Seeking Clarity on Religious Law

Imams have a strong influence on Muslims living in Germany. One of their tasks is the issuing of fatwas - religious opinions on Islamic law which can serve as behavioral guidelines for Muslims in specific situations. Heiner Kiesel reports

Muslims in Germany (photo: dpa)
Islamic advisory opinions issued in Germany can differ significantly from those issued in Muslim countries for a number of reasons, one of which being that in Germany, they are issued on a case-by-case basis

​​For years now, the teachings of imams in Germany have been hotly debated. The vast majority (90 percent) are of Turkish origin, but there are also imams from Morocco and Iran. Frequently, imams speak little or no German, nor are they acquainted with the political, social and cultural norms in Germany. Many politicians - as well as many Muslims living in Germany - are now demanding that this situation change.

Ferid Heider grew up in Berlin and serves as imam at two of the city's mosques. "Every Muslim can decide for himself who he recognizes as an authority figure," Heider said.

As a Muslim and an imam, Heider is under no obligation to follow the fatwas issued, for example, at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo - one of the most significant educational institutes in the Islamic world - or any other scholarly community for that matter.

His task, he said, is to do the best he can according to knowledge and his conscience. For him, that means taking the German way of life into account when offering opinions and advice. A fatwa, he stressed, should always refer to a specific case and set of circumstances.

Challenges of life in Germany

Heider said he's often asked by those in his religious community about which behaviors should be permitted or forbidden for Muslims. Everyday life in Germany is not without conflict for Muslims. Prayer times and working hours often don't mesh, nudity - whether in parks, gyms or the media - is pervasive, and alcohol is freely available.

The imam listens to people's problems, and then refers to the Koran and examples from the life of the prophet Mohammed. Based on these sources, he then issues an Islamic legal opinion.

Muslims during prayer in a mosque in Essen, Germany (photo: dpa)
Although a fatwa is a context-related decision on a specific case, some Islamic scholars in the Arab world use fatwas in an attempt to exert an influence on the religious lives of Muslims in Europe via the Internet

​​For fatwas issued in Europe, Heider said it's important to have "Islamic scholars in Europe that have either grown up here or have lived here for a long time." In his view, only those who are intimately acquainted with the political, social and economic situation of a place can issue adequate fatwas.

Fatwas issued in Germany often vary greatly from those issued in countries with a majority Muslim population. That's in part due to the nature of a fatwa, says Bettina Graef, an Islamic scholar at Berlin's Center for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO). A fatwa may be a ruling in an individual case, but its significance is often much larger.

"Everything that's not forbidden is, in principle, allowed," said Graef. "And so of course people try to push the boundaries."

Fatwas are of central importance to the Islamic identity, says Graef - an identity that has become particularly important in Europe and the US since the 1990s.

Fatwas imposed from abroad

Many legal scholars in traditional Islamic countries view the new Islamic practice of law in Europe with concern. They're worried that their brothers in faith are straying too far from the right path, and may be jeopardizing Islam. In order to prevent this, they issue their own fatwas about how Muslims in Europe should lead their lives.

These fatwas may be issued in far-off countries, but they're nonetheless a source of concern for law professor and expert on Islamic law Mathias Rohe. It's a worrying development, he said, adding that it has its roots in Saudi Arabia. Imams there have issued opinions demanding that Muslims in Europe hold themselves apart from what is, in their view, a faithless world.

A mosque in Duisburg, Germany (photo: AP)
According to Bettina Gräf, fatwas have become extremely important in Europe and the USA since the 1990s because they constitute the linchpin of Islamic identities

​​Islam is a religion without a highest authority. There's no position that is comparable to the Catholic pope. Instead, the faithful can choose from a multitude of voices: the imam from the nearest mosque, scholars at Al-Azhar University, prominent TV sheiks, and superregional fatwa committees. Islamic extremists can just as easily find fatwas to confirm their beliefs as can moderate Muslims who believe in peaceful coexistence with members of other religions.

Islamic organizations representing Muslims in Germany have also attempted to convince their followers to subscribe to a set of basic principles. The variety of opinions and degree of individualism hampers Muslims' efforts to successfully represent themselves as a group, said Burhan Kesici, the secretary general of the Islamic Council in Germany.

In his view, having some commonality on fatwas is beneficial to the credibility of Islamic spokespeople in Germany and Europe. A common Islamic organization could very well influence the beliefs of individuals, Kesici said. In addition, it would make it possible to exclude Muslims with extremist views.

Heiner Kiesel

© Deutsche Welle 2009

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