Monday, March 23, 2009

Breastfeeding Grown Men: Too Many Fatwas!

It seems even the Islamic world is getting tired of the proliferation of ridiculous fatwas, and is considering regulation! This is a classic example of why religion and government don't mix.

National Public Radio (NPR) had a great story this morning, Concerns Grow Over Proliferation of Fatwas. These rulings by muftis, govern what is permissible under Islam and what is forbidden. Traditionally, a man would seek guidance, on a personal level, from a mufti, when he had some difficult question that wasn't covered by the day-to-day teachings.

But an "explosion" of fatwas on television and the internet has Muslims' heads spinning. The rulings are contradictory, confusing, and sometimes just bizarre. The most widely ridiculed was the "breastfeeding fatwa." Islamic law prohibits women from working alongside unrelated men, but a wet-nurse who breastfeeds an infant is considered related to that child, and is allowed to be alone with that man even when he becomes an adult. So a cleric from the highly-respected Al Azhar University issued a fatwa declaring that a woman would be allowed to work with men if she breast-fed each of them five times first!

The root of the problem goes to the very heart of why religion and government shouldn't mix: Who gets to be a mufti? And even if you can ensure that every mufti is qualified, you're left with a government with no checks and balances, no possibility of democratic control. Even if Islamic law was fair and good, the mufti would become an aristocracy, and history has shown that aristocracies inevitably become corrupt, either from within, or because the immoral and power-hungry are attracted to the job.

In an attempt to curb this comic situation, an Egyptian lawmaker is going from bad to worse: He is proposing that the government should regulate who can become a mufti. So Islam is already dictating law to the faithful, and now the government wants to regulate Islam.

Hey, I have a better idea. Why not keep the two completely separate? How about if the government is kept completely secular, and stays out of Islam's business. And in return, Muslims will stay out of the business of governing, and go back to teaching Islamic principles?


  1. First, to be very specific, the infamous breastfeeding fatwa addressed male and female co-workers in a space that had a closed door, such as a shared office or private meeting. Men and women can and do work alongside each other all over the Muslim world, with the obvious exception of Saudi Arabia.

    Second, I just see this as yet another call for yet another layer of government bureaucracy and incompetance in Egypt and other Arab countries. Our governments are already hopelessly arcane, burdened by ridiculous offices, permissions, and personnel. For one simple paper for school, you might have to visit three or more officials, each with his or her own official stamp, each in his or her own branch in different parts of town or different ministries. The very last thing we need is yet another official ministry or bureau stuffed full of incompetent nincompoops who are appointed because of their tribe or their money.

    Also, King Abdullah of Saudi wants to reign in the power of the Wahabi scholars that oppose his political, economic, and social agendas for Saudi. When it is convenient for them, the al Saud family lets them do as they want, and they rely on them to give them legitimacy. You will notice that this great liberal king does not step in regarding these cases of raped women being whipped or elderly women being lashed and deported until the press makes an embarassment about it in the international sphere.

    Regarding Egypt, they already have Dar al Iftaa, with Mufti Ali Gumaa as its head. They have standards for who can work there and issue fatwas. Why do we need another agency? PM Gendi wants to regulate who can give fatwas on TV - which is nigh impossible, because we can all see stations from every Arab country on Arab and Nile Sat. I can sit in Syria and get a fatwa issued by a guy in Morocco or Saudi - how can Syria or Egypt stop him from saying what he wants on the air? It doesn't make sense, but this is par for the course with us!

    Regarding the scholarly class as aristocracy, this already exists and has existed for 1200 years in the Muslim world, to varying degrees. They wear clothing different than the rest of the people, and are treated with respect and consideration not due to a normal person (ha). Today, at least we have some tension and dissent as our grandparents' and parents' generation (the people born from about 1900-1960) were raised in very secular, nationalist oriented societies, some of them socialist. So we have two whole generations of adults who are prone to viewing being religious as something country people do, and they want the best and brightest to become doctors; it is the people who score low on their tests who go to become muftis. Now things have swung the other way in the 80s and 90s, with our society getting 'religious' so now you have people who are nationalist secularists wearing hijab becuase of the pressure from their children or the tribe / family to do so. Like most other young people from Muslim Arab countries, I think that with the explosion of satellite TV and the internet in the Muslim world, things will be changing again. Already our generation is agitating for more free speech, more Western values like being orderly and having consideation for people and actually working during the workday instead of socializing like our parents' generation does. Hopefully, there will also be growing skepticism over Islam and Christianity as a whole, and a new era of Arab freethinkers.

    Phew! Thanks for your time.

  2. Lama,

    Wow, thanks for your insightful reply. It's rare to get such insight from someone who is actually there, is articulate, and is living the life that we just read about in America.

    Religious fundamentalism is a problem anywhere it occurs, but your part of the world seems to have a long and unhappy history of religion mixing with government.

    Thanks for writing!



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