Egypt leads new fatwa policy to fight ISIS ideology
LONDON - Egypt’s Dar Al-Ifta, the country’s most prominent religious authority, has agreed to “cooperation” agreements with other Sunni fatwa-issuing bodies in the wake of a conference of Muslim clerics from across the region as part of efforts to counter jihadist and takfiri ideology.
The conference — The Fatwa: Current Realities and Future Prospects — convened August 17th and 18th in Cairo and concluded with a number of initiatives to secure greater “coordination and consultation” between national religious bodies.
Initiatives include the establishment of a “general secretariat” for global fatwa issuance, as well as centres tasked with monitoring and rebutting extremist edicts, and particularly so-called ex-communication fatwas, as well as training aspiring muftis based on a “moderate” interpretation of Islam.
“The conference is a good step forward in a very long road. We needed to do this a long time ago because we have to unify the efforts in confronting the excommunication orientated fatwas, which bring a grave danger to the Arab region, particularly as the Islamic State (ISIS) is making use of these kinds of fatwas,” said al-Azhar Professor of Political Science Hassan Wagieh.
ISIS is known for its practice of takfir — declaring other Muslims to be infidels — through which it justifies killing and enslavement of those, including followers of other Islamic sects such as Shias, it perceives to be non-Muslims.
“These fatwas are like an atomic bomb and it needs to be dismantled before it explodes for real. We have already seen a taste of this… but it could get much worse,” he told The Arab Weekly.
The establishment of a General Secretariat incorporating different official fatwa-issuing bodies would represent an unprecedented move towards the unification of Islamic jurisprudence, with national fatwa-issuing bodies coordinating with one another to, at the very least, agree on fatwas not accepted by regional states. This could even see the codification of a body of fatwas formally accepted and endorsed across the region, although questions remain as to what extent regional countries — which follow different schools of Sunni Islam — can work together.
“This could be managed. Managing differences is a problem in the Arab world, not just in this affair but all affairs.
But if we understand pluralism and understand that this is a necessity to handle diversification of opinion and forge the common ground with negotiation and crisis management efforts,” said Wagieh, who has written a number of books on conflict resolution.
“This needs a lot of work, with experts [in negotiations] and the clergy working together but if the clergy try to do the whole thing by themselves, without referring to experts, I think they will have problems,” he added.
The majority of Arab states endorse an official body to issue fatwas, with all other fatwas issued by clerics considered illegitimate. In the case of Egypt, it is Dar Al-Ifta, under al-Azhar University, that is responsible for fatwa issuance.
After the Cairo conference, Dar Al-Ifta announced a number of “cooperation” agreements with other religious bodies, including Pakistan’s official fatwa-issuing body, as well as Algeria’s Ministry of Religious Affairs.
“What is required from the official institutions like al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta is to work hard and continuously and never stop because the other side will not stop,” Wagieh said. “The task is enormous.”
While in the run up to the conference, Egypt’s Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) announced that clerics would receive “deterrent penalties” for issuing “abnormal” fatwas that “stir up sedition and disorder.”
“We have to go for a long-term solution and we have to have the ability of enforcement. It is not only how to theorise or how to get people gathering here and there and when you finish the conference you hold another conference one year later. This is not enough for the crisis we are facing,” Wagieh added.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi backed the move towards the unification of regional fatwa bodies, warning against the threat of extremist ideology.
“President Sisi confirmed the importance of early action to ward off the dangers of extremist ideology and terrorism from Islamic society before this ideology can spread,” said Egyptian presidential spokesman Alaa Yousef.
The move towards greater unification in religious discourse has been long coming, with Sisi famously calling for a “religious revolution” to confront extremist ideology in January 2015.
Speaking before a gathering of clerics, Sisi said: “We are in need of a religious revolution.
“You imams are responsible before God. The entire world is waiting on you. The entire world is waiting for your word… because the Islamic world is being torn. It is being destroyed. It is being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands.”