The legal status of gold plated phones

Emirates 24|7 reported that the Saudi Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Fowzan issued a fatwa on Twitter stating that gold-plated mobiles are prohibited for males to use, but permissible for females. The article claims that “Fowzan’s fatwa came as thousands of men in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states started to opt for gold-plated mobile phones.”

Whenever I see these handsets at the malls I assume that they are a ploy to get people into the shop to buy something else. I did not think anyone – male or female – bought them since they are unlawful to men and women in the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools – at least as I learned them. My conclusion is based on considering phones a type of instrument or implement. But it is also easy to see that someone would arrive at a different conclusion if he considered phones a type of decorative accessory or jewelry.

Here’s a quick sketch for an argument where gold plated phones are considered a container, instrument, or implement and, thus, unlawful for men and women. Phones fall under the category of containers, implements and instruments. Gold containers, implements and instruments are forbidden for men and women, since the Prophet ﷺ said, “Do not drink from gold and silver vessels as they are for them [unbelievers] in this life and for you in the Afterlife” [Bukhari, Muslim]. The prohibition in the ḥadīth is understood to apply to men and women, and it is understood by Shāfiʿīs, Ḥanbalīs, and others, to extend to vessels, containers, implements, or other objects that have a purpose other than mere decoration. So it follows that a gold phone as a container, implement, or instrument would be forbidden for men and women.

And here’s a quick sketch for an argument where gold plated phones are considered a wearable accessory or jewelry and, thus, lawful for women but unlawful for men. Gold phones are a type a decorative accessory that falls within the category of gold jewelry. Gold jewelry is permissible for women, but forbidden for men, since the Prophet ﷺ said, “Wearing silk and gold was made unlawful for the males of my Ummah and lawful for its females” [Tirmidhiḥasan ṣaḥīh, Nasaʾi], and “The Messenger of Allah ﷺ took hold of some silk in his left hand and some gold in his right, then he raised his hands and said: ‘These two are forbidden for the males of my nation, and permitted to the females.’” [Ibn Majah]. So it follows that a gold phone as a wearable accessory or jewelry would be forbidden for men but not women.

Which one is right? That depends on whether phones are a type of container, instrument, or implement; or a wearable accessory or jewelry. Given that the essential purpose of a mobile [smart] phone is to communicate [and to acquire, store, and use information] (and in sharp contrast to its wearability and decorativeness), a phone seems to fit naturally under the first category, and not well at all in the second. And Allah knows best.