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Fatwas and Supermarkets

August 19, 2010

Two interesting stories today in Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, one of my favourite English-language newspapers in the region.

The first is about the prevention of two Saudi scholars from issuing fatwas on radio shows. Last week, King Abdullah issued a decree that fatwas could only be issued the officially-sanctioned Council of Senior Islamic Scholars. Curtailing the activities of the sheikhs in question seems to be in line with that decision.

Most casual observers in the West know the word “fatwa” because of Ayatollah Khomeni’s famous decree calling on the faithful to kill Salman Rushdie because his publication of Satanic Verses, which the Ayatollah and many others perceived as blasphemous. My reason for mentioning this story is that the understanding of fatwas in the non-Muslim world is highly coloured by memories of the Rushdie fatwa.

In fact, fatwas are opinions issued by experts based on their knowledge of the Quran and the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet). They are issued to provide guidance on everyday social issues relating to how a Muslim is to behave and live his or her life. Very few fatwas deal with momentous issues such as jihad (another word that has been seriously misconstrued in the West) and terrorism.

The vast majority of religous authorities consider fatwas to be non-binding. It is for the individual to decide whether to follow the guidance offered. The problem that the King seems to be addressing is that there has been a proliferation of fatwas issued on relatively trivial subjects via TV, radio and over the web. Many of them are conflicting, because the texts of Quran and Hadith do not provide specific guidance on all the minutiae of everyday life, so people seek guidance from the scholars, who might provide different interpretations of the scriptures on the same issue. And aspects of modern life, such as the web, global communications and air travel were not factors when the Prophet received the Quran and his followers assembled the Hadith.

So King Abdullah seems to be trying to rein in the stream of opinions which can cause confusion to people looking for clarity. Saudi Arabia is not alone in facing this problem. Just about every Muslim country which bases its legal system on the Sharia has to contend with the same issues. Each has its own rules for the issuance of fatwas. Wikepedia has an informative entry on fatwas, which of course comes with the usual health warning on its veracity.

The second story is about the supermarket giant Panda. It seems that they are planning to employ Saudi women at their checkout stations. Here in Bahrain the majority of cashiers in the supermarkets are Bahraini women. They are cheerful, efficient and modestly dressed. Across the causeway in Saudi Arabia, Panda’s plans have caused a furore. As the article points out, there are many people who oppose the plan for a range of social and religious reasons. Social, because they think it’s bad that women should take jobs that men can do. Religious, because they believe that the proximity of unrelated men and women is forbidden in Islam. Which relates back to the fatwa issue.

Among those in favour of the move is a commentator who raises the question of where all the women who are graduating in increasing numbers are to work, an issue I raised in a recent post. I’m not sure that a woman who graduates from Harvard Law School is going to be satisfied with a check-out job, but his point is well made.

The Arab News story is a good illustration of divisions of opinion on social issues such as the role of women in society. It also implies an underlying anxiety about unemployment levels. Panda, like every other organisation in Saudi Arabia, has strict Saudisation quotas to meet. It employs a large number of non-Saudis, and replacing foreign check-out staff with Saudi women seems like a good way of increasing the proportion of Saudis in its workforce. It’s not surprising to see them making this move, as its erstwhile parent company, Savola, has an active corporate social responsibity program, which funds schemes to get the disabled into work, and supports the Madinah Institute for Learning and Entrepreneurship, a recent program designed to address a perceived lack of homegrown education for entrepreneurs.

So the article shows that progress is in the eye of the beholder, and what the liberal end of the spectrum in Saudi Arabia views as progress always takes time to embed itself in the Kingdom’s delicately-balanced society.

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