RIYADH 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
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
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
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)