Clerics Debate Permissibility
of Using Facebook
Columnist Diana Mukkaled Responds: 'Social Networking Sites and Blogs Have Helped to Break Down Barriers and Produce Innovations'
In early February 2010, the Qatari daily Al-Raya reported that the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee had issued a ruling against Facebook, stating that anyone entering this site was committing an offense against the shari'a. According to the daily, the fatwa was based on a report by Egypt's National Center for Social and Criminological Studies, which claimed that Facebook is a major cause for divorce in the Muslim world. The study contended that one out of every five cases of divorce is caused by one of the spouses having an online affair via Facebook.
According to a report on the Al-Arabiya website, the fatwa was issued by a former head of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, Sheikh 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Atrash, who said that entering Facebook is forbidden in light of the immorality rampant among the youth, and because this site is used to destroy families and homes, and anybody who enters it is a sinner. 
However, the secretary-general of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, Sheikh Sa'id 'Amer, denied that such a fatwa had been issued. Sheikh Al-Atrash himself said that he did not even know how to enter Facebook, and therefore could not have issued a fatwa against it. He clarified that he had merely urged people to use the Internet for positive purposes, rather than for corrupt purposes and illicit relationships, and had forbidden to enter "immoral sites."
Members of the Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research took a similar tack, explaining that a Muslim is allowed to use Facebook, and websites in general, for positive purposes like protecting Islam and its image. For example, Sheikh Fawzi Al-Zifzaf said: "Facebook has an area where users can express their opinions, and this means that when an issue arises that involves [the misrepresentation] of Islam, a Muslim participant can do some good by presenting the correct Islamic view. This is preferable to leaving [other users], who know nothing about Islam, in the dark." Al-Zifzaf added: "It is impractical to ban the site just because it can cause harm to a few users. It is permissible to use Facebook as long as the people and Islam derive benefit from this."
Another academy member, Dr. Mustafa Al-Shak'a, seconded this opinion, saying: "If this site can be beneficial, then there is no harm in it. If it is harmful, it should be shut down." Academy member Dr. 'Abd Al-Mu'ti Bayoumi explained that Facebook is like anything else in the world: it is legitimate as long as one uses it for legitimate purposes, such as gaining information and holding conversations; otherwise it is forbidden.
A stronger potion was taken by Saudi cleric Dr. Salman Al-'Ouda, member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, who characterized the fatwa as a "huge mistake" and as a "slip of the tongue." He said that the public should be encouraged to participate in Facebook, and that if this site is banned, one might as well ban books, libraries, and all forms of media. Al-'Ouda said that he himself has a page on Facebook, through which he converses with young people and answered their questions. Saudi judge sr. 'Issa Al-Gheith said that Facebook is a double-edged sword, like all other modern technologies, but that if it deservex to be banned, then the same is true of telephones, satellite channels and all other communications and information technologies.
Among those who wrote against the fatwa is Al-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Diana Mukkaled. In an article called "Fatwas of Fear," she wrote that fatwas of this sort reflect only the clerics' ignorance of the modern world, and their desire to curb and repress innovations that frighten them.
Following are excerpts from her article:
"Most Such Fatwas Merely Reflect... [Their Authors'] Limited Knowledge about... Globalization and Modern Technology"
"They evoke feelings of sadness, as much as feelings of scorn and derision. I am talking about various fatwas and religious opinions and interpretations that occasionally appear here and there. Those who issue them voice their [religious] opinion... from the pulpit or via their websites, [usually] in response to questions from the public about what one should eat and wear, how one should live, and how one should utilize the various communication and information technologies of the modern world.
"The former head of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee called to ban the social networking website Facebook, saying that whoever uses this website is committing a sin. Naturally, Al-Azhar rushed to renounce this fatwa, saying that because it was issued by the former head of the Fatwa Committee, and not by its present head, it does not represent Al-Azhar's official position...
"Isn't it true that the most such fatwas merely reflect the personal opinion of the sheikh who issued them, and his limited knowledge about the mechanisms of globalization and modern technology, resulting in embarrassment for the institution to which he belongs?
"The fatwa against Facebook recalls a long series of embarrassing incidents involving modern means of communication, and particularly the Internet, which generated a series of fatwas that seemed like hybrids having nothing to do with the modern values... that [guide] our generation, for good or bad. Without a doubt, the development of knowledge and communication techniques [in our time] far outstrips our ability to understand and regulate them – especially since this development opens up revolutionary new horizons of knowledge. However, these [new] horizons also contain seeds of risk and harm. This is true for all progress in all domains of life and thought. The Internet is a tool for dialogue and the sharing of knowledge, as much as it is a tool of exploitation. We must not forget that the world is still in the initial stages of this [digital] revolution."
"Social Networking Sites and Blogs Have Helped to Break Down Barriers and Produce Innovations"
"The Internet offers unique modes of communication, and it continues to pose a serious challenge to researchers and thinkers. These same challenges are also faced by the traditional religious institutions.
"Electronic sites and blogs have helped to break down barriers and discover [new] creative [artists]. Moreover, they have helped to document political and social history to an extent never before seen. Isn't this what happened recently with the Iranian protestors who utilized Twitter, and before that with the Egyptian and Iraqi bloggers? This is happening every day with hundreds of bloggers who write down their thoughts on social networking sites.
"Fear of this [phenomenon] prompts broad sectors in society, which are traditional [in their thinking], to try to contain and curb these advances, and – most dangerously of all – to repress them. Most of the fatwas and religious opinions [banning these innovations] are a defensive reaction by some frightened individuals, who are alarmed by what they see as an attack on their Muslim traditions.
"It is hard to reconcile fatwas that prohibit Facebook with the values of modern world. [Today,] the job of the preacher has changed, and before issuing fatwas, he must make an effort to understand modern technology, and stop regarding it as a source of great evil."
 Al-Raya (Qatar), February 1, 2010.
 www.alarabiya.net, February 3, 2010.
 www.islamonline,net, January 5, 2010.
 www.moheet.com, February 3, 2010.
 Al-Hayat (London), February 21, 2010.
 www.saudiwave.com, February 5, 2010.
(Courtyesy: MEMRI, March 1, 2010)