Female muftis: Coming to a Saudi Arabia near you

Yesterday, Saudi Gazette carried an article about women having a greater say in religious matters. The article mentioned a proposal to open women’s sections in the Presidency of Religious Research where they would research issues and then issue fatwas based on their research. A survey given to a small sample of women shows near unanimous support for the proposal, and that a significant number of respondents had concerns about the lack of training and opportunities in the field.

The survey included questions about following fatwas issued by women and what topics women should research.

When asked if they would follow a fatwa issued by a woman, 74 percent answered yes but only if the fatwa has been checked by male judicial experts and 26 percent said they would trust a fatwa issued by a woman. About 74 percent of the respondents were of the view that women should have a voice in all matters and not just women-related issues while 26 percent were of the view that women should deal with matters that concern them.

I do not see that the gender of the mufti is particularly significant when it comes to the validity of a fatwa or the topics a mufti researches.

An individual must meet several conditions in order to be considered a mufti. These conditions include certain knowledge, skills, and competencies. Being male is not a condition for being a mufti (though it is for being a judge). While gender does not determine which topics a mufti can research, it is likely to play a role in topic selection, and the quantity and quality of non-textual evidence that is specific to one gender.

My research on how elements of a fatwa contribute to confidence in its validity found that the reputation of the mufti or institution issuing a fatwa is the most important element contributing to confidence. So I expect that hesitations to follow a fatwa issued by female muftis will lessen once female muftis have demonstrated that they have the skills, knowledge, and competence to issue fatwas – and become known for doing so. Working at a reputable fatwa institute and some PR should both help contribute to the success of this program.

The proposal has a precedent within modern Gulf states. The UAE has a female mufti training program since 2010. Something noteworthy is that mufti is being considered a suitable career path for Gulf nationals – male and female. It will be interesting to see whether female muftis issuing public fatwas changes perceptions regarding the role of women in Islamic scholarship.

UPDATE There are many questions ripe for pondering and discussion. One question is whether the demand for female muftis is new and, if so, why that is the case. Another question is identifying the issues wherein we expect female muftis to excel over men. Obvious issues include purification, childbirth, nursing, and marriage and sex counseling for women. Other, less obvious, issues include the rights and duties of wives, spousal and child support, custodial rights for divorcees, rights to personal property, obtaining one’s due share in inheritance, remarriage for divorcees and widows, and advice on balancing family, education, and career. Female muftis are in a better position to know areas where Muslim women are not receiving their due according to Islamic law, and where society requires of the latter more than is justified by the law. These shortcomings and wrongs must be rectified in order to bring ourselves and society in line with what Allah has prescribed.