In some parts of the Muslim world, concern is growing over the proliferation of "fatwas," the religious rulings that guide devout Muslims in all aspects of life.
An explosion of fatwas on television and the Internet has led to contradictory and occasionally bizarre decrees.
Now one lawmaker in Egypt is proposing a radical solution — to jail unqualified fatwa-givers.
Fatwas Have Wide Berth
Among some non-Muslims, fatwas are mistakenly assumed to be death sentences, because those are the most talked-about — such as the Iranian fatwa condemning author Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. But a fatwa can cover anything from the monumental to the mundane, anytime a Muslim wants an expert opinion on what's halal, permitted under Islam, or haram, forbidden.
The problem is that although Sunni Muslims do have rules for who can become a mufti, a scholar who may issue fatwas, there is no clear mechanism for enforcing them.
And these days, viewers of Arab satellite channels are being deluged with fatwas.
There have been fatwas both encouraging and forbidding Muslims from fighting in jihads in other countries or belonging to militant groups.
A Saudi cleric said owners of TV channels could be killed for broadcasting immoral content. An Egyptian cleric — not on TV, but from Cairo's venerable Al Azhar University itself — issued the much-ridiculed "breastfeeding fatwa," which proposed that a woman could work alongside an unrelated man if she had breast-fed him five times.
Cairo lawmaker Mustafa al-Gendi says enough is enough. Gendi says fatwas were originally intended to be private decisions to help individuals with their problems, and blanket prescriptions for the masses were rare and only issued by the most senior and trusted muftis.
"You cannot do fatwa on TV," he says. "You cannot be a mufti on TV in front of millions of people and one man asks you a question and you answer this man because me, in front of my TV, I can think that I am like this guy and I can take the solution for myself. Then it's a distortion, it's a complete distortion.
A Debate Over Policing Fatwas
Gendi's proposed solution, however, troubles both the government and the Islamic establishment. Sheikh Abdel Rahman al-Bar at Al Azhar University agrees that there is a problem but says giving the government the power to certify muftis — and to imprison those who don't get government approval — is dangerous.
"In my opinion, it's not a suitable law," he says. "We have guidelines for who can become a mufti or issue fatwas. If someone is wrong in a fatwa, he should be questioned. But this idea that someone should have to have a government license to issue a fatwa or else face prison, that I do not agree with."
As an example of how the system is self-policing, Bar says the author of the breastfeeding fatwa was forced to resign his position at Al Azhar.
Lawmaker Gendi has heard the charge that the government could use his law to approve only clerics who toe the regime's political line. But he says there are safeguards against that. And he argues that spiritual fraud is just as egregious as material fraud.
"You open a clinic and we discover you didn't go to university, you're not a doctor — you go to prison from one to three years. The law is penalizing the one who touch the body. What about the one who touch the soul? Anybody can say anything to anybody, and can change his life? He can divorce his wife? He can kill his daughter? Kill your own family because they are not 'real Muslims'? Because of bad muftis, the world is paying," he says.
Gendi knows his draft law faces powerful opposition. But he was heartened to see his proposal being discussed recently at Friday prayers at the pre-eminent Islamic mosque in Mecca. Saudi King Abdullah has also called for new guidelines to rein in what he termed the "chaos of fatwas."
And Gendi hopes the debate generates new ideas to solve a problem that he says Islam can no longer afford to ignore.