In the quest for religious guidance, many lay Muslims living in the West have often turned to scholars residing in the Muslim world to seek religious verdicts that they may apply to their lives. The nineties and noughties saw a massive growth in ‘Fatwa Websites’ where people could search vast databases of Islamic injunctions issued by scholars residing in the East. The reason for turning to the East for religious guidance was simple; after all these were the ‘lands of Islam’, and individuals who had visited these countries to learn religion would come back to the West, and promote the scholarship of these lands amongst the laity. Websites in the English language made this scholarship accessible to the Western world, and they quickly became a reference point for a generation of young Muslims who had zeal and passion to learn about their faith
Unfortunately there was a problem. Many of us would read verdicts on these websites which seemed to be rather strange, and in some cases highly illogical. However, we would keep such sentiments to ourselves; who were we to question these great scholars? After all, these were the very people that our daees looked up to. I remember raising an issue with an acquaintance once about a fatwa I had read on one of these sites, that the verdict given by the scholar seemed strange and illogical. I was swiftly reminded with the statement of Ali (RA):
“If the religion were based on opinion (or speculation), it would be more important to wipe over the under parts of the socks than the upper, but I have seen Allah’s Messenger wiping over the upper parts of his leather socks.”
Thus I was told, there may be many things that appear to defy logic, but we shouldn’t question these but follow the learned.
As the years progressed and our lives as a second generation Muslim community in the West became increasingly complex, these websites gradually lost the popularity they once had, as the lack of depth offered became apparent. Many kept their reservations about these websites private, but in spite of that, most of us still retained the sentiment that the scholars living in these lands were wiser than all others.
Yet over the past few years, even the notion of wisdom seems to be a matter of debate. For those looking for any opportunity to ridicule Muslims, it seems scholars of the East can provide them with fodder that satisfies needs. Take for example the fatwa issued by a Saudi cleric that women shouldn’t be allowed to drive, giving the reason that doing so might damage her ovaries and thus prevent her from having children – a ruling that was ridiculed in the viral spoof video ‘No Woman No Drive’.
More recently, with the craze of the gaming app ‘Pokemon Go’, authorities in Saudi Arabia have allegedly ruled that playing this game is illegal citing the game has symbols of Freemasonry and somehow promotes gambling. Authorities from Al Azhar University in Cairo, long deemed to be the one of the most prestigious centres of Sunni scholarship, chimed in warning that the game could lead to a ‘manic attachment to technology’ making people forgetful about prayer. The fatwa was quickly picked up by Sky News and BBC.
To understand the hype I downloaded the app and briefly played the game myself; not once did I feel the urge to join my local Freemason lodge. Neither did I have to fight the temptation to place a wager at my local betting shop. And what does it mean to have a ‘manic attachment to technology’? Are we really to argue that such a point wasn’t reached ages ago? Moreover, whilst the general point about prayer is important, the causes of such a risk is widespread: reading an engrossing book, playing with the kids; in fact any form of recreation might make me forgetful about prayer. The point clearly is rather more about the diligence of the abid rather than things of distraction?
However the more disheartening matter, other than the fallacious forms of reasoning offered for their verdict, was the fact that they thought a verdict was needed in the first place. Generally speaking, when scholars issue generic verdicts, they do so on the most pertinent matters that a society faces, addressing issues that may obstruct one’s worship of God, to facilitate ease in worshipping Him and advising on serious issues that might adversely affect ones worship in a serious manner. The fact that these scholars felt that issuing a verdict on ‘Pokemon Go’ was serious enough to necessitate a verdict illustrates how far removed they are from the real issues affecting Muslims across the globe.
When we hear about scholars of the past, we hear of learned individuals who were dedicated to their learning and research. Not only did Muslims venerate them, but non-Muslims also respected their wise insights. However today, the situation is different.
So what do lay Muslims do? Do they adopt the reasoning of my acquaintances and conclude that we just continue following such scholars in the East who are apparently wise and learned, merely because someone we know told us that they were, even if their verdicts are based on extremely weak reasoning that even a layman can clearly identify? Perhaps this is the reason we see a rise of those who take their faith into their own hands by disregarding scholars to create their own fatwas, or simplistically turn to the medieval period to cut and paste ancient verdicts into the modern period overlooking the fact that such verdicts tend to be applicable at a given time, and in a given situation.
The situation may appear bleak, but we must remember that everything God does is for a reason. Whilst it is depressing to see clerics being ridiculed in the media for their clumsy analysis, perhaps there is a lesson in it for us, that we should be seeking out the learned who live amongst us, who completely understand our ways and go through the same life experiences? After all, common sense should tell us that learning our religion from those who live amongst us will make our religion relevant to the lives that we lead, which subsequently will strengthen our faith.