Fatwa wars in Egypt

fatwaThanks to reader Jerry for pointing out this tremendous read in The New York Times about the religious pronouncements, or fatwas, being issued in Egypt that govern the daily lives of the millions who live there. Reporter Michael Slackman highlights the scandalous, sensational edicts, but he does not merely highligh fatwas about women breast-feeding grown men and drinking Muhammad's urine. As Jerry said, the story illustrates the legal impact of the fatwa on the personal lives of Egyptians:

At 11:30 one recent morning, a young woman entered and sat in the chair opposite him. She held her son, about 4, on her knee as she explained that her husband had married another woman (four wives are allowed in Islam) and that the new wife was only 18. "He said he would spend five nights with her and one with me," the woman complained. "Can I ask for a divorce?"

Under Islam, the sheik advised, all wives must be treated equally. So if she could not work the matter out "peacefully, then yes, she could ask for a divorce."

That was her fatwa.

According to tmatt, who recently returned from Istanbul, these bizarre fatwas were discussed at the conference he was attending, and moderate Muslims are as puzzled and amazed as anyone. Apparently this all has something to do with the struggle between mainstream Islam in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, a significant Sunni political movement worldwide that maintains that the Quran constitutes the perfect way to organize life, society and politics.

But the story curiously doesn't go into the origin of the fatwas, and it does not mention the Brotherhood. That's unfortunate, because I would think it would be hard to write a story about Egyptian political life without mentioning the fatwas' impact.

This description of the source of the fatwas may explain why the Brotherhood is absent from the story:

Governments have tried to guide and control the process, but as they struggled with their own legitimacy, they have often undermined the perceived legitimacy of those they appoint as religious leaders. In Egypt, there are two official institutions responsible for religious interpretation: the House of Fatwa, or Dar Al-Ifta, which formally falls under the Ministry of Justice, and Al Azhar University. All court sentences of death must be approved by Dar Al-Ifta, for example.

"These people in fact are defined as agencies of the government," said Muhammad Serag, a professor of Islamic Studies at the American University in Cairo. "They are not trusted anymore."

While that view is disputed by officials from both institutions, everyone acknowledges that those who issue fatwas serve as mediators between faith and modernity and as arbiters of morality. They are supposed to consider not only religious teachings, but the circumstances of the time.

The goal of the Brotherhood is to bring about the return of "the salafi seventh century, as adjusted for the modern age," according to Paul Berman's New Republic cover article on Tariq Ramadan. It is the largest political opposition group in the country and is frequently associated with terrorist attacks, including the assassination attempt against former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The challenge of writing about the Brotherhood is that it often operates in secret. But why the Brotherhood isn't in this story at all is perplexing. This otherwise very informative piece and gets into the nitty gritty of Islamic theology and how it affects the daily lives of Muslims.

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