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JIIS Bulletin - July 2011
Do fatwas prescribe public opinion?
Can the classical Islamic doctrine of jihad be affected by Zeitgeist? That depends on who you ask, or where you turn to for an answer. 

Prof. Yitzhak Reiter, a longtime observer of how Islamic law (shari‘a) has developed over the centuries, has been focusing on fatwas (religious rulings) in his quest to understand changes in ideological and religious views in contemporary Muslim society. By looking at the positions of Muslim legal experts and muftis (scholars) through the fatwas they issue, one can assess how they adapt shari‘a to the realities of the day. This in turn sheds light on the changing concept of relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Drawing on primary source material, he has been able to analyze their stance on international relations.

Reiter’s findings on fatwas have just been published in English as War, Peace and International Relations in Islam (Sussex Academic Press, 2011, co-sponsored by the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University; JIIS published the original Hebrew edition in 2008). The fatwas discussed in the book can serve as a basis for public discourse on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the Arab states, he says. They indicate, and analyze, muftis’ positions both for and against peace with Israel, and the religious argumentation supporting each position is analyzed.

Reiter explores how fatwas influenced and were influenced by current affairs, “in particular; the split between two major religious currents – one radical and one pragmatic; the tensions between tradition and modernity in the Muslim world; and the role the fatwa plays as an instrument of propaganda or publicity in an age of mass media.” The major shari'a justification for signing peace with Israel is the principle of duress (darura) – reflecting political realism – i.e., that the Arabs are unable to defeat Israel and therefore they should opt for what benefits (maslaha) the Muslims. In addition, the Hudaybiyya agreement of non-combat between the prophet Muhammad and his enemies, the tribe of Quraysh, in Mecca in 628 effectively became the model – some might say a legal precedent – for agreements between Muslims and non-Muslim groups. That includes modern-day peace treaties between Arab-Muslim states and Israel. Reiter has analyzed the conflicting interpretations of this precedent and its current implications.

“Important muftis who supported the signing of Egypt’s 1979 peace agreement with Israel did so in part on the basis of this precedent,” Reiter explains. What followed was a hefty debate among scholars of Islam and the Middle East, in Israel and elsewhere, as to whether those pointing to this event “meant to refer to it as true peace or whether it was intended as a ruse, that is, an agreement that may legitimately be broken from the outset, even before official termination, when doing so is convenient for Muslims.”

Reiter stresses that fatwas are important to understand public discourses. “Fatwas are the primary tool for the development of Muslim law and its adaptation to the constantly changing spirit of the time and place,” he says. Therefore, fatwas issued by various scholars are compiled into collections. It was only in the 20th century, he adds, that muftis began to compose deliberate, pointed rulings in public affairs as "political fatwas," and these became an integral part of the political and ideological discourse on the questions of domestic and foreign policy that occupy the Arab and Muslim world.

In other words, muftis do use their religious authority and popularity to influence public opinion through their fatwas. And these days they get additional support via the mass media. “Today, one can find hundreds of new fatwas on dozens of internet sites offering an ‘online fatwa.’” Indeed, some muftis have their own web sites, and stand ready to respond to questions of social importance.

Within his analysis, Reiter addresses the possibility of Hamas agreeing to a truce (hudna) with Israel, based on a proposed draft hudna that colleagues of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh discussed with representatives of the European Union. “Though this one was not a formal legal opinion, it is important because it gives us an idea of what Hamas’s stand might be if and when a similar proposal is made in the future.” 

In introducing the book, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy and today the head of Shasha Center, opined that while it would have been better if a Muslim scholar had penned a work like this, “the very fact that a Jewish scholar, an Israeli, has decided to take up this challenge is a sign of the times.” A translation of the work into Arabic is planned. 
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