All religions have their scholars since no religious text or even tradition can escape the slavery of human exegesis; no exegesis, no religion. Since Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous 1989 Fatwa, which made Salman Rushdie famous for books that few succeed in reading from cover to cover and others find unpalatable, fatwas have become a symbol of all the evil or stupidity (depending the circumstances) people believe to find in Islam (rather than in the ‘scholar’ issuing them). Many fatwas have received more attention from non-Muslims than from Muslims thanks to the mass media hyper-focus on whatever is related to Islam. Indeed, fatwa means simply ‘advice’ and Sunni Muslims are not bound to accept them, particularly if the religious edicts are irrational or illogical.Because of the misuse or misunderstanding of the function of fatwas, often by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, today we may find a long list of violent fatwas, such as the well known ones issued by bin-Laden, and controversial or even ridiculous ones which, for the inexpert, may have reached the status of ‘classic’ examples of what a fatwa is. Such cases, and the impact they have on the image of Muslims in general, has brought Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s top Mufti, to ask for restrictions on issuing fatwas.
However, it is interesting to notice that Western mass media attention and morbid interest in the business of ‘religious advice’ seems to stop at Islam. Yet Muslims are not unique in requiring their religious scholars’ words of guidance or clarification. Other religions also have their ‘fatwas’ or similar provisions.
For instance, Judaism, due to the complexity and difficulties linked to its legal religious system, shows an even more alive, and lengthy, tradition of ‘religious rulings’ from Rabbis. Rarely have these religious legal opinions reached an international audience. Even when a given Rabbi’s religious opinion is no less violent than bin-Laden’s views or no less ridiculous than the Islamic scholar’s fatwa on the breast feeding of male colleagues, the embarrassing religious edict would remain to most unknown.
The interesting fact is that exactly because of the fragmentation of Jewish communities into many sects and groups as well as the incredible legal and religious complexity of Jewish norms that force the non-expert to depend upon the religious authorities (i.e. Rabbis), the amount of ‘advice’ issued within the Jewish traditions is potentially more than that which we may find within a Muslim community. Many of these opinions will be related to personal cases, but others will focus on the Jewish state or the entire Jewish community.
Some of these religious opinions are extremely disturbing, as in the case of Rabbi Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva (who is not an isolated case) and his genocidal ‘advice’, The complete guide to killing non-Jews, which certainly in Israel, or for what it matters within some Jewish communities, has not received the same strong public condemnation that bin-Laden’s religious views, for example, has received from many sections of various Muslim communities.
Other are more light and laughable than Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva’s Herodian suggestions for a new “Massacre of the Innocents”. Although difficult to find in the international papers and mass media, a careful research can show some pearls. Just to mention a recent one: Rabbi Ari Schvat has ruled that Honey-pot sex is kosher for female Mossad agents, although married agents may have to be divorced first by the husband and remarry after the victim has tasted his, possibly, last honey-pot sex. No advice has been issued, apparently, for men, and even less is known about Rabbi Ari Schvat’s opinion about the case in which heterosexual male (or female), agents may have to offer gay or lesbian honey-pot sex in the name of the security of Israel. Some of the religious rulings have clear racist and xenophobic elements, others are just full of hatred and not dissimilar from Hamas’ fatwas or even al-Qaeda’s.
An in-depth research will reveal many of these mostly unknown and ignored religious ‘fatwas’ that are proclaimed by some extreme, radical and selfish scholars of various religious traditions. Certainly many may be tempted to think that the issue might be restricted to the Abrahamic religions, and that, for instance, a tradition famed for its compassion such as Buddhism would exist as an exception. This is not the case, however, since even in the Buddhist tradition some monks have advocated violence and racism and suggested questionable practices.
The conclusion is self evident: fatwas, guidance, advice and edicts are not evil or stupid per-se. They are instead part of the religious discourse which is only and exclusively the product of the human mind. Criticizing Islam, Judaism, Christianity or any other tradition in itself is like looking at the finger pointing to the moon.