Use Your Mind – You Don’t Need a Fatwa for Everything

There’s a problem with the way Islam is taught in orthodox conservative circles in the East and West. While laudably trying to inculcate a respect for the textual sources of Quran and hadith and what are seen as the more authentic or authoritative interpretations, there also tends to be an enormous emphasis placed on rote memorization and repetition of other people’s actual ingenuity and critical thinking.

There’s a certain predominant ideology among many newly practicing Muslims including converts that seeks to emulate the Islam as espoused by a few scholars in Arabia in the 20th century. No doubt, they were knowledgeable in the religion and deserving of respect and now most of them are dead, so I’ll just say may Allah have mercy on them.

It’s okay to want to follow a certain interpretation of the religion that one feels is most authentic, however, it’s not okay to try to force those interpretations on others. On MuslimMatters, a few posts here and here this past week discussed the overthrow of the Tunisian dictator and here come the Salafi orthy conservatives, many living in the west, of course, with their copy-paste fatawa from men long dead (may Allah have mercy on them) revered as though their words are like the revelation given to the Prophets and hadith devoid of the richness of context to say it’s always impermissible to rise up against any ruler, no matter how unjust, despotic, and tyrannical.

Is that what Islam asks of us? For them and their selected copy-paste quotes, yes. But thankfully for others, no. Tariq Ramadan and the scholars at Al-Azhar have stood in support of the actions of the Tunisian people noting that the obedience to the ruler is not absolute but predicated on a number of conditions.

I know sisters previously strong-willed and independent (and I include myself, although I’ve been actively fighting to regain my voice and my personality these last several years) who become almost unable to cross the street without first asking imam so-and-so or going to this or that online fatwa site to see what the “real scholars” those often long dead or perhaps still living in certain parts of Arabia and it’s always certain parts of Arabia have to say on the issue.

It’s never let’s see what the scholars of Nigeria or Malaysia or Indonesia or Sudan or even America have to say. Perhaps, only more recently some of us have begun listening more carefully to those scholars, imams, and activists that were primarily born and raised here in the U.S.

The struggle of Islam in the western countries in the 21st century will be to imbue Muslims in these lands with an authentic and uniquely western vision of Islam. It must be organic – rising from these lands and not cheap copy-pastes or immigrant culture-based Islam. It must flexible and able to adapt to and respond coherently and effectively to the realities on the ground. I’m not really into the TED-talk fad but I listened to one called The End of Men after reading an article by the speaker Hanna Rosin: Are Women Leaving Men Behind? The author is happily married and the mother of boys so she’s not some stereotypical western lesbian man-hating feminist and even if she was, so what? The interesting thing for me about her talk were the phenomenal stats she referenced reflecting the advances women have made in educational, workplace, and personal attainment.

In a society like ours, the penalty boxes, balconies, curtains, basements, one-way mirrors and other shady accommodations are no longer going to fly. I’ve made a decision that I’m no longer going to go along with the status quo of poor and inferior treatment of women in our mosques. Drawing strength not only from our religious sources but also in this week where we reflect on the life and passing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. his words still inspire me to great hope and action.

You don’t need a fatwa for everything. The religion is easy, we all have to find our baseline and above that there is so much fluidity and expansiveness built into the shariah because it’s a divine message made for all people at all times. There are matters that well-known and even if you never encountered a scholar in your life, you would still be able to discern through the use of your God-given critical thinking capacity.

You don’t need a fatwa to tell you that murder, rape, theft, lying, betraying trusts and harming innocent people is wrong. You don’t need a fatwa to know that you are allowed to leave your house for any number of reasons or for no reason or at all. You don’t need a fatwa to know that the way men abuse the authority they’ve been given to relegate women to inferior spaces in mosques is wrong. These things are well-known, it’s part of the pure and natural fitra (human nature).


  1. A telling reflection on the need to use our minds to think critically:

    One of our teachers, Yasir Qadhi spent 10 years at Madinah University (which is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Salafi orthodox conservative dawah) completing both a bachelor’s and master’s degree and many expected him to also complete his Ph.D there but he instead chose to complete his doctoral degree in Islamic Studies at Yale University right here in the U.S.

    He recounted to us at Ilm Summit his journey in thought from Houston to Madinah to Yale and one of the primary differences between Madinah and Yale was the level of academic scholarship. At Yale, he says he learned how to think more critically and in this area and others the western style of education far surpasses much of that found in the East, which places more emphasis on rote memorization and repetition without a strong analysis component.

  2. I really like this post. Thinking critically is something so many Muslims, including scholars lack. And it’s the reason Muslims are in the state we are in today.
    I think a lot of Muslims, especially, American Muslims think that “Arab Islam” is the true Islam. I don’t need a scholar from Saudi Arabia to tell me something that affects me as an American Muslim, when I can go to a American scholar who knows how to answer my question just as good or better.

    1. Welcome Layla, yes, it’s very true, so much of the “Islam” including interpretations, respect for certain scholars, and opinions on this or that has been largely informed by cultural idiosyncrasies very alien in some respects to our own and are not an essential part of the religion.

      I’m really hopeful for the future that as we begin to build institutions here in the U.S., Muslims will be able to learn their religion at very high level and use that knowledge and their cultural competency to inform their understanding of the deen.

  3. As salamu alaikum,

    Interesting post. I thought you might be interested in this article by Abdullah bin Hamid Ali. It covers some of the same topics in your post.

  4. Excellent article, Jeremiah, thank you for sharing it! Very refreshing and a much needed voice of reason and insight. These are among the critical issues going forward as the Muslim communities here in the West go forward.

  5. I don’t understand the reason why ladies are kept out of the mosque. That is not what Allah said. He said ladies can go to the mosque whenever they choose to. Nothing of that sort is happening in West Africa, especially Ghana. In Ghana, where i live, both male and female go for prayers in their various mosques so i don’t get what is going on elsewhere, it is not right and we must stop now.


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