by Michael Gerson
Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, possesses a wonderfully exotic title, a scholarly manner and the unique burden of issuing about 5,000 fatwas a week — the judicial rulings that help guide the lives of the Muslim faithful. On a recent visit to the United States, he explained to me the process of “resolving issues of modern life.” And modern life offers Gomaa and his team of subordinate muftis plenty of fodder for resolution, from the permissibility of organ transplants, to sports gambling, to smoking during Ramadan, to female judges, to the use of weapons of mass destruction, to mobile phone transmitters on the tops of minarets.
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Islam for many non-Muslim Americans, who must look back to Puritan Massachusetts for a time when hermeneutics — the art of interpreting a holy text — was such a consequential public matter. In the West, theological debates have long been confined to seminaries, causing nothing more serious than denominational splits. In Egypt, Gomaa is a theological celebrity. His office, the Dar al-Iftaa, is part of the Ministry of Justice. And though his rulings are nonbinding unless adopted into Egyptian law, they are widely influential.