Muslim forum in Egypt urges moderation in issuing fatwas

Leading Muslim clerics meeting in Cairo on Tuesday called for moderation in issuing religious edicts, in an attempt to counter extremist fatwas that sanction extremist atrocities.

The muftis – often chief interpreters of Islamic law in their countries – and clerics agreed at the conclusion of the two-day conference on training for Muslim scholars and coordination on issues of Islamic law.

"You do not need to be reminded that leniency (in dealing) with fatwas that excommunicate" Muslims has resulted in "murder and bloodshed", Ahmed al-Tayyeb, head of the prestigious Cairo-based Islamic Al-Azhar institution, told the conference.

In a closing statement, the clerics called for greater attention to "renewing" the scholarship that goes into issuing fatwas and for religious decrees to take modern times into account.

The statement advocates training in modern sciences for clerics and an emphasis on considering social norms when issuing edicts.

Traditional clerics and institutions like Al-Azhar, a leading centre of Sunni Islamic learning, have struggled to counter the extremist ideology of such groups as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

They have also seen their authority wane in the Internet age, with many Muslims consulting religious websites for quick answers to queries.

The past decade has likewise seen the spread of religious television stations and programmes that often host clerics with little formal training.

The clerics in their statement urged the media to host only "specialised muftis" on television programmes.

Many leading traditional scholars have also faced a credibility crisis among youths and been accused of toeing their governments' line.

The clerics stressed the "necessity of distancing fatwa institutions from partisan politics".

But the conclusion of the statement, which thanks Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for sponsoring the event, was unlikely to assuage sceptics.

Sisi has led calls for "renewing" religious discourse, but political Islamists revile him for a deadly crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

"A call for standards in terms of fatwas is a good one, considering how low standards have deteriorated across the Muslim world," said HA Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Washington DC-based Brookings Centre for Middle East Policy.

"Two questions remain, though: how will such standards actually be upheld?" asked Hellyer, who has co-authored a study on the subject.

"And secondly, if the issue is to prevent people from being fooled by radical fatwas, will these state-affiliated religious scholars be viewed as credible by those tempted by radicalism?"

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