09/06/2006, 00.00
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Imams' ignorance holds back cultural development of those who want to live according to Islam

by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
As the demand for fatwas, responsa on what is or isn't lawful, goes up and the types of issues are increasingly wide-ranging, Muslims rely more and more on Islamic clerics and fundamentalists. yet in Morocco women are becoming imams. This is the third article on Islam in crisis, by Fr Samir Khalil Samir.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Most worrying to governments are fatwas involving violence, which are related to politics.  But the crisis of Islam can be gauged above all by the fatwas that are produced each day, for every aspect of life, especially that of women.

In Egypt – home to the most imaginative and prolific muftis – all newspapers, radio and television stations have a segment dedicated to fatwas.  Two or three times a week, people call in their questions and a mufti supplies answers.  There are even call-centres in Cairo that can give you a fatwa on the spot.  It is lucrative business: on one side there are the fatwa specialists on the other the people that call.  There is a surcharge (sometimes as much as ten times) on the normal cost of the call: profits go in part to the businessman who sets up the religious enterprise, and in part to the mufti himself.  People call from all over the world, and not just from Egypt, to know how to behave in this or that situation of daily life.

One question that is often heard is if it is alright to eat with a non-Muslim.  This request arrives mainly from businessmen who travel to Germany, the U.S., London.  The answer, depending on the juridical knowledge of the mufti, can be either yes or no.  If I keep to the Koranic text which says, "This day the good things are allowed to you; and the food of those who have been given the Book is lawful for you and your food is lawful for them," (5,5), then there should be nothing wrong with a "business lunch" with Westerners, when considering them as part of "those who have been given the Book."  But, if I consider that Westerners are in general misbelievers, then their food is not halāl but harām, forbidden.  For, the purpose of all fatwas is to establish what is halāl (allowed) and what is harām (forbidden).

Another popular topic is how to behave with a woman: if a man can hold a woman's hand in public; if spouses can kiss each other, how to make love, etc...  Kissing in public is forbidden in Egypt. Offenders risk being arrested.  But such fatwas go even farther: influenced by radicalism, muftis prohibit spouses from even kissing each other in private.  The fundamentalist tendencies can be seen in fatwas prohibiting spouses to see each other nude; they prescribe that lovemaking be done only in the dark, or – as some say – that a thin veil be put between the two bodies... And all this is the subject of heated discussions on television!

In recent months, I had fun listening to the strangest fatwas: "should or should not a launderer (laundry shops are everywhere in Egypt) handle the clothes of a woman who normally does not wear an Islamic veil?"  "If a woman gets out of the bath naked and there is a dog in the apartment, has she done something forbidden?  Answer: "It depends on the dog.  If the dog is male, the woman has done something which is forbidden."

Another very amusing fatwa, reported by newspapers: "While I pray a woman goes by.  Is my prayer valid or not?"  Answer: "If a donkey, a woman, or a black dog goes by, the prayer must be repeated."  The explanation is incredible: "The donkey is an impure animal; the black dog could be Satan in disguise; women are impure regardless."

In another newspaper, I read a fatwa dealing with girls: "It is permissible or not to play with a Barbie doll?" Answer: "No, because these dolls display the attractive parts of a woman's body and that is sinful."  That is why the sale of Barbie dolls has been forbidden in Iran and Islamic dolls, which are dressed in the Muslim manner, with a headscarf, chador, burkha, have been introduced.

At times these fatwas create scandal among the faithful.  I once saw on Egyptian television a debate which lasted over an hour on "to whom may a woman show her breasts."  Everything began with the normal habit of Egyptian women nursing their babies in public.  Women uncover their breast on the bus, in church, in the street, everywhere: this has never caused any kind of shock in Egypt.  But during the discussions, someone went as far as to ask: can a woman nurse her own driver?  Shouts were heard from the audience, viewers called in to the television station to complain. The imam's answer was: "It depends: according to the degree of kinship with the driver, such behaviour can be forbidden or allowed."  The mufti's reaction to the enormous protests being voiced by spectators? "You are idiots," he said, "This is not a problem of sensitivity, it is a juridical problem."

There are people who take all this seriously.  Once again, the increase in the number of fatwas clearly shows that there is widespread confusion and, at the same time, it also shows the effects of the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam: it is essential to know what is allowed and what is not.   Common sense no longer comes into play.

2. Ignorance of imams and dependence on them

The problem that emerges here is not so much the morbid questions and answers, as the general ignorance of the people and their imams and muftis.  There is a great desire among people to live by religious dictates.  The point is that this has brought people to be almost absolutely dependent upon their muftis.  The way to penetrate Islam into my life, from the most intimate matters to public ones, is to entrust myself to the religious expert who answers my questions.

In all truth, I must say that even in the Copt Orthodox Church the same danger exists.  Each Friday, Patriarch Shenaouda III gives a long one-hour sermon.  As he preaches, families send their children to him with notes on which they have written questions.  At the end, the Patriarch chooses a few and gives answers.  There are questions of all kinds – though not as ridiculous as those of the fatwas mentioned above...  But they are questions on moral life: is it permissible to go to the cinema; can a young man and a young woman hold hands as they walk down the street; is it a sin to sing tunes from the radio; etc.  There are also questions on faith, on the problems pertaining to the belief in God.

People's ignorance and the desire for religiosity have generated this structure of total dependence on religious figures.  This makes me think of the scholars of the law of Jesus' time.  That society too, given religious ignorance and, at the same time, the lack of any horizon other than religion, brought people to be totally subjugated to religious scholars.  These "scholars" are no doubt experts in their speciality (law, traditions, sayings, etc.) but they can be ignorant from the humanistic point of view.

3. Training of imams

At the Mecca conference, the problem was dealt with only laterally: faced with the fast spread of fatwas and above all those involving violence, the governments limited themselves to saying that fatwas are not for anyone to pronounce.  But the real root of the problem is that imams, muftis and, in general, "men of religion", as we Arabs call them (rijāl al-dīn), are lacking a well-rounded education.  Being ignorant, they also make the general public ignorant.  Apart from the fact that many muftis and imams have proclaimed themselves to be such.

What kind of training do Islamic scholars receive?  In the great majority of cases – and I am speaking of the Arab world, but I think that the Asian and Muslim-African worlds are no better off – their training is strictly religious and Islamic: it is based on the study of Arabic, the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet of Islam.  But here, the word "study" means: memorizing the Koran, memorizing thousands of sayings (the so-called hadith, Mohammad's sayings); memorizing thousands of fatwas, juridical pronouncements.  Subsequently, basing themselves on a saying of Mohammad or a comment by a scholar of the early centuries, the imams will apply to a current situation some fact or saying of the past, using the principle of analogy:  "Here, we are in an analogous, similar situation: we can therefore apply this or that saying, this or that criterion."  But even in such applicative efforts, memorized material is called upon; practically no effort is made to reflect.

Furthermore, imams receive no real training in sociology, psychology, literature that is not within the Arab horizon.  Often, apart from Arabic (or their mother tongue, plus Arabic), they do not know other languages.  It is very rare that they can read books in English, French or Italian.  In fact, it is extremely rare: it can be said with certainty that not more than 5% of imams know a foreign language.  All this creates a culture which is certainly very specialized, scholarly in fine points and in answers, but which is closed in on itself, as if in an airtight container.  They are lacking the ability to situate the questions that they study in a larger, more universal framework; the ability to deal with a question from, among others, a historical, sociological, political point of view; in short, to have reference points which are outside their Islamic world.

4. Morocco's experiment: female imams 

Many Muslims and political figures recognize that their imams are ignorant and that their public teaching is truly unsatisfactory.  Thus, various states are designing new educational systems.  An interesting example of training has been developed in Morocco, where they have actually begun a school for imams which also includes women (who are not called imam, but murscidāt, "women who guide or advise").

Every six months, the Moroccan Ministry of Islamic Affairs recruits dozens of men and women and offers them a one-year training period.  Among the many signed up in the last round, 60 were young women.  The school, at first sight, is very traditional in character: women are kept separate from men in class, and wear the traditional Moroccan headscarf (not the so-called "Islamic veil" imported from Saudi Arabia), etc.  Training naturally includes Koran studies, but the curriculum is more open and allows for a favourable interpretation of modernity.  Religious studies deal with law, the history of religion, etc.

What is absolutely new about this, however, is that students also take courses in human sciences, psychology, human rights and the mudawwana, the new family law enacted by the king of Morocco two years ago.  This new mudawwana guarantees greater equality of rights between men and women; it has aroused numerous protests from fundamentalists, but it endures.  The new imams that are being trained, men and women, serve to spread its values and to give it life. 

In fact, after the year-long study programme, women in particular are sent to mosques, prisons, hospitals, schools and associations to speak and preach to women, but not only.  It is a sort of "feminization" of Islam which helps Muslims understand the importance of women in the Islamic world.  Initial evaluations of the experiment have all been very positive.  The murscidāt receive a salary from the government, equivalent to 450 euros which for Morocco is a good income.  Reading various interviews that they have given, one can see that these women are inspired by a missionary spirit, of wanting to enlarge horizons for an Islam open to modernity.  This experiment in Morocco is one of the best being proposed by Muslim states.  In France, various private groups are trying to set up similar programmes, but they have not yet been able to train imams well.
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