Get your fatwa off our backs! by amina wadud


amina 2014 - croppedIt’s not so easy any more to control the parameters of Islam and the way it is practiced by those who wish to stuff their opinion down the throats of other Muslim citizens, be they minorities or majorities across the globe.

This past week the Selangor Islamic Religious Counsel in Malaysia, issued a fatwa against Sisters in Islam (SIS), accusing them of being “deviant” because they subscribe to religious liberalism and pluralism.  They called for a ban on all their publications and to silence their social media. They sought to shun their activities and personhood “in the name of Islam.’

The next day SIS held a press conference and went on full counter attack.  This is what it has come down to for many who stand for justice, equality, and human dignity for all, within an Islamic perspective.

Let me step back and explain about a fatwa. 

Islamic law governs all aspects of a Muslim practice: private and public, ritual and political.  Islam is a legal tradition going back to the first generation after the death of the Prophet.  Using various interpretations of the primary sources of Islamic thought: the Qur’an, as revelation to the Prophet; ahadith, his own words; and sunnah, his normative practices, Islamic legal schools have come to explicit opinions on how to best be a Muslim.

Diversity of opinion is common and significant. There has never been consensus on how to interpret and implement these sources.  The Prophet said, “diversity of opinion is a mercy.” Today, there are four major Sunni Schools of Jurisprudence and one major Shi’ah School. Still, though it is good to have an opinion, one must demonstrate how that opinion was reached, that is, one must give evidence from the sources.

Even within these established schools of law, there are instances without precedent or clear textual directive.  Thus the architects of the legal schools must exercise their reasoning (called ijtihad) to determine the legal ruling or to come to some sort of analogy with more clear cut sources. For example, technologically assisted reproduction (TAR) is outside of anything even remotely practiced in early Islam and thus has no direct textual statement regarding its permissibility. Legal thinkers must compare these procedures in analogous ways to something similar, and, on the grounds of qiyas (analogy), exert their opinion.

These are important aspects of having a living and ongoing legal framework.

Fast forward to our time and the process goes on, with certain inevitable areas of stagnation. No doubt gender and sexuality is amongst the areas where stagnation is at its highest.  In most cases, this is because conservative Muslim male thinkers assign themselves the exclusive authority to interpret the texts, the authoritative sources, and thus to have impact on the law.

They will issue a fatwa, a legal opinion, on any matter they deems problematic: Facebook, Yoga, smoking in public, driving a car, you name it and there’s been a fatwa issued on it. The tendency to take on anyone who seems to be moving the religion far faster into the complex world in which we live is often given reign to fatwa hurling: perhaps in an effort to arrest the course of change and then blame the religion for it.  Fatwas are slung like mud in the face of any whose perspective clashes with the tendencies of regressive conservatism.

In the past, the victim of such an onslaught had little or no recourse.  Most would simply slither away in the background, shunned and alienated from the community.  The power of random fatwas is receding, simply with the rise of education.  Victims of fatwas have their own recourse and can also take advantage of other educated opinions or Muslim organizations to challenge such abuses “in the name of Islam.”

The fatwa issued against Sisters in Islam is an excellent case in how to be democratically empowered in the context of Muslim civil society.

SIS has challenged the fatwa on a number of coherent and easily replicated fronts:  1) who defines the terms (in this case they are accused of being “liberal” and “pluralistic”!); what are the grounds of authority for having any particular definition accepted into practice, and, even, legally binding?; 3) how are the terms defined? What evidence is provided to verify the definition? Is it confirmed by the primary sources? How does the evidence compare to other evidentiary methods using the same sources? And again, who decides?

There are also vital questions about the relationships between Islamic law and the constitution. Although this is different from country to country, SIS has taken up because often there is a conflict between the two.  Thus the architects and guardians of the constitutions have the responsibility not to randomly abdicate its authority just because someone or some organization says “this is Islam” making all Muslims required to comply.  Instead the state has the responsibility to seek answers from all to whom those laws will apply, as stakeholders, and not just one branch of conservative elites.

More importantly, in the context of the modern nation-state, no one can claim authority to implement Islam over all other citizens.  All members have equal responsibility to be a part of any policy that is to be implemented over their right to free and equal citizenship.  All must be able to decide for themselves, contesting opinions or fatwas that are hurled randomly to silence, coerce, control, and even punish.  Everyone must have a say in how any law will be implemented in their civil society.

This has long been the strategy used by Sisters in Islam, a civil society organization with more than 25 years fighting for justice and human dignity, especially for women and families.

It’s exciting to watch them in action.  As soon as the fatwa was announced, instead of slithering away to the background, they launched a public campaign, issued a press release, and held a public forum.  There is no shame in being adequately prepared.  Instead there is the power of being informed and conscientious about agency in Islam—especially against tyranny.

When any party within the state tries to assert their opinion of Islam over others, or to have that opinion become public policy affecting everyone, then everyone has the right to have a say over those policies, over the way Islam is being defined and how to sustain their equal citizenship.

This is the democratization of authority.

No one has greater say over the use and abuse of Islam than any other in the context of the nation state.  This is the same reasoning we use against the group known as the Islamic State (IS).  IS does not speak for us all.  We are invested with the responsibility to define how Islam is being used or abused.  We reject exclusive and abusive definitions and assertions that bring harm to other human beings.  No longer will Islam be the exclusive purview of conservative elites.  It belongs to all who invest in it, believe in it, and continue to be identified with it.

Sisters in Islam are well prepared for this.  I support them wholeheartedly and applaud them for bringing this awareness to the public both nationally and internationally.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

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Categories: Education, General, Islam, Women and the Media, Women's Agency

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33 replies

  1. Sounds like it is time for Muslim feminist legal scholars to from an Islamic Feminist Council to issue opinions on all and sundry and to issue counter opinions. Or is there one already? Or an Islamic Progressive Council? Or does that exist?

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    • The strength of any fatwa is rooted in those who accept the authority of the one producing it. When the state is behind a person or a council producing a fatwa, it has great strength because they may be agreeing to enforce it.

      When it comes it individuals, it is all based on respect. Respect is a function of the societal order which in many Muslim majority countries patriarchal and conservative. Does the person reproduce certain educational guarantees so that their opinion is considered properly informed? So the most authoritative organizations are those that preserve the standing order. They have to respond to social change, though.

      But Individuals also have a role in change. When people become largely dissatisfied with the status quo or face a problem that must be answered, the scholars have to move with the people or risk losing their authority. For instance, young people in NA have become more and more comfortable with their gay friends, not sure what the problem is, and have been demanding their scholars answer to that. So we’ve seen a change, a step towards acceptance. Now the big scholars in NA say homosexuality is natural, no one should have a problem with this, but the homosexual should not act on it. Not too long ago, they were taking a very different and far more destructive tack. So this is how things change in the conservative community. They are not where we would hope yet, but it’s a process.

      In the progressive community, we do and push and it ripples out. So when Amina led the prayer in 2005, you’d think the end of times had come. But now, as women (and a good number of men) become more and more comfortable with the idea we hear more and more conservative scholars say that unrestricted woman-led prayer is acceptable for those communities that want it. In a way, Amina’s act was a fatwa. The force of living as just human beings is a fatwa that gains authority through popular push back.

      So anyone can put out a fatwa if we think of it more broadly. In a way, think of it like a friend of the court brief. Feminist organizations put those out all the time. So a position paper can actually act as a fatwa given the complex way that legal opinions play in communities. So I would say that Karamah, Musawah, WLUML, SIS all put out fatwas in that sense. SIS’s press conference was in a way a fatwa to the contrary. With Ahmed Elewa, I wrote an article on the legality of woman-led prayer that was meant to argue for it on traditional grounds. In it’s way, it was a fatwa for all intents and purposes. But no, we do not yet have a progressive religious institution that puts out fatwas. That should come in time.

      But really, the issue not that a fatwa has been given but who is listening and giving it authority.

      There is much more to say. I am sure Amina and others will have something to add, this is just some thoughts at the moment.

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      • yes this is the method in which consensus is built.

        However, where there is a legally operating counsel, an actual fatwa, as statement issued , or edict that can impact the law, then waiting for consensus building may not be the most effective strategy. But of course over time.

        Thus the record of SIS has already stood the test of time. The impact on the general Malaysian public is felt and for any who do not know SIS work there can be the same affect as having them banned.

        They must combat this as is the formula not just in waiting for public opinion although they are using the force of public opinion to win the countercharges. It is working they are now going to the court of appeals.

        thanks for nuanced reading of the living traditions.

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    • there are a few efforts along these lines, some of the nationally like in Morocco. an international level has fallen prey to simply being standard bearers who are female. we need the paradigm shift.

      other “progressive groups” are from the west and do NOT engage with or in Islamic law. Meanwhile Muslim Personal Status Laws impact on most Muslim women world wide.

      We are wedded to the notion of constitutional opposition to find alliances with other groups negatively impacted by the law or by the abuse of such counsels. Because it is not just a women’s issue. thanks

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  2. Just more evidence that the monotheistic religions–whether Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, it makes NO difference–is not the solution to the problem of violence and evil; but, rather, a principal CAUSE of violence and evil in today’s world:

    http://unsealing-the-seven-seals.blogspot.com/2014/11/job-requirements-for-theologian.html

    Michael

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    • I do not agree that religions: monotheistic or otherwise are the principal CAUSE of violence and evil.

      However I give people AGENCY even within religion. Thus violence is human made and need to be human eradicated and blanket statements about religion are alas of no help.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Question: Is it possible for anyone ever to tell you anything?

        I define the monotheistic religions as the DENIAL and CONTRADICTION of Revealed Truth by arrogant religious ‘authorities’ seeking power (over women, for example) and wealth, as I explain in rigorous detail on my website. (Maybe you should at least read a little more of what I have written before you throw together a superficial criticism?)

        But the issue is MUCH deeper than that, originating in the creation of duality, which is the very origin of violence.

        The fundamental duality of the monotheistic religions is “believer” and “unbeliever”; the “believer” being the personification of all that is ‘good’ and the “unbeliever” being the personification of all that is ‘evil. This duality is INTRINSIC to religion ITSELF and INESCAPABLE. And, yet, duality itself is the origin of ALL expressions of religious violence (as well as viciousness against women, but that’s another chapter).

        As J. Krishnamurti has observed, the instant you define yourself as a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or a particularly nationality, or a particular race, or a particular
        political persuasion, you are introducing DIVISION into human relationships. And it is that division ITSELF which is violent.

        What I am talking about is the difference between “striking at the root of evil” and “hacking at the branches of evil”.

        I commend you for “hacking at the branches”, but I am focused on the “root of evil”.

        I consider both to be necessary.

        Michael

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      • Thanks so much for your reply, Amina.

        Your rhetorical question and your writings suggest a firm commitment to a Western perspective: that Truth exists at the level of thought and belief; and that what is important is changing a person’s beliefs. My perspective is sharply different, much closer to the Eastern perspective, and involves such considerations as duality, non-duality, consciousness, and the direct perception of the structure of reality; terms with which you are probably not familiar.

        Now, is it possible to disagree (or agree) with the statements that “duality is the origin of violence”, that “thought is fear” (Krishnamurti), or that “the sun is shining”? No. It is not even possible. Because both disagreement AND agreement occur at the level of thought. And these statements are not thought. They have to do with the observation of the very structure of reality itself, something that exists prior to thought. In other words, what is important is not a person’s beliefs but their perception of reality, and the nature of thought itself. This is something that a person sees or does not see.

        Thus, I do not want you to agree OR disagree with what I say; what I want, in order that there be less violence in the world, is for you to see what I am seeing. (I hope you understand the difference; and that this is not offensive to you.)

        And, if a person sees, just for one brief instant, that religious belief—or, for that matter, any other belief—is intrinsically dualistic; and, thus, intrinsically and irredeemably violent; belief itself falls away as being dangerous to not only human relationships, but human survival itself. (People are exterminating each other at this very moment in the Middle East over beliefs, for example.)

        I fully understand that such a thing may not be particularly ‘nurturing’; but this is not in any way a personal attack. This is a statement about the structure and function of thought itself in the manifestation of violence in the world; something which I think we are all trying to resolve in our own particular ways.

        Michael Cecil

        Oh, by the way, several months ago, I would get 700, 800, or 900 page views per day of my website from just Malaysia. Now, I get, perhaps, 1 page view every week or every other week. So, apparently, I am saying something that is quite offensive to the religious ‘authorities’ there.

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    • Dear Michael

      Could I ask please that you remind yourself of the comment policy of this blog, particularly in terms of respect and nurturing one another. While I find your contributions and perspectives welcome in the diversity of content on the blog, your comment at 12.49 to amina’s reply had a tone I found somewhat difficult. Please re-read the policy. Thank you.

      I was interested to read your thoughts on dualism as the origin of violence and I will give thought to that.

      respectfully

      Margaret

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      • and MY reply to your rhetorical: is possible for anyone ever to tell you anything..? IS my own rhetorical: is possible for a person to simply say “I do not agree” without you trying to shove your philosophy down his/her throat?

        I am really even less interested in your calculations of the “root of all evil”. If your response to my personal opinion to disagree is any indication, I am sure I am better off without it.

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    • If you take religion out of the equation there will always be squabbles over race , class , wealth , territory , power etc . Human nature isn’t it .

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      • Of course. Of course.

        Which is why the problem of violence comes down to a conflict at the level of consciousness; between the consciousness of non-duality and the consciousness of duality (or, in terms of the monotheistic Revelations, the consciousness Created ‘by and in the image of God’; and the dualistic, ‘fallen’ consciousness of the “self” and the ‘thinker’).

        As Einstein observed: “No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created the problem” in the first place; which is why I focus on consciousness rather than belief.

        Michael Cecil

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  3. I wonder if ISIS would dare ban outright the practice of Democracy as “deviant”? Democracy is certainly a form of pluralism, with its “numerous, distinct, ethnic, religious, or cultural groups, present and tolerated within a society.”

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    • yes, as a matter of fact ISIS does. Malaysian constitution does not. Thus some times a specific context is more significant than one claiming to propose a global “Islam” like ISIS. They need tyranny and loathe democracy.

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  4. Is this the first time a fatwa has been issued against SIS?

    When the Selanagor Religious Council asks for a ban on the Sisters in Islam publications, social media, and activities are they demanding the government enforce this ban or is it just up to individuals to shun SIS educational and information platforms? If the government does not enforce the ban, does the Religious Council have their own gang of thugs (ala Nazi Brown Shirts) who would destroy SIS property and then the government would just conveniently turn a blind eye?

    Is there any way to donate money to the Sisters of Islam to help with their legal expenses, etc?

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  5. Extremely interesting, if very complex and dense, blog. Thanks for writing it.

    Everything we hear or read in the news, alas, makes many people believe that Islam has turned into a monotheistic tyranny ruled by old–and now young and testosterone-filled–men in skirts. Do members of SIS and the nuns on the bus ever talk to each other? They could be sharing prayers and strategy and reinforcing the work of women to stand up to those jealous gods and their mouthpieces. Go, SIS! Live long and prosper!!

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  6. Thank you for this, Amina. As a Catholic Malaysian of Indian ancestry, I am appalled at how my once wonderfully peaceful cosmopolitan country has fallen victim to those who wield leftovers of colonialism like the Sedition Act and “religious” instruments like the fatwa to oppress, not just Muslims, but Malaysians of all races. We really used to be a model of a functioning democracy. We wore our ethnicities and our faiths with ease and comfort in who we are and who our neighbors are. Politicians have made race and religion cudgels with which to threaten people and stifle dissent. My daughter, Sheela Jane Menon, just had this OpEd published– http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/sideviews/article/najib-and-barisan-failing-1malaysia-sheela-jane-menon–it provides a useful comparison of how we advertise ourselves –a “model of tolerance and moderate Islam”– and what the country has become under current and recent leadership. Here is contact information from the website of the Sisters in Islam http://www.sistersinislam.org.my/

    SIS Forum (Malaysia)
    No. 4, Jalan 11/8E
    46200 Petaling Jaya
    Selangor Darul Ehsan
    Malaysia

    Or

    Make a direct TT (Telegraphic Transfer)

    Account Name: SIS FORUM (MALAYSIA)
    Bank Name / Address: CIMB Bank Berhad (Jalan Gasing), No. 111 & 113, Jalan Gasing, 46000 Petaling Jaya, Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia

    CIMB Bank No: 8003395345 Swift Code: CIBBMYKL

    Email: sistersinislam@pd.jaring.my

    Thanks again for this timely commentary. Not easy reading, right after yesterday’s disastrous midterm election in the US. Dawn Morais

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  7. thanks. the link to SIS is also embedded in the blog. But I certainly not thought about this occasion as a fund raiser. shows where my head is I guess..

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    • Thank you amina

      I always appreciate your thoughtful, helpful posts.

      It seems that the question of authority is important – including the authority we accord to our sacred writings and the authority we accord to institutions / one another. I am increasingly wary of calls to concede authority because of status or tradition.

      I respect your courageous life, work and writings within a faith that gives so much importance to evidence from the sacred writings.

      Thank you for your contributions to this community – may you find places of resource and hope to sustain you

      Margaret

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  8. Reblogged this on Dawn Morais and commented:
    Malaysia used to be a country where people were at ease with themselves–their ethnic roots, their diverse faiths, their neighbors. Politicians have made race and religion cudgels with which to threaten people and stifle dissent. This OpEd – http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/sideviews/article/najib-and-barisan-failing-1malaysia-sheela-jane-menon– provides a useful comparison of how we advertise ourselves –as a model of tolerance and moderate Islam– and what the country has become. To learn more about Sisters in Islam go to http://www.sistersinislam.org.my/

    Like

  9. Thanks, Amina (and Laury) for explaining some of the complexities of Islamic law. For us Western feminists, it’s important to learn about the differences between our own and others’ societies, so we can understand how the struggle for women’s rights proceeds in contexts other than our own.

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  10. this is a great statement. reminds me that there is quite a bit more context to it than I sometimes remember. thanks

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  11. salam it’s about time muslim women organise themselves on an international level within a council of scholars to relay the local initiatives, to make our voices heard and put an end to male supremacy which has led islam to become the incredible mess we witness now.

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  12. might I recommend the international organizations: Musawah.org and Women Living Under Muslim Laws. we are already organized on the international level and locally. We also coordinate with the United Nations, especially the Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women CEDAW. Still it is a long long road.

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  13. sad state of facts is malaysia still does not ALLOW freedom of religion to an entire race . not much of a democracy if you cant even choose religion. lina joy case was the last attempt by a malay to leave islam and freely choose to be a christian , the tyrants in power from independence have used all kinds of imprisonments and persecutions towards any who dare unseat them . malay christians used to be detained under the Internal security act (I.S.A) at some time back . sisters in islam are kinda moderate ,but mais jais and all those bigots have utterly No respect for any kind of human rights laws ..just early this year they raided a church and seized malay bibles . its only the fact there is a large non muslim population that has ensured malaysia’s still not under the barbaric sharia laws we see applied in saudi arabia yemen etc .

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  14. Salaams Imam Wadud and FAR members,

    I learned about FAR some months ago from a friend (and teacher!) who is a contributor. I visit from time to time. It’s always a pleasure coming across the wonderful array of spiritual views and discourse that you and your fellow members discuss and share. Your writing about the Fatwa crisis and how these ridiculous edicts are harming the world is commendable, and something I concur with. The Malaysian clergy are not new to issuing these kinds of Fatwas. A few years ago they twice bullied the state to endorse that the word “Allah” be pronounced only by “Muslims” and not by others—the result for the latter if they do being a jail sentence or fine or both. As I mentioned to my friend, how tragic it is today that the world “Allah”, which in Islam signifies the unity and harmony of the universe and its substance is now a word that seems to be threatening to tear Malaysia apart… I wish the SIS all the best and success.

    As far as the issuing of Fatwas is concerned, first it should be remembered that Islam is supposed to be one of the few religions in the world not to have a clergy. The prophet Muhammad himself was not allowed even the minutest authority to judge others in their faith. His duty was only to convey the message of Islam and demonstrate its practical aspects through his own person and actions. Since Muslims claim to follow the example of the Prophet, it is only natural they do the same (most of us don’t). There was nothing near a clergy (the so-called Muftis, Shayks, Mullahs and etc) in Muhammad’s time or the years after his and the pious Caliphs passing. This clergy as we know it today arrived some centuries later. Having said that I acknowledge you (Imam Wadud) as a humble servant of Islam and doing what every Muslim in the world should be doing: To practice the faith as best as within your abilities as well as conveying its simple truths and beauties to others, and trying to find harmony and common denominators of faith and worship with all.

    Returning o the subject of Fatwas, it is interesting to note that the Qur’an itself reads that those who enjoyed among the closest relationships with God—the Prophets—themselves could not venture out into discourses about religion and worship other than that taught to them by God. That is, the prophets could not utter a word or teaching about faith that was beyond that which God taught them. The Qur’an mentions this is many places but 5:109, 40:78 and 46:23 are typical. This strict containment on part of a Prophet not speaking about religion and worship other than that which he is allowed to, carried on to Muhammad himself. The Qur’an tells us that had Muhammad uttered a single word about Islam outside that which he was allowed to God himself would severe Muhammad’s life artery (69:44-47)

    How dare the Muslim clergy of today pronounce their ridiculous Fatwas!?! Are they not aware of the implications of speaking what they not know when it comes to Islam and its worship? It is no surprise what has become of the Muslims today. 90% of the problems in Islam today or due to erring clergy. Rules and tenets in Islam are relatively few. It’s easy for one to live and endure around basic Islamic tenets without causing a fuss. Islam, which is supposed to be a simple and pleasant path in life, has been made complicated and difficult and confusing by the clergy and many Muslims. Another distressing aspect is that some Muslims will totally ignore God’s tenets when it comes to worship in Islam (telling the truth, respecting others, aiding the poor and downtrodden, etc) whereas they will stand in full attention and obeying of their leader’s Fatwa! This is why, for example, polio workers are being killed by people whose religious leaders claim that polio drops are a Western conspiracy to make the Muslim world impotent. Those that kill polio workers on the instigation of their clergy’s order scarcely even understand a word of the Qur’an or tenet in Islam! Again, your mention of Ijtihad and its need today is well called for. Islam is all about personal choice and reason. If you (a lady) lead the prayer as Imam and there are men within the assembly who wish to pray behind you that’s their decision and freewill. If there are men who do not wish to pray behind a female Imam that’s their choice and freewill. It’s all about personal choice and freewill.

    Before ending I just wish to add a small reply to Michael’s mention about “Believers” and “Nonbelievers” (without wishing to engage him further as I have little time and energy for debates). The truth is, Michael, that there is no concept of “Believer” or “Unbeliever” in Islam. The only judge to determine a “believer” or “unbeliever” is God alone (or Goddess, or Spirit, or Deity or whatever or however you wish to address Him, Her, It, etc). Islam teaches that it is God alone who allows or disallows a person from submitting to Islam (2:272, 5:16, 5:50, etc). No other human being has even the minutest authority to seem who is a “believer” or “unbeliever”. Again, not even Muhammad had this authority. This authority rests with God alone. A person who recites the Kalimah and submits to Islam does not automatically become a “believer”! On the other hand, it’s the beginning of test that he or she works diligently to prepare for and hopes to pass. The Qur’an teaches that certain Muslims who attested to the Kalimah and prayed and fasted with Muhammad were in fact “unbelievers” (9:75-80), whereas the magicians of Pharaoh who all of their lives worshiped their man-god were to become “believers” just a few minutes after they acknowledged the truth and good of Moses (7:120-126). Strange but true!! That is why my views are that everyone in the world regardless what “religion” or “worship” you adhere to is a believer… Sorry for the long post. Finally had a chance to contribute something on FAR and probably won’t do so again for a while.

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