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'Fatwa' website forum thrives during Ramadan

IslamOnline.net issues 300 fatwas a day on different subjects to meet Muslim internet surfers' queries. Al-Jazeera, the increasingly popular site was the first to publish fatwas in Arabic and English, with questions and responses.

'Fatwa' website forum thrives during Ramadan

A Cairo-based website has become a thriving meeting place for Muslim Internet surfers eager to read fatwas on what can and cannot be done under Islamic law during Ramadan, the month of fasting.

"We don't stop. We issue 300 fatwas per day, compared with 50 when we began in 2000," says Ragab Abu Malih, the head of IslamOnline.net's fatwa service.

Created by the Islamist preacher Yusef al-Qaradawi, a star of the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, the increasingly popular site was the first to publish fatwas in Arabic and English, with questions and responses.

From sunrise until dusk during the month of fasting, it is well known that Muslims must not eat, drink, or engage in sex. But what about smoking, swallowing saliva, receiving injections or having erotic dreams?

Qaradawi, an expert in Sharia, or Islamic law, is categorical:

"It is sometimes difficult to answer, but never impossible," said Qaradawi, who has 10 assistants who are "theology graduates" and also consults a worldwide network of some 100 sheiks or muftis.

On the "fatwa" floor of the building that houses the offices of IslamOnline.net in Dokki, a suburb of the Egyptian capital, coloured flags dangle from the ceiling to mark the festival. Pasted next to each other on the walls are stickers bearing "anti-Zionist" and anti-smoking messages.

While there is a consensus to disparage Israel, a dissenting voice arose this year in Egypt to defend the cigarette. "To smoke during Ramadan, why not?" asked Gamal al-Banna, an intellectual.

"We say 'drinking a cigarette' in Egyptian Arabic, and this is how people became confused, whereas (smoking cigarettes) wasn't possible during the time of the Prophet (Mohammed)," said Banna.

The "Banna fatwa" is not to the liking of Malih, who opposes it as anti-fatwa.

"It is haram, prohibited. During the fast, man must fight against his whims," says Malih.

Thanks to the website's electronic list of fatwas, he says, Muslims are able to see that they can use nasal sprays and receive non-nutritive injections in keeping with the Ramadan fast.

There are also special Internet sessions during which surfers can play a direct part in the online discussions. In one such session, Azim, a British-based Muslim, raised the topic of whether dreams with sexual content were prohibited during Ramadan.

"Not if you don't carry out those acts," was the response he received within a minute from Sheikh Mohamed al-Moktar al-Shinqiti, the head of an Islamic centre in South Plains, Texas.

For Malih, no question is taboo. Only one out of 10 questions relate to fatwas on sex, he says, recalling that Sheik Qaradawi did not condemn fellatio, "if the husband and wife consent" (and if the activity takes place after breaking the fast and before dawn during Ramadan).

Much less contentious, but "of reference" according to Malih, is the official site of the highest Sunni authority, Al-Azhar, and Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa.

"And we have the advantage of not being connected to the regime, which makes our fatwas independent," said Malih.



Fatwas in both English and Arabic

After the wave of Islamisation in Egypt during the 1980s, newspapers published letters to the editor centred on these questions during Ramadan.

"It became omnipresent and choking," said Asma al-Bakri, a secular playwright whose non-religious stance is unusual in Egypt.

"We even need the opinion of the sheiks to pluck eyebrows, and they answer rather than remain limited to spirituality."

"The frequency of the questions about sex or the body reflects an anguish that is not satisfied by simplistic answers," she said, adding "it is a fundamentalist spiral, encouraged by a regime without a vision."

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