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.”