and preserving the flexibility and balance of Islamic law.
This flexibility is present in the Islamic political sphere as well, but this is a point that is often missed. Many assume that an Islamic government must be a caliphate, and that the caliph must rule in a set and specific way. There is no basis for this vision within the Islamic tradition. The caliphate is one political solution that Muslims adopted during a certain historical period, but this does not mean that it is the only possible choice for Muslims when it comes to deciding how they should be governed.
The experience that Egypt went through can be taken as an example of this. The period of development begun by Muhammad Ali Pasha and continued by the Khedive Ismail was an attempt to build a modern state. This meant a reformulation of Islamic law. This process led Egypt to become a liberal state run by a system of democracy without any objections from Muslim scholars. Muslims are free to choose whichever system of government they deem most appropriate for them.

The principles of freedom and human dignity for which liberal democracy stands are themselves part of the foundation for the Islamic worldview; it is the achievement of this freedom and dignity within a religious context that Islamic law strives for.

The world has witnessed tremendous change over the last two hundred years. This change came in the form of new technologies and political ideologies. There were also new developments in communications allowing us to be aware of what is happening in nearly every part of the world the instant that it occurs, whereas in the past it would take months if not years for even the most urgent news to spread. This wave of change has caused a complete alteration of nearly every aspect of our lives. It is this modern occurrence that presents the greatest difficulty to Muslim jurists and Muftis. In the past there was little alternation of the way things worked and progressed. Even when things changed it was slow and isolated to a handful of fields. The change of the past two hundred years, however, has made it necessary to re-examine how everything works. Meaning that the way in which Islamic law is applied must take into account this change.

The flexibility and adaptability of Islamic law is perhaps its greatest asset. To provide people with practical and relevant guidance while at the same time staying true to its foundational principles, Islam allows the wisdom and moral strength of revelation to be applied in modern times. It is through adopting this attitude towards the shari`a that an authentic, contemporary, "moderate" and tolerant Islam can provide solutions to the problems confronting the Muslim world and the West today. Muslims must hold fast to this tradition in order to stand in the face of those who would use our religion for their own agendas.


* Sheikh Ali Gomaa is the Grand Mufti of Egypt. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)

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