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Saturday, 11 October 2008

Dial M for Mufti and you can quiz the world's first Islamic helpline

Taken from The Times, UK, October 10, 2008
By Sonia Verma

One of
the most distinguished muftis in the Gulf switches on his computer, dons a headset and prepares to issue yet another fatwa.

Abdulrahman Ammoura, 48, usually dispenses his religious advice to the faithful at a nearby mosque but today he is in a cramped cubicle in Abu Dhabi, answering the telephone at the world's first call centre for people seeking a fatwa, or religious edict. The popularity of the service easily eclipses attendance at his Friday prayers; it is used by Muslims all over the world, and its organisers say it now takes about 3,700 calls a day, including queries from Britain.

“I am tired, so tired,” the mufti says, midway through a six-hour shift. “I hear ringing in my ears.” He is distressed by his most recent caller, a married woman whose alcoholic husband had turned violent, hitting her and forcing her to have sex. Should she seek a divorce, the woman asked. “I said, ‘No - it is better for him to find help'. A woman living alone with children could face too many problems.”

His advice now counts as an official fatwa in the United Arab Emirates, under new rules issued by the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments. The UAE Government established the call centre three months ago in an attempt to root out extreme interpretations of Islam issued by unqualified scholars. All fatwas issued through the call centre comply with the Government's moderate religious stance. Any others are considered invalid instructions.

The 48 muftis who staff the phones - there is also a handful of female scholars - are screened by the authority and must show impeccable credentials in Islamic law. They work in teams, with six men and two women on six-hour shifts, between 8am and 8pm on working days.

A skeleton staff takes calls for “religious emergencies” during the night.

The UAE follows the Maliki school of Sunni Islam, which the Government considers a “moderate, middle way” of the religion.

Callers can select the service in Arabic, Urdu or English. Each workstation is equipped with religious reference texts and the internet so that the muftis can consult a variety of sources before issuing their rulings.

Most callers have questions concerning the rules of worship, relationships and business. All the muftis interviewed said that, so far, none of their callers had questions relating to any kind of extremism or violence. “The hardest questions I am asked involve sex,” said Mufti Ammoura, who began his career as an imam in the UAE Air Force 25 years ago. “I feel shame, but I have to answer the questions because it is my duty.”

Apart from the freephone line (800 2244 within the UAE, for which the international prefix is +971) the muftis get thousands of questions via their website, awqaf.ae - although the site is Arabic only - and by SMS, with a maximum 270-character response.

Each call is limited to three minutes, but the muftis complain that some callers break the rules, refusing to hang up or calling again and again with the same question. “One caller opened his heart to me for more than an hour. What can I do?” one said.

Officials will not disclose the cost of the call centre. Depending on his qualifications, a mufti can earn between £1,250 and £2,300 a month, not including overtime.

There are also plans for expansion, hiring 50 more muftis and opening satellite centres elsewhere in the Muslim world. “We were not prepared for the popularity,” one official said. “Already, we get more calls than Emirates Airlines.”

Further Reading:
Give us a Mufti, say UK Muslims - Times, June 10, 2007