Islam in Europe: Mainstream society as the provider of conditions

Lena LARSEN

There are many different views on the relationship Islam has to human rights. But no one has investigated processes based on the believers needs, considers the historian of religion Lena Larsen, who has recently been allocated funding from the research project Cultural Complexity in the new Norway. She will be investigating fatwas – Muslim legal decrees – interpretations of Sharia legal principles.

Lena Larsen: “The discoveries I have made show a reality that no one is aware of.”

Islamic scholars continually receive questions from believers about how they should behave and what is right and wrong according to Islamic teaching: Are dogs unclean? How should a divorce be conducted? What does the Koran say about terrorism? What about the rules of inheritance? Can women be imams? Can Muslims take out normal bank loans to buy houses?

In the opinion of Lena Larsen, the answers and bases for fatwas are a unique and as yet unused source of data for finding out what values are imparted by Islamic authorities. According to Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, member of The European Council for Fatwa and Research, the institution of fatwa is one of the most important institutions for Muslims as a minority community.

Lena Larsen is especially interested in fatwas which are the answer to the challenges facing Muslim women within the context of Europe.

– Fatwas are answers to the questions women themselves are asking, and therefore they give us insight into how the women indicate to what extent the shoe fits in relation how it is to live as a Muslim woman in Europe. Through fatwas related to women we gain access to an internal discourse that is normally invisible and overshadowed by both an Islamic apologist rhetoric where it is emphasized that women have full rights under Islam and the mainstream societys impression that Muslim women are oppressed.

Larsen will investigate how Islamic legal thinking is changing as a consequence of social change, and Islams meeting with a new mainstream society.

– Do you have any hypotheses?

– Yes, my hypothesis is that international human rights and new thinking about womens rights, directly or indirectly, will be part of the reflections on which the answers of the scholars are based, and in this manner integrated into Islamic legal thought.

– Is this a new approach to theme of Islam and human rights?

– Yes, among Muslims there are many different views on the relationship between human rights and Islam, but they have often been characterized by an ideological approach and can be understood as contributions to a discourse where The West, directly or indirectly, has the role of the other. The reasoning behind the fatwas gives us the possibility, to some degree, of measuring to what extent the paradigm that focuses on equality and rights is being integrated into Islamic legal thought. Until now there has been no research on fatwas for women in Europa.

It sounds perhaps difficult to research on reflections. But the theologian explains that the reasoning for the fatwas is available in print – both on paper, and increasingly on the Internet, where one can ask questions and receive answers. Larsen has also started interviewing Islamic scholars who issue fatwas and has been present at meetings where legal questions are discussed. Another source is video footage of verbally issued fatwas on Arabic satellite television channels.

Fatwas and Muftis: Market forces in action

– Who is it actually that issues fatwas?

– It is scholars, experts on Islamic law, called Muftis. There are also fatwa-councils that issues fatwas collectively, for example the European Council for Fatwas and Research. This is an exciting field, and is about authority. In Europe the Muslim scholars do not have any formal authority.

– When its a case of which Muftis prevail, market forces are in action. If a believer is not satisfied with a particular fatwa then he or she can approach another scholar. So in a manner of speaking the scholars are hostage to the believers. If they do not produce what the believers like or accept, then they lose their authority. Which scholars come out on top as the supplier of standards is therefore a completely open field.

And in these questions European Christians and atheists also have a say, in the opinion of Lena Larsen. In many ways the non-Muslim majority are the standard bearers for the Muftis, she says:

– European reality defines Muslim daily life – both socially and economically. Lets take an example: According to Islamic family law it is the men who are the providers, an Islamic axiom with a number of consequences, not least in relation to inheritance. The reality is nevertheless different: The cost of living demands that women must actively participate in working life and contribute to making the wheels go round. What has this to do with interpreting the Koran when it comes to inheritance laws? Reality imposes itself upon and challenges traditional interpretations of Islam constantly.

– A reality that no one is familiar with

– I have interviewed sheikhs in the European Council for Fatwa and Research as well as local imams in Paris and Leeds. In France members of the council have a fatwa telephone that is open 8 hours a week. I interviewed the sheikhs who run this fatwa service. The discoveries I have made show a reality that no one is aware of. And I am looking forward to passing them on.

– Can we have a taste?

– Divorce is a good example. In this case the sheikhs decided to follow the principles of public law. They said that Muslims must comply with French national law.

– Why do you focus on whats going on in England and France?

England and France set standards for many Muslims in Europe, also those in Norway. Much of what goes on in these countries is passed on, via satellite TV. One of the scholars, Yusuf al-Qardawi, has become a superstar and very many people watch his TV programs.

Lena Larsen has been researching Islam in Europe since the 1990s. She was previously the leader of the Norwegian Islamic Council (Islamsk Rd Norge) and now works at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at the University of Oslo. There she is working on several projects, including the project New Directions in Islamic Thought and Practice which involves a number of Islamic experts on Islamic reformative thinking. One sub-project has as its theme, Islam, women and freedom of belief. The fatwa project will lead to a doctorate.

– Why are you interested in these questions?

– Today, women-related questions are considered to be the most controversial questions concerning Islam in Europe. The results of my research could have practical implications for Muslim women, theological implications – the possibility for the emergence of a European Islam, and become a resource on the practical political level – not least in relation to integration.

– And finally: What is cultural complexity?

– When the cultural boundaries are crossed and cultures merge into each other. One cannot say that a group has one culture, one language and one tradition. A group can have many cultures. Its always been this way, but now we see that this has become much clearer.

Interview: Lorenz Khazaleh. Translation: Matthew Whiting

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