Cyber-muftis, digital fatwas - the ongoing transformation of religious authority

ALEXANDRE CAEIRO
Published 27.03.2019 00:06

Since its eruption in the 1990s, the internet has become a central marker of social identity and community life within Muslim-minority communities and (shortly afterward) Muslim-majority societies. Sociologists have heralded this development as the making of a "new Muslim public sphere" and speculated on its effects upon established structures of religious authority. One of the advantages the internet has brought is the ready availability of Islamic moral guidance. Muslims disconnected from traditional institutions such as mosques and madrasas are now able to easily consult a mufti anywhere around the world regarding a past action or a future plan. Groups who may have been marginalized in the past, including women with little access to male authority structures, or diasporas living away from home institutions, may be its greatest beneficiaries.

The development of the Arabic internet in the 21st century has led to the proliferation of cyber-muftis and online fatwas. Although religious authorities were initially suspicious of the medium and slow to adapt, the most popular online fatwa sites today are connected to recognized Muslim scholars, institutions and state bodies. While this has reduced the potential for religious fragmentation that new media technology typically induces, it has also created new conditions and criteria for the performance of religious authority.

For individual Muslims, the internet promises "ever-lasting happiness" (to borrow Islamweb's motto): An ethical life lived according to religious norms in a world that often seems increasingly impersonal and secularized. The internet offers lay Muslims the possibility to remain connected to Islamic authority while coping with the precariousness and unpredictability of modern life. The transnational nature of digital fatwas allows individuals to escape the constraints of national religious discourse. The internet gives weaker parties in a dispute easy access to an authoritative opinion that can be used to advance one's interests and to claim one's rights. My research shows that the wife who finds herself in a difficult family arrangement, the worker who struggles with an exploitative boss, or the citizen who suffers under an unjust state authority are markedly more likely to reach out to a mufti (online or offline) than the other way round. The petitioners (mustaftin) hope to persuade the mufti of the legitimacy of their case and then to rely on the moral powers of the shared Islamic tradition to change the status quo.

Although Sharia has receded from the legal sphere of contemporary Muslim states, the persuasiveness that Muslims at large continue to attach to it can be seen when individuals reach out to a cyber-mufti, although they have considerably more to lose than to gain. Here, the petitioner (mustafti) does not seek to assert a right but rather inquire about the afterlife consequences of worldly advantage. Concerns about the lawfulness of one's income and profession are particularly rife. The countless online fatwas on these questions highlight the trials that modern economic systems pose to Muslim piety and ethical life.

When they reach out to digital authorities, lay Muslims are often aware of a diversity of opinions among scholars. Many have developed the necessary cyber-literacy to differentiate between online platforms and to target specific religious orientations. In any case, the internet presents all Muslims with a new set of responsibilities. It contributes to the reconfiguration of religion as a matter of choice, forcing individuals to select between competing opinions. In a world of specialized knowledge and moral complexity, this is both a responsibility and a burden. It requires the assiduous cultivation of proper disposition, for Muslims, that quality of the heart designated by the Prophet Muhammad when he instructed believers to consult their heart even after the mufti has issued them a fatwa (istafti qalbaka wa in aftāka al-nasu wa aftūka).

Opportunities

For the muftis delivering fatwas online, the internet presents both new possibilities and unprecedented challenges. The internet allows muftis to penetrate deep into the social fabric of society, to regulate the behavior of pious Muslims, and to remain relevant in conditions of social change and modernization. Through its search engines and management practices, the internet sometimes allows muftis to standardize fatwas and to blend out differences.

A fatwa consists of a specific response to an individual query. As understood in the tradition, a fatwa changes according to time, place, condition, intention and custom. Scholars have developed a complex methodology in order to achieve this flexibility, preserving interests and benefits while protecting the integrity of the tradition. By rendering the fatwa public, the internet (like the printing press before it) allows muftis to address the wider public, to educate whole populations, and to participate in the social, economic and political development of Muslim communities. Muftis around the world have readily seized upon this opportunity, perhaps influenced by a modern understanding of the law as an instrument of social transformation rather than a tool for the preservation of the status quo.

Challenges

Muslims today reach out to cyber-muftis in search of more than just a legal ruling (hukm shar'i). They confront the muftis with a set of demands and expectations that the muftis may not always be prepared (or trained) to address. At Islamweb, the internet portal attached to Qatar's Ministry of Awqaf which currently hosts the world's largest online fatwa bank, petitioners expect the cyber-muftis to act as religious experts, as well as spiritual guides, psychologists, marriage counselors, legal advisers, financial consultants, transnational mediators, and apologists for the Islamic tradition. Muslims in Qatar who reach out to the portal sometimes ask the muftis to fund marriages, offer career advice, exorcize spirits and interpret dreams. The muftis thus have to define and circumscribe their domain of expertise carefully, deferring to specialists in other fields when necessary, even as they remain committed to asserting the relevance of the Islamic legal tradition for modern times.

Online consultation will in many cases confront the cyber-mufti with social practices that differ from those in his milieu – especially (but not exclusively) when it takes place across national boundaries. The distance that separates the mustafti from the cyber-mufti furthermore limits the ability of the latter to properly contextualize the question. The psychological study of the petitioner's motives and expectations that muftis undertake in face-to-face encounters is almost impossible to reproduce online. Whether this is understood as a major problem depends on the importance the mufti gives to a contextual approach to legal ethics beyond the enunciation of a legal rule (hukm shar'i). Given the current polarization of public opinion and diversity of Muslim lifestyles and expectations, cyber-muftis will also struggle to identify potential traps that petitioners may place in their questions to embarrass them.

The internet thus presents both a new set of problems and a new ensemble of opportunities. The ability of scholars and muftis to navigate these dynamics will be central to the struggles for religious authority in the 21st century.

* Assistant professor in the College of Islamic Studies, Hamad bin Khalifa University

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