Islam, Muslims, & Fatwas in the West

I have been very blessed by the Almighty. I had a very fulfilling education in the United States that focused on the liberal arts and humanities from high school all the way through my doctorate work at Princeton University. For twenty years I was able to study all the major world religions focusing on Judaism (in my undergraduate years), Hinduism-Buddhism (in my Masters program), and ultimately Islam (in my doctorate years). I was also honored by the Almighty to spend five years in the Azhar seminary and working inside and behalf of Dar al-Ifta. Under the tutelage of the greatest ulamā of our age and under the guidance of Shaykh Ali Gomaa I was given a firm foundation in the Sharia sciences and from my work at Dar al-Ifta I saw first hand the issuance of thousands of fatwas every week and the dealings of Islam and the State at the highest levels. It is due to these many blessings and this broad academic background that I find the topic of this year’s Dar al-Ifta conference to be of the utmost importance.

One of the major challenges all religion struggle within the modern age is the issue of authority. What is religious authority, who speaks for a particular religion, how is authority established, and most importantly, how can authority be advanced with the unbelievable advance of technology? These questions and more are universal, they no specific religion, nor have complete and sufficient answers been found to them. As a result, most of the highly populated religions have numerous splintering groups and sects within their ranks, mostly along the lines of articulating a certain theological stance, religions position, or doctrine. I understand the topic of this year’s conference to be an extension of this universal struggle to find religious authority in the modern condition.

In light of this, I would like to take this opportunity to offer some reflections based on my own experience over the past 5 years during which I have counseled hundreds of individuals, families, think tanks, governments, and heads of state on issues relating to Islam and its expression in the modern period. To give this a little more flavor, here is a list of the top 10 issues I constantly deal with; constantly is here defined as 3 or more of these issues coming up every week consistently for the past 5 years:

  1. Interfaith marriages for Muslim women men wanting to marry outside the faith
  2. Homosexuality
  3. Evolution
  4. Confusion on who to follow and who to listen to
  5. Atheism
  6. Sunni-Shia tensions
  7. Understanding the rise of extremism in the name of Islam
  8. Islamophobia
  9. Issues related to finance, banking, and debt
  10. Relationships between the ulamā and the state in Muslim majority countries

Observations of Muslims in the West

The words of ‘Abdullah Ibn Mubarak al-isnād min al-dīn wa lawla’l isnād la qāl man shā’ ma shā’ have never been truer then they are today. The most pressing issue, in my opinion, is that there is dire need to establish a fatwa authority (marja‘iyya) that is aligned with the methodology of al-Azhar that can speak in native Western languages. This is the only methodology that has proven resilient enough, deep enough, and broad enough to tackle the various issues that Muslims in the West face. Due to the fractured state of Muslims in the West there is no doubt that such an authority will be welcomed by some, and attacked by some, particularly those aligned with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the vacuum that has existed in Western Islam is so great and so dangerous, that I see this is a moral responsibility for those who are able. Of course, there are certain steps that can be taken to mitigate negative sentiment, and perhaps this can be addressed in a future publication.

There is almost no understanding whatsoever of the concept of al-siyāsa al-shar‘iyya amongst Muslims in the West. This has caused great confusion on two large fronts. One, it has been extremely difficult for Muslims in the West to understand and interpret events in the Arab world, commonly referred to as the Arab Spring. The open support that many senior ulamā supporting existing regimes against public uprising is almost unfathomable to the Western mind (more on this below). In addition, positive sentiment towards Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood continues to grow. Two, this lack of knowledge has also made it difficult for Muslims in the West to find balanced ways of engagement with local governments. This is not to ignore the many Muslim individuals and organizations that have indeed engaged and the many that serve in government. However, these are a minority. The issue remains conceptual and rather than allow Muslims in the West to grope for the answers, the rich literature of siyāsa can be a tremendous boon to these communities. Yet, this genre of literature needs to be brought to light against the modern political condition and modern political theory so that its basic tenants can properly be understood.

The increasing power of communication and connectedness due to various platforms of social media has been a vehicle to catalyze the speed of confusion amongst Muslims worldwide. Non-orthodox Muslim academics and extremists cheerleaders have found extremely effective ways to engage these platforms much more effectively than normative Sunni Muslims. As a result, it is often times difficult for an impressionable person, particularly younger people, to understand the differences between who is who on these various platforms. One of the conclusions of this phenomenon is that one cannot ignore these platforms and communicating in the styles and modes that have been statistically proven to be effective. Social media memes have been studied and dissected, and enough public information and free training exist that these tools can easily be implemented.

As we have come to learn, the process of issuing a fatwa requires three general steps: Understanding the text, understanding the contemporary condition, and bringing the text into the contemporary condition. While this is the job of the Mufti, it is still important for Muslims to understand that there is a huge difference between the text and how the text is understood. And yet a completely different way the text is applied. Based on many of the issues I have encountered, I would say that understanding these distinctions alone could alleviate 70-80% of the confusion. Therefore, I think rather than simply focus on answers to common problems, it is important to spend more time articulating the “paradigm of Islam” by explaining the basic aforementioned distinctions, and other related foundational concepts.

Lastly, from my experience I have discovered that there is a massive gap in understanding of hadith amongst Muslims in the West. Since Salafis, largely fueled by the dubious Hadith project of Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), have constantly used false hadith classifications to force Muslims into their way of thinking, the reaction has largely been a retreat from the concept of hadith altogether. I remember in one particular instance I taught the 40 Hadith collection of Imam al-Nawwawi (d. 676/1277) and upon the conclusion of the class, community members told me that this was not only the first time they heard of this book, but the first time they ever knew hadith could be so wonderful! This last word is key. They began to experience how wonderful the hadith were, rather than be frightened by them as they had come to be accustomed.

Suggestions for Muftis in the Muslim World

Since I have been blessed to straddle these two worlds, I think it is appropriate to also offer some thoughts on Muftis and Fatwa offices in the Muslim world and how they can help mitigate these problems.

Most people who come from the West, and here I define the West as being North America and Europe (the basis of my experience), operate within the paradigm of liberalism. Like any other ideology, liberalism has its own genealogy, experts, and perspectives, and these all form a certain paradigm of thinking, a certain uṣūl to use a terminology familiar to us, by which and through which they use to interpret certain political, social, and moral phenomenon. As a Muslim who has lived in the West the majority of my life, this paradigm is not necessarily at odds with Islam. Therefore, my point here is not that it is a “problem”, but rather without understanding it thoroughly it will be very difficult to understand Western Muslims concerns and, more importantly, how to communicate to them a normative Islam that is not based on this particular paradigm, but a different one. Without this capability, it will be nearly impossible to guide them.

There is an issue with liberalism, however, and this concerns the growing trend of Western Muslim academics who, either knowingly or unknowingly, use aspects of the paradigm of liberalism to interpret the primary sources of Islam. While there are many aspects of liberalism that are completely compatible with Islam, and much has been written about this, it was never meant to be a tool or methodology of interpretation of the Quran and Sunna. The significance of this occurrence is that it has produced heretical positions and interpretations that have unfortunately instigated mass confusion and ongoing conversations amongst Western Muslims. With the passing of time, these issues will slowly become automatically accepted and agreed upon unless they are challenged and discussed effectively.

A second suggestion concerns the use of social media. As discussed above, the power of social media and its penetration means that it is a force that must be reckoned with. The usage of social media by the religious establishment throughout the Muslim world is way below standard. Many of our most important websites are not search option optimized and transliterations are often awkward and rarely consistent. When it comes to videos, they are not edited and tagged properly. On dozens of occasions, I have been unable to search and find certain material I know exists on various platforms of Dar al-Ifta and al-Azhar. If someone close to these establishments cannot find these materials, there is little hope someone unfamiliar with them can. These simple examples mean that these digital platforms must be improved with haste using best practices that have now become international standards. The first step towards this improvement is to acknowledge that best practices on social media and web design are universal, known, and easily accessible. The second step is to understand that while not entirely free, these steps are extremely easy to implement and can be done so at minimal cost. The effects will almost be immediate.

Lastly, I want to address the importance of Western languages, particularly English. All these platforms, and indeed any international communication, must have robust and content-rich English companion sites. This is not just important to reach Muslims in the West, but also to help influence world opinion. Muslims in the West are not the only target group searching for answers and positions by the global Muslim leaders. It is very frequent that reporters, think tanks, universities, politicians, researchers, contractors, etc. turn to the web to find information on Islam and Muslims. If we are not there to meet their needs, they will look elsewhere for information.

It is my hopes that this brief sketch will be a catalyst not just for more discussion, but real, measurable action. As always, I stand ready to help Egypt’s religious establishment and look forward to doing so in the coming years with my colleagues and teachers.

 

Tarek Elgawhary, PhD

 

Cairo, Egypt

27 Muharram 1439

18 October 2017

 

 

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