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Fatwa banning trade of flour for bread stirs anger in Gaza

A controversial fatwa has been overruled after it forbade the exchange of flour for bread at local bakeries in Gaza, where power cuts make it difficult to bake at home.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images

Arwa Farroukh, was shocked to hear about the recent fatwa banning the exchange of flour for bread from bakeries. She had been making the exchange at her local bakery for months while the energy crisis prevented her from making her own bread at home.

Exchanging flour for bread at bakeries has become a common practice in the Gaza Strip. Women from middle and poor classes in Gaza traditionally bake their own bread at home. The UNRWA gives out food vouchers to the needy in Gaza every three months. Each voucher includes one bag of flour for each member of a family.

But the energy crisis plaguing the Gaza Strip has made it difficult to make and keep bread at home. Many people reached deals with local bakeries to give the flour they receive from UNRWA to the baker, who gives bread in exchange for one shekel (31 cents) per kilogram of bread.

Now a fatwa banning the exchange has raised concerns among many poor families in Gaza. On Oct. 18, Grand Mufti of Khan Yunis Sheikh Ihsan Ibrahim Ashour prohibited the practice in a fatwa, which said this practice falls under usury, which is prohibited in Islam. 

Farroukh, who lives in al-Shati refugee camp in the west of the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor, “After I heard about the fatwa banning the exchange of flour for bread, I stopped to wait to make sure this practice is allowed under Sharia law.”

The fatwa also worried Umm Mahmoud Mutair, who has been exchanging flour for bread at her local bakery for two years now.

Mutair had turned to this practice after two loaves were ruined when she was unable to bake them in time due to the power outage in the Badr camp in south Gaza. Other loaves she did bake repeatedly spoiled in the refrigerator, off for long hours.

Shadi Awad told Al-Monitor that he receives seven bags of flour from UNRWA each year. He has also been exchanging the flour for bread from his local bakery. Awad, who has been unemployed for years, said he was surprised by the fatwa, which came at a time when nearly 2 million Gazans are living below the poverty line. He said that the clergy should better consider the people's needs.

Amid the popular outrage, the Fatwa Department of the Islamic University of Gaza issued another ruling allowing the exchange, citing Muslim scholars who see no harm in it. Department head Atef Abu Harbid told Al-Monitor that after the mufti issued the fatwa, people asked his department for another judgment. An advisory council that includes experts in various disciplines including in jurisprudence discussed the matter, and the fatwa was issued to allow the practice.

Abu Harbid stressed that differences among Muslim scholars are common. “The dispute over this issue is not new, and we saw it was necessary to make people’s lives easier and not embarrass them by controlling this practice. People are free to choose whatever opinion they are comfortable with.”

Abdullah Abu Alyan, secretary of the Council of Jurisprudence at the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in Gaza, said the fatwa troubled Gazans because it directly affects their basic needs.

He told Al-Monitor that the council is working to place conditions on fatwas that affect people's everyday lives. “We have dealt with this situation by communicating with the fatwa committees at religious institutions and several muftis across Gaza to enact policies that best govern the fatwas.” 

Abu Alyan added, “Often, disputes arise about whether something is allowed or forbidden. But these differences among Muslim scholars means there is leeway for the people to choose whatever Sharia ruling they see fit.”

He noted that the ban affected a large part of society, so it would have been better for a group of muftis to decide the matter together.

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