Women Issuing Fatwas

Until recently, it was unthinkable that in Turkey women could be appointed as mufti. In India, however, this has been common practice for quite some time. Now, this innovation seems to have reached Turkish shores as well, as Dilek Zaptcioglu reports.

First, there was a news report. Three Muslim women succeeded in being named muftis in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. In September 2003, the community welcomed its first female Islamic judges, so-called muftia, who had received their qualifications at the local Islamic faculty in Hyderabad.

Anwar Muazzam, former head of the Department of Islamic Studies at Osmania University, told the British broadcaster BBC, "There is not a single verse in the Koran nor a single Hadith that forbids women from becoming muftis."

Aisha as role model

Muazzam noted that Aisha, the favorite wife of the Prophet, became a religious authority after his death and served the community. "There are women scholars in Islam. Why shouldn't there also be women muftis?" asked the Indian theologian.

The news then set things in motion in Turkey, the most secular of all Islamic countries. Your Opinion
Do you think women should be issuing fatwas?
Please write to us! Turkish women will now have the opportunity of becoming assistant muftis. Until now, Turkey has maintained the tradition followed in other countries with a predominantly Muslim population of not including women in any high-ranking theological posts.

However, muftis are the most important religious authorities in Islam, which does not have an organized clergy. Muftis are present in every town and issue fatwas, religious edicts, to be followed by the faithful. This power makes them practically the most important authorities in every community, whether large or small.

Turkish theologians are all civil servants or public-sector employees and are hired by the Office of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İsleri Baskanlıgı or Diyanet, for short). A state minister in the Turkish cabinet oversees this agency with its staff of 80,000, of which 74,368 are men and only 2,616 are women.

Ali Bardakoglu has been the President of Diyanet for the last year-and-a-half. His agency controls a budget of around 623 million euros, which covers a vast and varied range of expenses – from the electricity bill of a mosque on the Armenian border to the salary of the Imam in Berlin.

The need for modern, enlightened religious authorities

Diyanet is responsible for Turkish Muslims worldwide and supports attachés, muftis, and imams in all of Germany's large cities. In Turkey alone, muftis with fatwa powers have been appointed in 81 cities and countless districts.

Bardakoglu, who was named to his post in November 2002 by the then newly elected moderate Islamic Party for Justice and Development (AKP), supports the appointment of women as assistant muftis. The Diyanet President sees it as the responsibility of his agency to inform the population on matters of belief.

"We need modern, enlightened religious authorities," he explained. On whether he can envisage women taking up positions that have up until now been exclusively held by men, Bardakoglu said, "The teachings of our religion do not differentiate on the basis of gender or class. The Koran has preached the equality of the sexes for fourteen centuries."

Discrimination against women not legitimized by faith

Yet in practice, Islamic societies, which are traditionally patriarchal, "have always had a problem with women". Practices such as honor killings, discrimination, family violence, and the exclusion of girls from schooling are not, however, legitimized by the faith.

When asked if women could become muftis, the President of the highest religious agency in Turkey said, "There is nothing to prevent women from becoming Islamic judges. Women have always held positions of authority throughout Islamic history.

However, in our culture and in recent history, no woman has ever been appointed to the office of mufti, with the power to issue fatwas and exercise senior duties. We are now planning to appoint women as assistant muftis in our larger cities."

Bardakoglu was not just speaking empty words. He immediately prepared a change in the statutes, which will come into effect this fall. Istanbul, a metropolis of ten million, will be the first city with female assistant muftis.

Small step at local great leap for Islam

The fact that they will only be able to advise woman may at first sight appear to be a restriction. Yet, this small step at the local level is a great leap for Islam. Women holding leading religious offices in Istanbul, Ankara, Berlin, and Paris will, for the first time, be able to issue fatwas. They will have a more sympathetic ear for the concerns of women.

For example, they will be able to help girls caught up in the conflict between traditional and modern lifestyles or women unable to break out of the vicious circle of family violence. This means that men will cease to have the exclusive right to judge on women's matters and decree how women should behave during menstruation or menopause.

The muftia will thereby carry on with a tradition that was active at the time of the Prophet. According to authentic teachings (Sahih Hadith), a group of women one day approached the Prophet and asked him how they should best wash themselves. The Prophet turned to his wife Aisha and said, "You explain it to them."

Dilek Zaptcioglu, Qantara.de © 2004

Translation from German: John Bergeron