RIYADH (Reuters) - The number of fatwas, or edicts on belief and behaviour, is exploding in Islamic countries as Web sites, television and radio vie to outdo the mosque, but that doesn't mean believers automatically heed their message.
Modern media has revolutionised the access that Islamic clerics have to the public in Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, where religious scholars have wide scope to ensure the implementation of Islamic law.
Ordinary Saudis can seek the advice of their favourite cleric on thousands of Web sites, hundreds of TV and radio channels, or in dozens of newspapers.
Governments in Sunni countries appoint an official cleric, known as the mufti, who is charged with providing state-sanctioned fatwas.
Recently the mufti in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz al-Sheikh, established his own Web site (www.alifta.com), entering into an already crowded market.
Readers can request a fatwa, or flick through the fatwas of the mufti's clerical colleagues, including his famed deceased predecessor Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Bin Baz.
The mufti isn't everyone's favourite, though.
His edicts condemning Muslims who take up arms against the U.S.-allied Saudi government and advising the devout not to fight with al Qaeda in Iraq are seen by hardliners as blatant examples of fatwas-for-hire. Governments often elicit politically expedient fatwas from their favoured sheikhs.
The government's desire to challenge radical Islam on the Internet, where radical fatwas are disseminated across the world, is seen as one reason why the Mufti and the committee of scholars he heads took so long to get into cyberspace.
"People around them have said you need to get your message out to a wider range of people," said a diplomat who monitors religious affairs. "It's a generational thing, they have been disinterested in technology.
A Saudi businessman has set up the Fatwa Satellite Channel -- one of numerous Arabic religious channels now available.
"Before, anyone who wanted a fatwa would find a sheikh in a mosque. Now he watches the satellite channels," says Hassan al-Buluwi, manager of Saudi religious channel al-Majd.
"With a mosque sheikh, the fatwa was limited to no more than 500 people, but on satellite the information reaches millions. It's the demand of everyone ... the public has a need for it."
Yet the influence of fatwas is never guaranteed.
Yousef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian preacher who appears on popular Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera each week, recently railed against jeans, a wardrobe staple for most youth, as un-Islamic Western clothing.
The Saudi mufti has been drafted into a campaign to protect intellectual property rights with a fatwa against piracy.
But at least 52 percent of Saudi companies are still using pirated software, said Mohammed Al-Dhabaan, Saudi representative of the global anti-piracy group Business Software Alliance.
Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, the most revered independent cleric in Saudi Arabia, last month issued a fatwa condemning camel beauty contests, but the tribal custom remains popular.
With the haj pilgrim season beginning in the Saudi city of Mecca over the next week, haj fatwas are now in demand.
In a typical exchange, an anonymous Muslim asked this week on a popular site that groups Barrak and other leading Wahhabi clerics about inviting friends round for a meal to reconcile differences before heading off for Mecca.
Sheikh Saud al-Funaisan (www.islamtoday.net) bluntly told the questioner that Prophet Muhammad sanctioned no such thing.
"Having friends of neighbours round as part of social custom is fine, but if these feasts are held out of worship or a sense of religion then this is a form of innovation in religion that is not permissible," he said.
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)