The World's Stupidest Fatwas (Foreign Policy)
Posted July 2007 (Web Exclusive)
The List: The World’s Stupidest Fatwas
No central authority controls doctrine in Islam, one of the world’s great religions. The result? A proliferation of bizarre religious edicts against targets ranging from Salman Rushdie to polio vaccinations. FP collects some of the worst examples here.
[N.B.: Of course, Islam is not the only major religion that produces stupid and/or pernicious rulings by clerics and other interpreters of religious law. I suppose that should be obvious, but given current sensitivities and polemics, it might be worth noting it explicitly. Nor is it only in Islam that religiously-inspired edicts are used as incitements to murder and mass atrocity--though Islamic examples have become increasingly conspicuous in recent decades, and it is understandable that this has made some people nervous when they hear the word "fatwa". But as this FP roundup makes clear, some of the most notorious fatwas of the past three decades range all the way from murderous to merely silly. --Jeff Weintraub]
Who: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran
What: A fatwa is simply a religious ruling in Islam—most often, it seems, fatwas are about sexual matters—but Westerners usually associate the term with the notorious 1989 death sentence against British author Salman Rushdie. At the time, Khomeini was seeking to distract his followers from the pointless slaughter of the recently ended Iran-Iraq war, during which hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed and wounded. Rushdie had just authored The Satanic Verses, an edgy novel about the origins of the Koran, and thus proved the perfect foil for Khomeini’s designs. Thousands of irate Muslims around the world protested the book as an insult to Islam. For a decade, Rushdie lived in hiding, fearing assassination for his “apostasy.” [JW: Rushdie was successfully protected, but the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered, there were serious attacks on the Norwegian and Italian translators, and the offices of Rushdie's American publisher received regular bomb threats.] More recently, when Queen Elizabeth II knighted the author for his literary achievements, al Qaeda called for retaliation against Britain. And Khomeini’s successor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, reversed his earlier position and said that the original 1989 fatwa remains in force.
Who: Rashad Hassan Khalil, former dean of Islamic law at al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt
What: When Khalil ruled in January 2006 that for married couples, “being completely naked during the act of coitus annuls the marriage,” liberal Egyptians howled with derision. Other scholars rejected Khalil’s logic on the grounds that everything but “sodomy” is halal in a marriage. Absorbing the criticism but seeking to appease religious conservatives, Abdullah Megawar, the fatwa committee chairman at al-Azhar, reached for an awkward compromise. Sure, he said, a husband and wife could see one other naked, but should not look at each other’s genitals. And they should probably have sex under a blanket, he added for good measure.
Who: Saudi Arabia’s Higher Committee for Scientific Research and Islamic Law
What: Denouncing the lovable Japanese cartoon characters as having “possessed the minds” of Saudi youngsters, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority banned Pokémon video games and cards in the spring of 2001. Not only do Saudi scholars believe that Pokémon encourages gambling, which is forbidden in Islam, but it is apparently a front for Israel as well. The fatwa’s authors claimed that Pokémon games include, “the Star of David, which everyone knows is connected to international Zionism and is Israel’s national emblem.” Religious authorities in the United Arab Emirates joined in, condemning the games for promoting evolution, “a Jewish-Darwinist theory that conflicts with the truth about humans and with Islamic principles,” but didn’t ban them outright. Even the Catholic Church in Mexico got into the act, calling Pokémon video games “demonic.”
Who: Local mullahs in rural Pakistan
What: Pakistan’s largest Islamist umbrella group, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), issued a fatwa in January 2007 endorsing the provincial government’s efforts to immunize children from polio in the country’s Northwest Frontier Province. But even though health workers carried copies of the ruling with them as they trudged across the province, The Guardian reported in February 2007 that the parents of some 24,000 children had refused to allow the workers to administer polio drops. It turns out that influential antistate clerics had been issuing their own fatwas denouncing the campaign as a Western plot to sterilize Muslims. Although Pakistan only saw 39 cases of polio last year and most children have now been immunized, a similar religiously motivated firestorm against polio drops in Nigeria in 2003 allowed the eradicable disease to spread to 12 new countries in just 18 months.
Who: Ezzat Atiya, a lecturer at Cairo’s al-Azhar University
What: Many Muslims believe that unmarried men and women should not work alone together—a stricture that can pose problems in today’s global economy. So one Islamic scholar came up with a novel solution: If a woman were to breast-feed her male colleague five times, the two could safely be alone together. “A woman at work can take off the veil or reveal her hair in front of someone whom she breast-fed,” he wrote in an opinion issued in May 2007. He based his reasoning—which was quickly and widely derided in the Egyptian press, in the parliament, and on Arabic-language talk shows—on stories from the Prophet Mohammed’s time in which, Atiya maintained, the practice occurred. Although Atiya headed the department dealing with the Prophet’s sayings, al-Azhar University’s higher authorities were not impressed. They suspended the iconoclastic scholar, and he subsequently recanted his ruling as a “bad interpretation of a particular case.”