The essence of the fatwa in the minds of the Egyptian people can most genuinely be summed up by the colloquialism that goes “Are you going to issue a fatwa too?” This saying is used to respond to anyone who speaks with authority about something without sufficient knowledge; the sanctity of the fatwa is not taken into consideration because many do not believe that it reflects the essence of religion. The negative connotation that the term fatwa has in the Egyptian collective consciousness did not come out of the blue — it is due to the fact that fatwas have often been misused, especially if we analyze the concept of fatwa from a philosophical standpoint.
Issuing fatwas is tantamount to domination and control. They allow the mind of one individual — a sheikh or religious scholar — to replace those of millions of free-willed people by taking advantage of the innate weakness they have toward everything related to religion. Fatwas are a serious threat because they have become tools for determining individual political and social behavior, thus reproducing tyranny in a religious form. This can easily empower those who support political despotism, since people easily submit to clerics and their fatwas, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. They do so to avoid violating Islamic teachings as a result of the beliefs engraved in their minds.
Many religious fatwas were issued during the latest Egyptian presidential elections, which boiled down to a choice between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi and “former regime candidate” Ahmed Shafiq. They directed political behavior and guided citizens toward voting for an Islamic candidate. However, due to the large number of Islamic candidates in the election, many fatwas abstained from mentioning specific names.
During the final round of voting, the fatwas pushed citizens to vote specifically for Morsi due to his Islamic identity. Prominent preachers, including Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood affiliated sheikhs unanimously called on voters to choose Morsi. Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi — a senior Muslim Brotherhood cleric living in Qatar — issued a fatwa stressing the importance of voting for Morsi. Al-Azhar Mosque and Dar al-Iftaa also issued fatwas simply encouraging participation in the elections, without naming a candidate. Although these fatwas appeared to be different from the previous ones, in the end they fall into the same category — the fatwa is issued by an individual in order to dictate the behavior of others and arouse the masses.
The question is: if the will of muftis or religious scholars, replaces that of the people, why hold elections in the first place? The religious scholar could just declare which of the two candidates he deems fit to be president of the republic instead of holding elections. This leads to another hypothetical question: would those issuing the fatwas take responsibility for the behavior and actions of individuals following their fatwas, even if they contradict their original intent?
In other words, if a person commits theft, is it then right to say that since he surrendered his will to Sheikh Qaradawi (for example), that the sheikh assumes responsibility for the crime and what was stolen? If not, then the fatwa is robbed of all weight. This in turn eliminates the free will of the voters and contributes to the impression that elections — in which free wills are replaced by the power of an individually-issued fatwas — are futile.
Despite the clergy’s dominance, along with their fatwas, contradictions and duplicitous rhetoric, the importance of free will and liberal individualism are highlighted in more than one Quranic verse, one example being: “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another.” Every human being is free to choose and bear the consequences — whether in faith or in choice — in a way that serves his social and political interests. Thus, clerical opinions cannot override the will of millions of people.
The voter is the one who is going to the ballot box, using his judgment to compare candidates, and selecting one of them based on his convictions is consistent with the principle advocated by the previous Quranic verse. His vote may be hit or miss, but the real value lies in preserving the free will of the people. On the other hand, making a wrong choice based on a religious scholar with millions of followers would have a catastrophic effect because millions abide by his fatwa.
When the [Arab Spring] revolutions were launched against political despotism, there was a glimmer of hope for the start of a revolution against tyranny in the name of religion. It seems like it will take considerable time and effort to change peoples’ beliefs about the negative effects that religion has in our lives, as well as the role of those who speak in the name of religion to guide and subjugate people. They do not scrutinize their own ideas and opinions, even on non-religious issues.