A few days ago, a Qatari newspaper reported that the Fatwa Committee of Egypt's al-Azhar University had issued a fatwa against joining Facebook because of its contribution to infidelity and other moral failings. The story got picked up widely, and a furious debate rapidly broke out across the Arabic internet, blogs, forums, and newspapers about the alleged Facebook Fatwa. It's now made the Jerusalem Post, and I expect we'll see more of it as it migrates over into the English internet. I mean, what a great story! It's got an Muslim authority taking a stand against the modern globalized world, nobody on the internet can ever resist a story about the internet, there's a sex angle, and it can be framed against Hillary Clinton's "internet freedom" speech. Solid gold!
But faster than you can say "stop sending me cause invitations," the alleged issuer of the fatwa, Shaykh Abd al-Hamid al-'Atrash, denied the report. He never issued a fatwa against Facebook, he says -- indeed, he doesn't even know how to work the website, and how could he issue a fatwa on something he knows nothing about? (I'll refrain from any of the dozen obvious punchlines here.) Of course he advises against using Facebook or anything else for illicit ends like cheating on one's spouse, but that doesn't mean that he issued a fatwa against Facebook itself. Ismail Abu Haytham, media advisor to al-Azhar's Fatwa Committee, also said that the committee had issued no such fatwa. Maybe they are just backtracking in the face of the controversy, but it doesn't really look like it.
Oh well. It will interesting to see how the story flows through the information stream, and whether the denials get equal time with the original story. Anyway, there will always be plenty of nutty fatwas to go around -- like banning Quranic ring tones, for instance! Who cares about such fatwas, and what authority they carry, is actually a darned interesting question. It would almost be more interesting if there had been an al-Azhar fatwa against Facebook, given that half of Egypt seems to already be on it (remember when Facebook was going to lead the revolution?). That includes plenty of Islamists -- you can check out the Facebook page of the influential Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi, with over 80,000 followers, right here. I doubt many people would quit because of an al-Azhar fatwa -- which raises some genuinely interesting questions about authority in Islam today that I'll leave for another day.
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Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.