Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Peccata quotidiana:Handling Sin

Canon lawyers, Talmudists, and local imams all wrestle as strenously as the late Richard Rorty from his ivory tower with making relevant centuries of arcane and often contradictory legal and moral issues. "Handling Synne" was a Middle English text for confessors and penitents; today its author would be a psychiatrist hawking his twelve-steps to recovery on "Oprah" & "Dr. Phil." How do we deal with our "daily failings," what canonists defined once as "venial sins""? Theology, in the medieval seven arts, was the Church's Queen, dethroning philosophy. Now, although the secular usurpation among many who read blogs like this has been achieved and the ancient claimant parades under protection of tenure or license the skeptical scepter and banishes the upstart (only two millennia at best) who try still to rule by crozier, the need we mortals have for Information, Please, shows how we compete to get out of Jeopardy by paying for answers to our 64,000 Questions. This article "A Compass That Can Clash With Modern Life" from the NY Times by Michael Slackman, June 12, deals with Egyptian "experts" who-- as the curate dispensed in his drafty confessional, the rabbi advised from his shetl shop, or the shrink nods from her Aeron chair-- has to deal with integrating quodlibetal, midrashic, or hadith learning into life's chaotic challenges.

Here's excerpts. After you smirk, as I admit I did at first, think about how the "expert" from whom you seek advice in person or a self-help book or a talk show doctor. The problem differs not in essence, despite the superficial subject matter.

If Islamists insist for us dar-el-harb (we in the war zone, opposite Dar-as-Salaam, not only as the pleasantly named capital of Tanzania but representing the realm of peace under Muslim submission) to be converted, I would suggest that prosletyzers soft-sell of the urine imbibing and missionaries preach more the breast-feeding. My question: How can a woman who is unmarried nourish men in her company by suckling? She presumably should not be lactating, as that comes with birth, which follows pregnancy, after conception, following intercourse, sanctioned only within wedlock, right? Any shariah scholars to weigh in on this conundrum?

A more earthy dilemma than angels dancing on a head of a pin. Certainly the lack of celibacy as a calling in Judaism and Islam makes for more family-oriented doctrine, with all its confusion about how to get men and women to couple together, but apart otherwise, but only for awhile before together-- at least up to one man, four wives!

CAIRO, June 11 — First came the breast-feeding fatwa. It declared that the Islamic restriction on unmarried men and women being together could be lifted at work if the woman breast-fed her male colleagues five times, to establish family ties. Then came the urine fatwa. It said that drinking the urine of the Prophet Muhammad was deemed a blessing.

For the past few weeks, the breast-feeding and urine fatwas have proved a source of national embarrassment in Egypt, not least because they were issued by representatives of the highest religious authorities in the land.
[. . . .]

For many Muslims, fatwas, or religious edicts, are the bridge between the principles of their faith and modern life. They are supposed to be issued by religious scholars who look to the Koran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad for guidance. While the more sensational pronouncements grab attention, the bulk of the fatwas involve the routine of daily life. In Egypt alone, thousands are issued every month. [. . . .]

The conflict in Egypt served as a difficult reminder of a central challenge facing Islamic communities as they debate the true nature of the faith and how to accommodate modernity. The fatwa is the front line in the theological battle between often opposing worldviews. It is where interpretation meets daily life.

“It is a very critical issue for us,” said Abdullah Megawer, the former head of the Fatwa Committee at Al Azhar University, the centuries-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning in Egypt. “You are explaining God’s message in ways that really affect people’s lives.”

Technically, the fatwa is nonbinding and recipients are free to look elsewhere for a better ruling. In a faith with no central doctrinal authority, there has been an explosion of places offering fatwas, from Web sites that respond to written queries, to satellite television shows that take phone calls, to radical and terrorist organizations that set up their own fatwa committees.
[. . . .]

[Despite a debate over whether those issuing fatwas are tools of the state, and whether such rulings have clout,] everyone acknowledges that those who issue fatwas serve as mediators between faith and modernity and as arbiters of morality. They are supposed to consider not only religious teachings, but the circumstances of the time.

The position is without parallel in the West, and it combines the role of social worker, therapist, lawyer and religious adviser.

In fact, the relationship between the Koran and a fatwa is a matter of dispute. Some Muslim scholars view the Koran’s words and ideas as fixed, with little room for maneuvering. Others see their job as reconciling modern life with the text by gently bending the text to fit new circumstances.
[. . . .]

A couple approached. The man’s clothes were tattered, and his wife looked distressed. Their 9-year-old son’s clothing was clean, his hair gelled, his smile bright. The man explained that they had adopted the child when he was 9 months old, and that they had just heard that under Islam their son had to be put out of the house, because the mother had not given birth to him or breast-fed him.

He would reach puberty as an outsider, and could not, technically, be around the woman he knew as his mother. The imam at their local mosque said it was haram — forbidden under Islam — to live with the boy.

The sheik said yes, that was right, that the boy could not live with them. The father leaned in, disturbed, and said, “And that’s it.”

The sheik seemed stuck and referred them to another sheik for another opinion

[Rulings are free of charge; those counselling are rotated under a state board to serve as advisers to those coming in for guidance. Controversy swirls over the amount of fatwas issued with the explosion of communication options. I add myself here that in a state religion- legal system- social hegemony attempted by Islam, the lack of a strict hierarchical chain of command leaves the Muslim world analagous to billions of Jews and millions of rabbis contending as opposed to the billion Catholics under episcopal and papal direction-- for better or worse! Like the old joke about the three shuls on the desert island for the two stranded Jews.]

[. . . .]In his own role and practice, the grand mufti embodies many of the issues that have arisen around the fatwa practice. He has issued rulings that have been deemed by some as so progressive that they were offensive, and others that were so literal as to be considered offensive.

Sheik Ali issued the urine fatwa, now notorious, in a book, “Religion and Life.” It was published six years ago and told the story of a woman who drank the prophet’s urine. He had his own book taken off the shelves, and said the controversial statement was not a fatwa but his opinion, which was offered in response to a question.

“The reality is that the mufti is now ‘burned’ and lost religious recognition and the trust of the Muslims and his fatwas will not gain anything but carelessness from all the Muslims; as some will hate it as they hate drinking urine,” wrote Hamdy Rizk in an opposition newspaper.

But he was also criticized — and praised — earlier this year after he had issued a fatwa saying that it was permissible for women to have reconstructive hymen surgery before marriage to conceal that they were no longer virgins. He said that since it was impossible to tell whether a man was a virgin, women should have the same option.

But he took his opinion a step further, when he said that if a married woman had sex with another man, regretted her action and asked God for forgiveness, she should not tell her husband. The goal, he reportedly said, was to preserve the family.

The breast-feeding fatwa came in mid-May. A religious scholar, who headed a department that studies the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings at the Foundation of Religion College of Al Azhar University, wrote that there had been instances in the time of the prophet when adult women breast-fed adult men in order to avoid the need for women to wear a veil in front of them.

“Breast-feeding an adult puts an end to the problem of the private meeting, and does not ban marriage,” wrote the scholar, Izat Atiyah. “A woman at work can take off the veil or reveal her hair in front of someone whom she breast-fed.”

The ruling was mocked on satellite television shows around the region, and was quickly condemned at home. Mr. Atiyah was suspended from his job, mocked in newspapers and within days issued a retraction, saying it was a “bad interpretation of a particular case.”

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