Internet fatwas: Muslims urged to carefully consider online advice

Radical groups are using the power of the internet to spread improperly-considered religious instructions.

By John Pennington, edited by Francesca Ross

Muslims are being asked to consider their faith when using social media thanks to a new fatwa (Islamic edict) from the Indonesian Ulemic Council (MUI).

The MUI call for more honest and decent internet use comes after heated exchanges during the recent gubernatorial race in Jakarta. It is a good illustration of the rise of digital technology in spreading, and reinforcing, religious messages.

The Council’s fatwa came through traditional channels. It was a ruling by recognised Islamic scholars on how Islamic ideas should be understood in everyday life. This has been the way for many hundreds of years, but the nature of these instructions is changing. Fatwas are now issued from various sources and published online.

Some radical groups have taken advantage of this and are issuing unauthorised – or fake – fatwas. These cover a range of matters, from trivial advice that women should not pluck their eyebrows to much more serious topics such as suicide bombing and war.

Radical groups issue fatwas to justify their motives

The rise in fatwas from other sources is because terrorist or insurgent groups use them to further their message, justify their means, and encourage recruitment. These rulings are considered unauthorised as they are not an Islamic legal edict, on a specific subject, given by a mufti (or expert in Islamic law).

A genuine fatwa is issued in response to a question and gives clarity on applying religious expectations to questions in everyday life. Muslims in some countries, such as Bangladesh, must legally follow the instructions of an authorised fatwa. Rulings issued from more dubious sources have morally and religiously justified the use of terrorism. They have also insisted on death sentences for people with alternative interpretations of Islam.

The internet has become a fertile breeding ground for these “illegal” messages. A post on azzam.com, an early jihadi website, offers an insight into why, “We strongly urge Muslim Internet professionals to spread and disseminate news and information about jihad…we must make the Internet our tool,” it said.

Fatwas shouldn’t always be associated with negative messages

Properly considered fatwas can a force for good. The MUI edict described above forbids observant Muslims from creating, spreading, and even discussing fake news such as news hoaxes or hate speech. Legally the fatwa has no weight on its own and citizens will not face consequences for disobeying it – instead, it is a matter of conscience.

Banking officials must follow fatwas to comply with Sharia law around finance. In this sense, a fatwa is a seal of approval for a financial product. Regulations such as Malaysia’s Islamic Banking Act back up this religious expectation. It has been in place since 1983.

This has given rise to a phenomenon known as “fatwa shopping.” Bankers will consult different scholars until they find one that gives their product a fatwa. They may have to pay for this favour.

The rise in the number of fatwas published online means this kind of “shopping” is available to any Muslim, on any matter. “There is an opinion for every occasion and context, and evidence of people shopping around for the opinion that suits their particular need,” Gary Bunt, author of Islam in the Digital Age, explained.

Muslims are advised to exercise caution

The core of this new development is that it is much quicker for Muslims to search for an answer to their queries online than using the traditional method of seeking out a scholar. There are countless websites and even telephone helplines set up for people to refer to. It is now extremely easy to submit questions online to clerics such as Salih al-Munajjid.

Muslims are advised to take care when viewing material online and if possible, seek advice from a specialist. “On the internet, not everything is correct,” Zaidi, who works in a state-run telephone helpline in the United Arab Emirates, said. “You ask a simple question and get many opinions. I believe it is better to go to a specialist.”

Muslim nations in Southeast Asia might do well to study the example the UAE is setting. State authorities there have managed to streamline the process of issuing fatwas. This means that insurgent messages are more easily spotted.

Populations that can spot fake instructions will reject radicalism

It is reasonable to assume this has helped shape the opinion of the 92% of the country’s Muslim population who believe radical movements such as so-called Islamic State have completely perverted the teaching of Islam. It is clear to this population what is, and is not, appropriately authorised advice.

It would be impossible to establish central control over all fatwas in the ASEAN region, or even individual countries, in this way as there is no central Islamic governing authority. This means online fatwas and religious misinformation are here to stay.

Online censorship is an unattractive and ineffectual option to tackle this. Instead, improving access to trusted resources could help many people make educated decisions. Religious and government authorities must realise that religious observance is a matter of the heart – but to be a power for good it must be driven by a well-informed mind.