By Hamida Ghafour
20 August 2016
Sheikha Naeema lifts her glass to take a sip of water, but the large grey telephone on her desk blinks again, red and insistent. It is only 9am and she has already spoken to 11 callers. The woman on the other end of the line is in distress.
“Peace be upon you, blessings be upon you,” Sheikha Naeema says in a soothing tone. The woman tells her she has given birth twice and that both babies were stillborn. Now she is pregnant again. Her doctor has said the foetus is showing signs of severe complications and will probably die. The woman wants to know if Islam will permit her to have an abortion. After clarifying a few other details, Sheikha Naeema issues a fatwa. “If the foetus is severely ill and will not survive, you may have an abortion,” she tells the woman. “You must take advice from your physician, he will guide you. Religion does not conflict with medicine.”
Muftiyas at the fatwa hotline answer up to 200 calls, texts and emails every day. Photograph: Delores Johnson
She explains that abortion is allowed under certain circumstances: within 120 days, or 17 weeks after conception if doctors believe the baby has life-threatening defects. The fatwa – a non-binding religious ruling – is justified on the basis of a Hadith, a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which states that at 120 days a baby is given a soul, or spirit. When Sheikha Naeema finishes the call, she swivels in the office chair and makes a note. “Normally it’s quiet on Thursday mornings,” she says.
We are in the small, cramped office of the fatwa hotline on the eighth floor of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments in Abu Dhabi, better known by its Arabic acronym, the Awqaf. Abu Dhabi’s dial-a-fatwa hotline is run from a nondescript government building next to a supermarket along a busy stretch of road that leads to the pale turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf. Beyond the metal detector, polite receptionists direct visitors. A Bangladeshi employee in a pinstriped waistcoat pours coffee from a slender pot for visitors waiting in the lobby. A painting of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late president and founder of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), hangs from a wall on the first-floor landing. He is kneeling in prayer and wearing oversized, aviator-style sunglasses. Awqaf hums with quiet bureaucracy and the whir of air conditioning as religious scholars in long white robes and Kaffiyehs wander in and out of glass-walled offices carrying papers and heavy books. A trace of rose incense mingles with the cold air.
In the hotline’s office, the air conditioning is cranked to sub-Arctic iciness. The room is small, the desks crammed together; soon, the scholars will move to a larger, purpose-built office a few kilometres away. For eight hours a day, five days a week, Sheikha Naeema and two female colleagues field queries from women, and sometimes men, from all sorts of backgrounds: rich and poor, young and old, devout and doubtful. They help them navigate elaborate moral and ethical rules and restrictions governing all areas of an observant Muslim’s life.
On The Internet, Not Everything Is Correct... We Teach People About The Real Islam
The Ifta, as the fatwa centre is called in Arabic, is the only one in the Middle East where a team of highly qualified women has been hired by the state to issue religious rulings. The women work across the hall from their male counterparts, 47 muftis who do the same job. The large white sign in the hall outside their office states the Awqaf’s mission as “promoting social awareness and progress according to the tolerant teachings of Islam that recognise the current realities and understand the future challenges”. The key word is “tolerant”.
On this particular morning the queries range from, “Are men and women allowed to work together in an office?” (yes) to “Can I fast during Ramadan if I have my period?” (no). The Sheikha’s tone is matter of fact and professional. The next caller asks, “If I have noises coming from my vagina during prayer, does it nullify the prayer?”
“It is not flatulence, so no, your prayer is fine,” Sheikha Naeema tells the caller delicately. “This problem is common to many women who have given birth.”
When she hangs up the phone, she tightens the black Shayla scarf around her head, framing her direct gaze and wry expression. Her colleague, Sheikha Radia, hands her a cup of coffee.
“There are no strange questions any more, we have heard everything,” she says. The women smile and shrug.
A highly respected legal scholar from Morocco, Sheikha Naeema, who is in her early 40s, has been working at the fatwa centre for eight years. On my first visit, her fingernails are dyed orange with henna and she wears the long black Abaya gown commonly worn by women in the Gulf States.
The women at the fatwa hotline are attempting to redress a gender imbalance in the religious sphere. Religious life in UAE, as in the rest of the Middle East, is dominated by men. Male imams preach sermons. Religious space is also a male domain: when the call to prayer sounds five times a day (sung by a man), it is men who hurry to the mosque. Women are encouraged to pray at home. And, inevitably, female scholars are rare.
“We know it is unusual to hear a woman referred to as a Muftiyas, or Sheikha, because this job is usually for men, but it is important women have someone they can turn to for help,” Sheikha Radia says. “When we communicate with another woman, we understand how she thinks.”
Sheikha Radia and Sheikha Naeema struggle to keep up with the volume of queries: up to 200 calls, text messages and emails every day, nearly always from women. The hotline has been such a success that six young Emirati women were sent to Morocco’s Mohammed V University at Agdal on state-funded scholarships to become Muftiyas. English-speaking Muftiyas are also being recruited, but that is proving tricky. “If you know someone who may be qualified, please let us know,” Sheikha Naeema says.
“We are trying to teach people about the real Islam,” says Mariam al Zaidi, 26, one of the graduates, adding that the state takes religious education for women seriously. “We all had full scholarships, we didn’t pay for anything. We had a car to take us to classes if we needed it, and accommodations were built. We were also given spending money.”
She says the government is simply reviving an ancient tradition. “All the women in the Prophet Muhammad’s life were teaching people, not just women but men, too, and explaining the faith.”
The hotline addresses the intimate preoccupations of Muslim women, unmediated by male professionals or clerics, and emboldened by the promise of anonymity. But the female scholars’ work is also part of a long-term government strategy to bring moderate, female scholarship to Islamic discourse at a time when religious fanaticism and sectarianism is on the rise across the Middle East. Jihadist groups such as Islamic State and the Taliban view the removal of women from public life as a critical component of a state ruled by their interpretation of Sharia law.
When the novel The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was burned across the Muslim world in 1989 and its Japanese translator murdered in Tokyo, the term “fatwa” became associated in some parts of the west with summary death sentences. In fact, a fatwa is a legal opinion that helps an observant Muslim lead an ethical life; there is no obligation to follow it.
Abu Dhabi’s fatwa centre is not part of the country’s legal system, which is based on principles of the moderate Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence with elements of various European legal codes. There are Sharia courts and civil courts that run in parallel and cover different parts of the law. In some cases a mufti or Muftiya might be consulted, but only a judge can make a legally binding ruling. Islam grades all human behaviour into five categories: obligatory, prohibited, recommended, discouraged or neutral. The women scholars advise the faithful on where their actions fall on this spectrum. A fatwa is not legally enforceable, and if you don’t like the ruling of one mufti, you can go somewhere else for a different judgment.
A fatwa is not merely an opinion, however. It must be based on the verses of the Qur’an or the hadith, or the opinions of previous generations of Muslim scholars across 1,400 years of history, or, in the rare cases when those sources do not provide an answer, well-argued logic, to come up with a completely new ruling. These complexities tend to be missing from many self-styled Islamic experts, whose opinions are just a quick Google search away. You can find Fatwas giving permission to behead captives or, in the case of Isis, take women as sex slaves. This free-for-all is why the Emiratis have taken steps to direct people towards approved scholars.
“On the internet, not everything is correct,” Zaidi says. “You ask a simple question and get many opinions. I believe it is better to go to a specialist if you have a problem.”
“Most questions from Muslims will have to do with their relationship with the divine and their ability to fulfil that for which they will be rewarded not in this world but in the world to come,” says Justin Stearns, an American associate professor and head of the Arab Crossroads Studies programme at New York University Abu Dhabi. I meet Stearns in a cafe in the sprawling pale stone campus surrounded by miles of sand on Saadiyat Island on the north side of Abu Dhabi. He has a short, greying beard and peppers his speech with fluent Arabic as he types on a silver MacBook. “In the marketplace of religious opinion, if you are just an average Muslim out there, you’d look to someone who can separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to religious authority,” he says. “Here you have the state doing that.”
The Awqaf is effectively the final authority on all matters related to Islam; every religious text is scrutinised for radicalism, every imam vetted. Many countries have an official mufti or fatwa centre but none has stated in clear terms that no one else in the country is allowed to issue these rulings. A committee of religious scholars decides the content of the Friday sermons to be preached in every mosque by the imams who are all on the state payroll and forbidden to deviate from the official topic which adheres to moderate values: respect for religious minorities including Christians and for women. One sermon I attend is about a daughter’s right to choose her own husband, although sometimes the topics concern more mundane matters such as obeying traffic laws.
Such a degree of control over matters of faith is highly unusual in the Muslim world. “What we found over the last 30 years was that there were a number of non-local imams with longstanding political grievances against their own countries who were giving sermons,” says Habib Ali al-Jifri, chairman and founder of the Tabah Foundation, a state-funded faith organisation in Abu Dhabi. “We had the same problem with Fatwas,” he says, when we meet in the foundation’s library. “They were contradictory, informal and people could get rulings anywhere. To bring control and balance we began streamlining the process. And bringing in the women muftis was a part of that process.”
Jifri knows first-hand how modern communications can spread hate. He has 3.5 million Twitter followers, and he found out on Twitter that Isis (or Daesh, as Arabs call the extremist group) had issued a fatwa sentencing him to death. “This is the reality we live in,” he says with a shrug as a member of staff appears with a tray of pomegranate juice. “Please take one, it’s organic. As I was saying, Daesh and its like try to create a barrier to prevent people from engaging with scholars. If people engaged with scholars with real knowledge, like us, then they would see the illegitimacy of the likes of Daesh.”
In a survey carried out by the Tabah Foundation and Zogby Research Services, a Washington, DC-based polling firm, released earlier this year, 5,374 Arab Muslims aged 15-34 in eight countries were asked to what extent groups such as Isis were a perversion of Islamic teaching. Of UAE respondents, 92% said they were a “complete” perversion. Only 45% of Kuwaitis believed the same.
The United Arab Emirates lies on the south-eastern side of the Persian Gulf, wedged between the region’s two powerful rivals: Iran across the narrow stretch of water to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south. Half a century ago, UAE was poor. Society was homogenous, tribal and close-knit, necessary if people were to survive a climate in which arable land and drinking water are scarce and temperatures often reach 50C. Society and values were structured around the Islamic faith and patriarchal tribal customs. Women were mostly kept out of the public eye.
The discovery of oil in the late 1950s changed the country radically. UAE sits on the seventh largest proven oil reserves in the world and the financial surpluses of oil wealth have been channelled to transform a society once reliant on trading and fishing into a state with an economy focused around finance, real estate and tourism. The purpose is to create a society that can function when the oil and gas run out. Modernity does not necessarily mean democracy, yet the hereditary rulers encourage Emirati women to participate in public life – in February, five women were appointed to the cabinet, which has an advisory role. Inevitably, perhaps, there are tensions between modern life and traditional Islamic values. Many Muslim women in Abu Dhabi, both Emirati and expatriate, privately express their anxieties. Are they betraying Islamic values by working with men outside the home, for example? Is it permissible to delay motherhood? Is it OK to eat a meal in a restaurant that serves alcohol? The Abu Dhabi Muftiyas, by taking into account how women live now, try to bridge the old values and the new.
Despite efforts to move the economy away from dependency on oil, the majority of the government’s revenues come from the hydrocarbon sector. The Emirates needs foreign investment and foreign workers to build a post-oil economy. It can ill afford Islamist violence of the kind that has wrecked Tunisia and Egypt’s tourism-dependent economies. The expatriate, transient population, mostly Muslims from South Asia and the Middle East, are rootless and far from home towns where the mosque and faith leaders are the bedrock of their communities. The Awqaf has 14 telephone lines and between them the muftis and Muftiyas answer 1,000 queries every day, rising to 3,000 during Ramadan, from both men and women. Services are provided in English, Arabic and Urdu, reflecting the most common languages spoken in the country. The scholars issue Fatwas in accordance to all four schools of Sunni Islam. The ease of access is to encourage residents to turn to a local mufti instead of a firebrand with a YouTube channel.
“One of the ways in which the Emirati state assures its own authority is it protects Islam,” Stearns says. “It advances religion, it guarantees you have a mosque in every city block and it provides easy access to religious expertise for its citizens. It sees this as a duty of the state and a service for citizens.”
The Emirates has largely escaped the upheavals of the Arab spring; the six royal families that make up the federation have maintained their grip on power. It is a relatively open society, particularly compared with other Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia. Emirati women can drive, go to school, and work outside the home. Covering their hair is not required by law, although the vast majority of Emirati women do so.
There have been no terrorist attacks in UAE. The one exception was the strange case of Ala’a al-Hashemi. On 1 December 2014, Hashemi, 30, an Emirati mother of six children, stabbed to death an American teacher in the bathroom cubicle of a luxury shopping centre in Abu Dhabi. The court was told she had been radicalised online by al-Qaida literature. She was convicted and in July 2015 was executed by a firing squad.
When We Communicate With another Woman, We Understand How She Thinks
The Muftiyas may not have political or legal power but they exert a powerful, subtle influence on society by shaping values, not only in their work at the fatwa centre but also in mosques in the capital, where they lecture and hold all-female study circles.
One evening I attend a lecture at the Shaikh Hamdan mosque on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. The speaker, Edithal al-Shamsi, is a 57-year-old retired Emirati schoolteacher and also a hafiz – an honorific conferred on the few Muslims who have memorised the Qur’an. The mosque’s slender minarets are lit by green spotlights and glow against the inky black desert sky. Outside, young girls board a bus that will take them home after Qur’an lessons. As in all mosques, the women’s section is at the back. I walk up a narrow, green marble spiral staircase and the scent of sandalwood drifts from the prayer hall. I can hear Shamsi before I see her.
“Only in some matters may a man look at a woman,” she is saying, peering at the crowd through owlish glasses. “If they are colleagues at work, for example, or if he is in court, or if he will propose. Otherwise he must avert his eyes and be respectful. Do not leer. For women, I advise don’t go out with so much makeup, short skirts and tight clothes.”
The point is subtle: women have to be modest but men, too, bear responsibility for their behaviour. The 30 women sitting in a semicircle around Shamsi on the lush carpet tut in agreement. A few are in their 20s but most are older. Some wear the burga, the green-gold face mask worn by Bedouin women.
Afterwards the women kiss Shamsi affectionately and offer plates of Samosas. She does not issue Fatwas but her status of Hafiz gives her licence to talk about subjects normally taboo in Arab society. She warns that men should not watch pornography because it “makes them lose brain cells” and anal sex is a sin. We settle in a corner of the elegantly furnished room where verses of the Qur’an are carved in gold-coloured relief along the walls. I ask if she isn’t embarrassed to bring up sensitive subjects.
“The women like it because these topics are important,” she says. “This is a place for women to come and discuss openly and safely.”
Sometimes she chooses the topic; other times Awqaf scholars decide. At the end of the evening, her notes, giving a broad overview of it (omitting intimate details that might identify women), will be submitted to the Awqaf authorities, who are looking out not for issues of private moral choices but possible support for radical Islam. Since the Arab spring, everyone is under close scrutiny. In the lectures I attend with the women scholars, no one discusses politics. But that evening, when I finish talking to Shamsi, a tall, heavy-set Emirati woman approaches, looking agitated.
“Why are women and children being killed in Syria? If I pray and kill, I will still go to hell. Praying will not help,” she shouts, gesticulating wildly. “As a Muslim, I am not allowed to even steal a pen,” she says, snatching my pen from my hand. The room falls into a hush. To break the tension, one of the women passes around Sytrofoam cups of Sahlab, a milky hot drink.
The hotline opened in 2007 and the following year a team of scholars travelled to Morocco to recruit female experts – Morocco also practises the Maliki school of Islam, and the Emirates at the time lacked qualified Emirati women. Women’s access to education has been very recent – Shamsi is unusual among her generation in having a university degree. In 1980 only 2.7% of women went to college or university but today Emirati women outnumber men in post-secondary education, making up more than 70% of the student body at the public universities. Morocco, however, has had a longer track record of women in post-secondary education. Sheikha Radia and Sheikha Naeema were recent graduates when they were approached. “We were asked a lot of questions during the interviews,” Sheikha Radia says. “They wanted to make sure we were knowledgeable and moderate.”
Sheikha Radia earned a doctorate in Islamic sciences from Mohammed V University and specialises in jurisprudence. Her thesis was on Islam’s response to Christianity’s belief that Jesus is the Son of God. She has hundreds of Hadiths at her fingertips and can readily explain their meaning and historical context. Sheikha Naeema has a doctorate from Hassan II University in Casablanca and is a hafiz. The daughter of a furniture-maker from Casablanca, she grew up in a religious household and it came as no surprise that faith was her professional calling.
The Muftiyas may be unusual in the modern Muslim world but that wasn’t the case throughout Islamic history. During the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, about 130 women issued religious rulings. The most prominent was Aisha, his third wife. The names of approximately 10,000 women scholars, little known to history, were catalogued by Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a renowned Islamic scholar and researcher who lives in Oxford. “We grow up in Muslim societies where women are basically discouraged from anything and there are mosques in the UK that don’t allow women inside,” Nadwi says, speaking on the phone from his home. “But in the past they were learning, teaching in mosques, and it was normal.”
When A Woman Confides That Her Husband Is Having an Affair, She Is Advised To Urge Him to Have Two Wives
The Muftiyas do not fit any neat categories of liberal or conservative interpretations of the Qur’an. Sometimes the Fatwas issued in Abu Dhabi sit uneasily with the laws of the country. An expatriate man recently contacted the hotline. He explained that his wife had a job but was not contributing to the household expenses. He was considering cancelling his wife’s residency visa, which gave her the right to work in the Emirates, and sending her home. Under the law it was legal but he wanted to know if it was a sin. Yes, it would be a sin, came the ruling. “The husband is not entitled to her salary or even a portion of it without her full consent,” the fatwa stated.
Not that the views of the women scholars would meet a western, secular definition of feminism. Sheikha Naeema explains that when women confide that their husbands are having extramarital affairs, she advises them to urge the husband to marry his mistress and take on a second wife, rather than fall into the sin of adultery.
One morning Sheikha Radia is on duty when an Arab woman rings the hotline. Her husband is in love with another woman. She is heartbroken; what should she do?
“You must continue your life,” Sheikha Radia urges her. “Don’t keep your husband at the centre of your life. Do you have children?” She pauses. “OK, focus on your children. Think of your husband as a visitor in the home. He can come and go, eat and sleep.”
When she hangs up, Sheikha Radia sighs. “It is unfortunate that a woman has fallen in love with a married man, this woman’s husband.” You can’t advise her to divorce, I ask. No, she says, divorce is a sin to be avoided. But what if her husband were beating her? Islam forbids domestic violence, she says. “If a woman tells me this, I try to find out if they are abusive towards each other. Can there be a reconciliation? If not I tell her she must call the police and social services.”
She admits it is easier to give this advice than heed it because many abused women, especially those with children, are financially dependent on their husbands. “The best protection is for a woman to have financial independence,” she concludes.
As the Emirates continue its pursuit of a western-style, Islamic modernity, the role of women is changing. More women, whether they are Emirati or Arab and Asian expatriate residents, are sharing the financial burden with their husbands and working outside the home. They come into contact with new ideas and cultures, and some are starting to interrogate the ideas they accepted while they were growing up. A few women are even questioning the necessity of wearing the Hijab.
Sheikha Naeema is about to give a lecture at a newly refurbished mosque. The white stone building is located in a wealthy neighbourhood where villas are surrounded by high walls over which tumbles white frangipani, its luscious scent hanging in the air. Sheikha Naeema is sitting sipping the local cardamom-scented coffee as she makes notes. Most of her audience are in their 30s and 40s, a few much older. Many are Emirati, some Palestinian, Syrian and Moroccan.
After giving an hour-long lecture explaining why it is a sin to spread rumours about other people, she is approached by a young Palestinian woman in an orange Hijab.
“Can I ask you about the Hijab? Is it mandatory?” she asks hesitantly. Her question is startling. Few Muslim women in the region leave their hair uncovered, and fewer still question its necessity.
“It is mandatory, it is in Surah an-Nur,” Sheikh Naeema tells her gently, referring her to a specific chapter and verse of the Qur’an.
But the young woman is not satisfied. She explains that she has worn a Hijab since she was a teenager but is now reconsidering. She is 30 and unmarried, and worries that perhaps she is seen as old-fashioned. Her sister, who wears a Hijab, advised her it would be a sin to remove it. Her mother also wears a Hijab but is ambivalent, having grown up in the more secular 1970s when few Arab women covered their hair.
What about the Niqab, the young woman asks Sheikha Naeema, referring to the face-covering that leaves only the eyes exposed.
“It is a cultural option for some women in the Gulf countries, but you don’t need to wear it,” the scholar answers firmly.
The young Palestinian thanks her politely. Afterwards, she says Sheikha Naeema’s reputation in the community settled the question. “She has the knowledge, so I will listen. But I would prefer it if I didn’t wear it. I like to show my hair.”