So there’s a fun new fatwa being covered in the international news, and it goes like this: Mars Is Haram.
I know what you’re thinking- come on, it’s just another one of those made-up fatwas, like last year’s Great Syrian Sex Jihad and the Erotic Fruit and Vegetable Fatwa of 2011. Those were great fun for the media, and in all their journalistic glee, they forgot to check their stories. There is something to be said for journalistic integrity, unless there’s a funny fatwa story. Then it’s a free for-all.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the media’s lost sight of due diligence when it comes to stories about Muslims. Remember the man who was too handsome for Saudi? Or the Egyptian Necrophilia Fatwa– where unnamed and unsourced clerics said it was okay for a grieving husband to have “Farewell Intercourse” with his spouse’s corpse for up six hours after the time of death. Grieving wives had conjugal rights to dead husbands as well, because Muslims do believe in equality of the sexes, see?
Remember the fatwa where if your spouse saw you naked, your marriage became invalid? Or how breastfeeding your male colleagues could make them your mahram? Those were fake too.
Muslims generally hear these stories, heave a long-suffering sigh, and go back to worrying about real news- like other Muslims being ethnically cleansed, burned alive, and frozen to death across the world.
We tend to take these stories in stride with the rest of the c@#$ that mainstream media dumps on us already. Yes, yes, we heard already- we are the stupid, violent, intolerant, controlling men who obsess about sex, gender relations, and suspiciously shaped produce – and the women who love them.
The men I mean. Not the fruit. Because there’s a fatwa about that.
So what is a fatwa?
Let’s say I have a dry cough. I read the directions on the cough syrup, and confirm it was for dry cough. But then I read the fine print, where taking the syrup can be risky in conjunction with other medications. Now, I do happen to take some of those medications, but not often. I am looking for some clarity, so I call my doctor and he gives me his medical opinion– not an order- about my specific case. He tells me what he thinks I should do, and why he thinks so. Whether I think he’s right, or whether I want to go looking for a second opinion is up to me. He hasn’t given me an order, he has given me a fatwa.
- Fatawa are legal opinions, not laws
- The purpose of fatawa is to seek clarity. This usually happens in cases dealing with new, specific, or unclear issues.
The doctor told me what he was thinking based on his knowledge, training, and personal experience. He told me why he was thinking it, and I am free to follow it or not. That is a fatwa. Given the number of bad doctors in the world, it seems more understandable then, why there can be confusing Islamic fatawa. Muslims are humans, humans make mistakes, and humans can be expected to have differing opinions, medical or otherwise.
For every two sensible doctors out there is at least one nut-job who tells us to put herbs in our socks or wear a magnetized bracelet to cure the chronic bronchitis I am actually incubating. So yes, it is possible to get a strange non-legally binding opinion- or fatwa- from a real Muslim, the same way I can get an unhealthy recommendation from a real doctor.
What happened to Mars?
It all started with a Dutch Company called Mars One, whose mission is to “establish a permanent human settlement on Mars.” The company plans to start sending people up to the red planet by 2024, and they’ll be sending them one-way.
According to the original story in the Khaleej Times, the General Islamic of Islamic Affairs and Endowment of the UAE – locally known as the Awqaaf, takes issue with this type of mission.
“Such a one-way journey poses a real risk to life, and that can never be justified in Islam,” the committee said. “There is a possibility that an individual who travels to planet Mars may not be able to remain alive there, and is more vulnerable to death.”
Whoever opts for this “hazardous trip”, the committee said, is likely to perish for no “righteous reason”, and thus will be liable to a “punishment similar to that of suicide in the Hereafter”.
The committee, presided by Professor Dr Farooq Hamada, said: “Protecting life against all possible dangers and keeping it safe is an issue agreed upon by all religions and is clearly stipulated in verse [4:29] of the Holy Quran: Do not kill yourselves or one another. Indeed, Allah is to you ever Merciful.”
Professor Dr. Who?
Dr. Farouk Al Hamada is real person. In fact, he’s even really in the UAE. He is a published author, and according to his personal website, he is currently “an adviser at the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi, Emirates.” His website was last updated on Jan 8, 2012.
He is not, however, the Grand Mufti of the UAE, let alone all of Saudi Arabia as some of the headlines claim. A quick Google search shows that there doesn’t seem to be a Grand Mufti of the UAE, but there is a Grand Mufti of Dubai. His name is Dr. Ahmad Al Haddad; in July of 2013, he made the news with some very sage advice, “Be careful about fatwas on twitter.”
- Taking an unnecessary risk with your life is not allowed in Islam
- A one-way ticket to Mars means you’ll probably die
- If you do go and die, you may be held accountable for killing yourself for no good reason
What Dr. Farooq Hamada didn’t say was:
- Travel to Mars (versus Jupiter) is not allowed
- Flying to Mars (versus walking) is not forbidden
- Colonizing Mars (versus visiting) is not allowed
- Housing on Mars (versus education?) is haram
- Living on Mars is sinful
- Even wanting to live on Mars is sinful
- Muslims traveling to Mars will suffer punishment
There are other opinions about this issue- and they will most likely hinge on whether travel to Mars is a righteous reason or reasonably safe. They have nothing to do with flying, colonizing, the high rate of Martian housing, or nurturing secret dreams of space travel. At this point in time, a one-way trip to Mars is a bit like jumping into an alligator pit. If I’m doing it to save a kid who fell in, I can risk my life because that’s a righteous reason. But if I’m doing it to take a selfie, that’s suicide. And I’m an idiot.
A third alligator option exists, where I’m going in to take a selfie, but the alligator is either tame, toothless, or safely restrained. In that case, I don’t need to have a righteous reason, because I’m not risking my life. That would be like going to Mars if/when traveling by space is like taking a cruise, but one where we’d drink recycled urine.
Is that allowed? Can we get a fatwa on that?
The bottom line is that life is precious, so if I’m deliberately putting mine at risk, I’d better have a good reason for it. If not, my death may be judged as suicide versus sacrifice. If there is more to this fatwa, it’s not in the original story, and the Martian fatwa in question does not appear in the archives of General Islamic of Islamic Affairs and Endowment of the UAE.
Last year alone, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments issued over 337,000 fatawa, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another one in the international news. They are maintained in a searchable archive here, and contain such sensational questions as:
- Is it halal (permissable) to hunt pigeons within city limits? (Hunting in cities or sanctuaries is not allowed without authorization from the competent authorities out of respect of public order.)
- Are the zakat values of stocks based on their original purchase price, or the current market value, and how much is a Nisab? (Commercial shares and stocks are determined according to their current market value. The Nisab is 85 grams of gold. And Allah knows best.)
Why does this keep happening?
Journalists: they dig deep to find buried stories, uncover injustice, and show the world what’s really happening so we can all get up and do something about it. And in their spare time, they play the telephone game.
Without fact-checking information beforehand, major media outlets share stories that humorously “confirm” what they think they know about Muslims, but if a news story features something positive about a Muslim, it is ignored.
This is called information bias- and it happens when people choose to promote or recognize what supports their existing point of view. That’s why a story with a Saudi cleric, two goats, and not a leg of truth between them can make international news, but the same story- without any Muslim affiliations, would be an insult to journalism.
This isn’t limited to news, there are the books too. But the stories aren’t necessarily fake- sometimes they are poignant- or not so poignant– coming of age stories where people wake up, open their eyes, and stop being Muslim long enough to secure a lucrative book deal. This model has been so successful that even non-Muslims try to get in on the act, and some famous frauds- recently Ergun Caner, Walid Shoebat, and Kamal Saleem– gave it a good run before finally being exposed. In doing so, they did their part in lending legitimacy (however phony) to the stereotypes. Because, Islam is so bad even Muslims are leaving it, see?
The Bigger Picture
Fake Ex-Muslims, Former Muslim Tell-Alls, and Freaky Fatwa news all fit into a bigger picture-they are all sneaky manifestations of the straw man argument.
The Straw Man, or Aunt Sally as she’s know in the UK, is a logical fallacy in which someone defeats an argument– not by defeating the argument itself–but by knocking over a dummy argument in its place. Imagine that anti-Muslim bigots are set to box with Mike Tyson, and when the bell chimes, they come out swinging at a mannequin that sort of looks like him. The mannequin goes down, the crowd cheers, and Islamophobia is crowned the heavyweight champion of the Internet.
Fake Ex-Muslims face off against a dummy version of Islam, using their “real life” experiences to prove that Muslims really are terrorists- and then knock that dummy over using a new-found love of Christ and hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds.
Former Muslims prop up a paper-back version of Islam as a harbinger of chaos, cultural darkness, and burkas- and use the feather of their touching nostalgia to blow it gently over. Through the rose-tinted lenses of their simplistic narrative, there appears to have been nothing wrong with their country/family/life when it was secular, and there was nothing right when it was “Islamic.”
Freaky Fatwa news is part of the same game. Bigoted–or just irresponsible–media props up dummy versions of Islam- incorrect, backwards, over-the-top, and sexually immature stories of what Muslims do and believe, and with every like, share, and eye-roll, we readers do our part to knock them over.
The success of the straw man argument rests entirely on the crowd’s inability to tell the difference between a mannequin and Mike Tyson, so the more people understand real Islam, the less likely they are to swing at the straw men propped up in Islam’s place.
If you’re a Muslim and you find fake information about Islam getting shared in your social media circles, speak up. Be brave. Be funny. Stand up in the crowd and politely point out that the guy in the blue corner is actually a scarecrow and the real champion is the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Advice for Journalists
If you’re a journalist, and you’re not sure whether a funny story you read about a Muslim is news-worthy, copy the text of the story and remove all references to Islam, Muslims, and Saudi Arabia- and then read it again. Now, ask yourself a few questions:
- Can the story be verified?
- Is the content genuinely interesting, significant, or relevant to your readership?
- Was a real person willing to put their name on this? Is there an original, reliable source or byline?
- Could the text of this email be mistaken for a chain letter?
- If you published this religion-free version, would your editor call you an idiot with no news sense?
If you are looking at a verified news story that is genuinely significant or relevant to your readers, written by someone who wasn’t embarrassed to put their name to it, you’re off to a good start.
If, however the content you’re looking at could pass as a chain letter, or suddenly isn’t funny if Muslims aren’t involved, then please delete it and do something better with your life.