Halal or Haram? A new council gives advice to Muslims in Sweden

The newly-formed Swedish Fatwa Council sets out to help Muslims in Sweden seeking advice about how to live in accordance with Islam, but not everyone is convinced the group is necessary, The Local's Karen Holst discovers.

Halal or Haram? A new council gives advice to Muslims in Sweden

Is it halal or haram? Right or wrong?

For the more than 450,000 Muslim living in Sweden, or about 5 percent of the total population, it may not always be easy to understand how Islamic practices are best applied in Swedish society.

The group, known as the Swedish Fatwa Council (Svenska Fatwarådet), officially began in mid-2009 with 14 members, composed of educated imams and people with qualified experience in the field.

“The most common questions we receive are related to relationship issues, marriage and divorce, economic issues, private issues of how to live as Muslims in Sweden and arbitration of conflicts,” says Saeed Azam, chairman of the Council.

It is common practice that Muslims seek religious advice regarding how to live in the best, most constructive way where ever they are as well as how to interpret contradictory information.

The word fatwa is commonly defined as a legal pronouncement in Islam that is issued by a religious law specialist on a specific issue.

Fatwas run the spectrum from basic – which foods to eat – to the modern – which music to listen to – to the political – positions on world terrorism. They are adopted to the specific circumstances, environment and time of a certain situation, as fatwas cannot be the same all over the world, in all times due to differing elements.

The decrees also can be refuted or redefined by other Islamic scholars.

For example, in 2001, Egypt’s Grand Mufti issued a fatwa stating that the popular television show “Who Will Win the Million?”, modelled after the British show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, was un-Islamic.

The Sheikh of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University later rejected the fatwa, finding that there was no objection to such shows since they spread general knowledge.

The most notable fatwa to recently hit the global audience is the 600-page Fatwa on Terrorism, an Islamic decree against terrorism and suicide bombings released last year.

This fatwa was a direct rebuttal of the ideology behind al-Qaeda and Taliban. It is one of the most extensive rulings to date, with an “absolute” condemnation of terrorism without “any excuses or pretexts” and even goes as far as to declare terrorism under Islamic law as kufr, or of a person who does not believe in Allah.

It was produced in Canada by the influential Muslim scholar Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri and launched in London last March. According to experts, this fatwa is a significant set-back to terrorist recruiting operations.

Dr. Qadri said during the launch, “Terrorism is terrorism, violence is violence and it has no place in Islamic teaching and no justification can be provided for it, or any kind of excuses or ifs or buts.”

The Swedish Fatwa Council issued its first fatwa last year in response to the suicide bomb attack in Stockholm, condemning the act and describing it as not compatible with Islam.

Back in Malmö, Azam believes there is a great need in Sweden for the Muslim minority to have such a council to turn to for advice in a context that fits the environment.

“We know what it’s like to live in Sweden and the conditions that people live with here, we understand the challenges,” Azam says.

The Swedish Fatwa Council aims to have a geographical spread of qualified imams throughout the country to increase their reach.

Within the Council they plan to establish the Fatwa Committee, which will consist only of imams who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree in Sharia, or the study of a system of laws derived from the Koran and the Prophet Muhammed’s actions.

Sharia, however, can differ from country to country, and the interpretations of it can range from conservative to liberal.

“It’s been a balancing act to find the right representatives, to avoid extremes,” Azam says.

Today the Committee has nine such educated imams, who reference both the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad’s actions when answering questions about what is and what is not permissible under Sharia Law.

Since fatwas can differ depending upon the school and branch of Islam, the Committee will remain an odd number to ensure a majority vote when providing answers.

Questions are submitted to the Council by letters and e-mails through their website.

The imams plan to lean on authorities abroad when needed, rather than compete with the major fatwa centres of the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, such as the European Fatwa Council.

The Council can then reshape those fatwas in a manner that is applicable to life in Sweden.

However good the intentions though, not all are in favour of the Swedish Fatwa Council.

“They are a little group without the real qualifications to be established here in Sweden,” says a representative from the Grand Mosque in Stockholm.

“There are many other organisations that are properly established in Sweden to provide such counsel. This is not one of them.”

The Grand Mosque, which is run by the Islamic Association, fails to see the need in assigning its own representative to the group.

The Swedish Fatwa Council’s biggest challenges thus are to earn the recognition and respect of the numerous Muslim factions and organizations within Sweden, as well as find representation that matches the nation’s diverse Muslim community.

The Muslim Council of Sweden (Sverige’s Muslimska Råd – SMR) is regarded as the highest Muslim authority in the nation and serves as the influential umbrella organization to most registered Islamic groups in Sweden.

SMR president Helena Benaouda says there’s not a real need for the Swedish Fatwa Council or the need to have a fatwa for every little detail of life.

She adds that while it’s good for imams or groups of imams and educated individuals to think about how to best implement Islamic practices in Sweden, Benaouda warns against opinions and guidance coming from too narrow a field.

“We welcome all efforts to explain Islam in a European context but this group is still too little – they need to be much bigger and much broader,” Benaouda says, adding that educated female representation also is important, which the group in Malmö currently lacks.

The diverse Muslim community in Sweden includes large numbers of believers who originate from countries outside the Middle East such as Bosnia and Somalia. As of yet these groups do not have representation in the Council either.

Despite views from those who are sceptical about the Fatwa Council and its ability to represent Sweden’s diverse Muslim population, Azam is nevertheless optimistic about the Council’s potential to serve as an important resource for Muslims in Sweden.

“We believe we have the specialist knowledge needed, since the imams in our Council have the proper religious education,” he says.

“We want other Muslim minorities to be included in the Council in the future.”

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Historic prayer call heard at Stockholm mosque

Worshippers at the Fittja mosque in southern Stockholm on Friday heard Sweden's first-ever call to prayer, which brought some congregation members to tears of joy.

Historic prayer call heard at Stockholm mosque

Guluz Kayhan, 45, had tears in her eyes when the notes of Sweden’s first-ever call to prayer ended and worshippers hurried up the steps of the mosque.

“I don’t go to the mosque as often as before but I wanted to experience this,” she told The Local as she wiped tears from her blue eyes. Flanked by her two daughters, Kayhan made her way inside, slipping off her shoes.

“I’m really proud of Sweden,” said her daughters’ friend Havva Göcmenoglu, 24. “I am proud of being part of a society that respects different religions.”

Yet as the spring sun broke through the clouds after a bitterly dour morning, two men in a red Volvo 740 crept up to the curb and halted, just to spin their wheels so furiously the rubber shrieked as much as it burned. People making their way into the mosque turned their heads, but most seemed intent on ignoring the odd act.

The congregation was a mix of people who moved to Sweden from countries such as Turkey decades ago, but a number of people who immigrated more recently joined in too.

IN PICTURES: Historic first as Stockholm imam calls to prayer

Kashif Rashid, 28, from Lahore in Pakistan just left Italy to join his brother in Sweden.

“In Italy I didn’t even have a mosque to go to,” he said on his way to the mosque, which is nestled in a beech copse just by a lake lined with the hulls of hibernating boats.

“For two years I have not heard this,” he beamed.

His enthusiasm was shared by others heading to pray. Abdi Muhammad, 27, originally from Somalia, travelled to Fittja from Rinkeby on the far other end of Stockholm

“Thank you to the government,” he said.

Friday’s prayer call came following a decision earlier this month by local police who ruled that it wouldn’t violate local noise ordinances. The ruling allowed the prayer call for between three to five minutes on Fridays between midday and 1pm.

Back in September, local government officials had approved the move in principle, voting in favour of scrapping a 1994 prohibition on allowing prayer calls, which dated back from before the construction of the mosque.

The mosque was built in 2007 in the municipality’s Fittja district and has over 1,500 members

Among veterans in the congregation, reactions were equally elated.

“The Swedes have pure hearts,” said Fawzia Choudry, 46, who came to Sweden from Pakistan decades ago.

“We threw our hands in the air in delight when we heard the ruling, because at first nobody thought they’d give the permission.”

Her daughter Toba, 21, used the Azan (call to prayer) app on her pink-encased iPhone in the meantime.

“People are so busy working this really is a good reminder,” she said.

“This is so important for us Muslims and I think in general Sweden, alongside England, is much more tolerant than other European countries such as France.”

Ann Törnkvist

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