Where is a good fatwa when one is needed?
With the recent hullabaloo about the twelve cartoons featuring the Prophet, published in the Danish daily newspaper ‘Jyllands-Posten’ and which presumably have deliberately provoked and insulted Muslims, demands from apologies, to retractions to fatwas were heard all over the world. These days, there are so many fatwas issued against anything and everything, that it is getting hard to keep track of them all. Issued by a mufti, a sheikh, a muslim scholar or a mullah, a fatwa is a legal ruling in Islam, requested or required in cases where an issue may be ambivalent or vague. As there is no central Islamic “priesthood” (for lack of a better word), there is also no commonly accepted system to determine who can or cannot issue a fatwa, leaving many Islamic scholars complaining that way too many people feel qualified to issue a fatwa at any time about anything at all. In some Islamic countries it has evolved so far, that one can even dial a fatwa on the mobile phone or log onto a ‘fatwa-bank’ in the internet for an immediate online fatwa. In both theory and practice, different Islamic clerics have been known to issue contradictory, conflicting and even competing fatwas. And to complicate the issue even more, Sunni Muslims would not accept the fatwa of a Shiite cleric and vice versa. Let’s take a look at some of the fatwas relating to publishing, writing and the arts in general.
Salman Rushdie is perhaps the most famous writer to have had a fatwa, like a halo over his head, but he is not the only one. I read “The Satanic Verses” myself and didn’t think it warranted all that fuss. Without that fatwa in 1989, “The Satanic Verses” would have been published without fanfare, would probably have received mixed reviews, and would have been largely forgotten by now. Rushdie himself says in an interview: "What can you do if you find yourself stuck in the middle of a historical event like that? I think that the fatwa is noisier than most literary careers so of course it got the part of 'what people know about me as a writer.' My interest as a writer now is to get past it, so that people stop thinking of me in that box. I think, in a way, that it was the greatest damage done to me as a writer; that people categorized me in some box called Islamic fanaticism, which really, is not what my work is like or about."
I think such fatwas do raise important questions about what qualifies as blasphemy or even warrants censorship cases. It most certainly highlights the importance of context, because all it did, contrary to its original aim, was to catapult that book (not even one of his best) into the top of the international bestseller lists and made Salman Rushdie a household name, even among people who normally do not buy or read books.
Another writer to benefit from what I call ‘the fatwa celebrity syndrome’ is Kola Boof, born in Sudan as Naima Bint Harith. In 2002, a fatwa was issued against her and a year later her publisher Russom Damba was bombed in Morocco for printing her story collection, "Long Train to the Redeeming Sin". To date, Boof has authored six books, which were translated and published in eight countries. Personally I don’t think that these books are worth half the noise made about them, but the fatwa over her head, resulted in providing her with American publishers and a much larger audience than those types of books would normally earn.
Taslima Nasrin also got a fatwa issued against her for allegedly challenging and criticising Shariah (Islamic law). I have not read any of her works myself, so I cannot judge whether or not the fame and fortune that befell her were justified or whether it was another case of the fatwa celebrity syndrome.
I did not make up this fatwa celebrity syndrome. It exists and is real and is also being used calculatingly by various authors who know that the content of their books is neither very strong nor deep enough to transform them from obscurity to fame. Some examples of those who used the fatwa celebrity syndrome would be Irshad Manji who has beaten her own drum and claimed fear of a fatwa, asking for protection. Yet she has never been ‘blessed’ with a fatwa. Asra Nomani claims in her book to have also suffered from fatwa fear, so badly that she had to: “brace herself with the only weapon she had: knowledge.”
Another author riding on the wave of the fatwa celebrity syndrome is the ‘wannabe mystery’ Nedjma, which is a pseudonym for an unknown Arab woman. Her book, “The Almond” has been described as the first erotic novel by an Arab Muslim woman. For all the hoopla about "The Almond" presumably reconciling feminine sexuality with Islam, there is almost no evidence whatsoever in the text of anything Islamic, apart from a few meagre references to Allah and performing prayers. Nevertheless since its first publication and the related publicity, this book sold more than 50,000 copies, and foreign rights have been sold so far to publishing houses in 17 countries.
The reason I am so aggravated with this whole furore is that today this slogan of "I'm an oppressed Arab / Muslim woman telling the West about my predicament or offering a knowledgeable ‘insider’ view about my religion" is what sells these kinds of books, regardless of their real content or value. After all any Western publisher wants to cash in on that as well, because nothing rouses a controversy like mixing sex and religion together in the same pot, to ensure brisk and massive book sales.
The problem though is not with these women. The problem is with the fatwas. If there were no such fatwas in the first place, then this opportunistic behaviour wouldn’t exist. It is simply a cause and effect relationship. Some of these women are Muslim, some are Arab and some are both. Some are oppressed or abused and some are just sly or conniving with some hidden agenda. Some of their stories may be lacking in truth, content, depth or intellectual worth. Some may be showing their ignorance or lack of character or morality. Some stories may be undermining their own credibility. But in the end, be they right or wrong, good, bad or ugly, it is their very own story they are telling. Why shouldn’t they use an opportunity presented to them? Who would look a gift horse in the mouth? It is the fault of the muftis, mullahs and clerics for giving them such an opportunity or tool.
Moving to another field, namely that of journalism, we find the fatwa celebrity syndrome there too. Isioma Daniel, a very young (in her early twenties) junior, fashion writer on her first job for ‘This Day’, a daily in Nigeria, was given the assignment to cover the Miss World pageant. As per her own words about her assignment, published in ‘The Guardian’, she struggled to write a 600 word piece which would be informative and still light enough, befitting the subject. Writing about the pageant she chose to mention the Prophet writing: "What would Mohammed think? He would probably have chosen a wife from one of them." This flippant comment in a country that just introduced Sharia Law, landed her the ‘prize’ fatwa. It also resulted in the cancellation of the pageant after religious riots broke out, which left more than 200 people dead and dozens of villages destroyed. And what does Isioma Daniel do today? She gets interviewed on CBC, writes her take on the events in ‘The Guardian’, is offered a column in a Norwegian Daily, writing reports about her life in Norway as well as a series of journal entries for CBC News on Sunday. Quite a jump from an obscure beginner to an international celebrity, isn’t it?
Moving from the press to the sound of music, we see many singers drawing the ire of Islamic religious authorities around the Muslim world. The spotlight sought out Abdullah Ruwaished, now a leading Kuwaiti pop singer, when a Saudi cleric issued a fatwa against him for insulting the Quran, by singing its opening chapter to music. The main Kuwaiti Islamic groups declared that fatwa illegal. Nevertheless Abdullah Ruwaished left Kuwait for the United States, enjoying his new found and stronger established fame. A Lebanese singer Aasi al-Hellani was banned because of allegations that he had sung verses from the Quran to music. In 1995, Marcel Khalife, a famous Christian Lebanese singer got his fatwa, also for allegedly insulting Islam, by singing a song called ‘Oh Father, I am Yusuf’. The song was based on a poem by the Palestinian poet and writer Mahmoud Darwish, and was inspired by the story of Yusuf (Joseph) and his brothers, quoting a verse from the Quran. Four years later a Lebanese court found Marcel Khalife innocent of blasphemy.
Two Pakistani singers (Akram Rahi and Naseebo Lal) became famous almost overnight and their song climbed the charts beyond their wildest expectations, just because the mullahs in Kashmir issued a fatwa against them. The song had one line in it saying that Allah has written the fate of man with a fragile pencil, which is what angered and drove the mullahs to waste their long years of theology studies to focus on semantics declaring that this was blasphemy and sacrilege. A frothing and foaming fatwa was issued a condemning the song and banning it. They even went so far as to appeal to the people to throw away the cassettes. But what was the result? After all that fuss and hoo-ha, the song has become even more popular than it already was.
Moving from the world of music to the silver screen, a particular film deserves a mention. “Submission” is the film that cost Theo van Gogh, the director, his life and left his corpse with a death threat against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the scriptwriter, pinned to it by a knife. In an interview with ‘Der Spiegel’ Ayaan Hirsi Ali says: “I felt stunned. Only now has it become clear to me how concrete and deadly the threat is. But I also understood that this fatwa isn't just directed against me, but against Holland, against the entire Western world. Now that I've already been given the maximum sentence, at least I can act freely. If Islam is to develop peacefully, words or images will be necessary. Even radical Muslims have had access to the Internet and satellite television for a long time. We must have answers to this. In other words, there will be a "Submission II," and also a "Submission III."
Personally I did watch the film, which is said to deal with violence against women in Islamic societies. In it, four women, show their scarred, bruised, abused, naked bodies visible through a transparent veil and with verses from the Quran painted on them and get to tell their grisly stories. I found the movie to be shocking, but not for its intended message, but rather for its lack of taste and lopsided portrayal of local traditions being branded as Islamic rules. I wouldn’t even consider it art, but rather a cheap shot at a publicity stunt with pornographic content sold as a reforming wake-up call.
There are many more fatwas of the same ilk, for example the fatwa in the United Arab Emirates against the popular children's game Pokemon, because of fears that it promotes gambling. Saudi Arabia's mufti, the kingdom's highest religious authority, banned Pokemon cards completely. The Sheikh of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam, issued a fatwa saying that game shows offering big monetary prizes are legitimate, thereby contradicting an earlier fatwa by Egypt's Grand Mufti, stating that shows modelled on the British show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” were un-Islamic, as offering large cash prizes was a form of gambling, and therefore contrary to Islamic law. The controversial US Arabic-language TV channel Alhurra is winning viewers as a news source in the Arab world despite rising anti-American feelings in the region, because a fatwa was issued against the channel in Saudi Arabia.
So where does this discussion leave us? Fatwas or religious edicts remain part of Islamic law and still have considerable influence on many Muslims. It really does not matter that many of these fatwas accomplish exactly the opposite of what they set out to achieve in the first place. Maybe the mullahs, muftis, sheikhs or Muslim clerics should really consider changing jobs and going into promotion, marketing or advertising. At end of the day, the fact that there is a fatwa against a book, a song, a movie or anything else is translated to “there is something to hide”. People being naturally curious, want to explore that hidden something and uncover it. All the fatwas mentioned here were more of successful publicity campaigns and sales boosters rather than deterrents. Perhaps if these mullahs join the sales teams of those wannabe ‘stars’ it could end up as a very lucrative avenue of revenue for them and much more rewarding than just issuing fatwas. After all the sales team gets a percentage of sales or a commission, while the various muftis sink into oblivion as soon as the fatwa is uttered and the ‘fatwa-recipient’ starts his / her remarkable rise into stardom.