A Rare Imam Who Juggles Fatwas, Interfaith Confabs

Article excerpt

Sheikh Ishaq Abdel-Jawad Taha's phone is ringing off the hook.

"You're welcome, go ahead," says Sheikh Taha, sitting behind his desk at the Palestinian Authority's Al-Fatwa Council, of which he is the director. "She's still recovering, so she doesn't have to pray," he says.

The voice on the other end of the phone is that of a man, asking if his wife - who recently gave birth by Caesarean section - is required to return to five-times-daily prayers.

While a fatwa is often equated in the West with extremism, in the East it's simply a religious guideline that can be useful in daily life, especially for those who know whom to call for a ruling that fits the context of a reasonable Islam.

That's where Taha comes in. His council dispenses advice across the Palestinian territories, and across the party lines of rival Fatah and Hamas factions. While he commands much respect among Muslims, Taha is pushing boundaries for his ongoing conversations with others - the Israelis.

Taha is involved in dialogue forums and meetings with both Christians and Jews: a controversial practice since many of his colleagues deem such meetings as normalization, which is frowned on here and across the Arab world in the absence of a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On one recent evening, for example, he met with an Israeli- Jewish group in a West Jerusalem neighborhood, and talked alongside a prominent rabbi on the subject of forgiveness in the Koran and the Torah. Organizers of the event said that Sheikh Taha's appearance was sensitive, and therefore asked that it not be covered by journalists.

Later, Taha explained his position: He does such meetings in his personal capacity, because an official visit would require a stamp of approval from the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Nonetheless, he decided to yield on his official silence about such meetings.

"Had I not been convinced that these events help bring peace, I would not have attended," says Taha, an affable man who wears a trim white beard and a red-and-white headcovering that comes from the Fatamid period, and which signifies he is a distinguished scholar entrusted with legislating Islamic law.

"I look at it as an experiment," he says. "The questions that came up showed how much people misunderstand Islam."

Not all Islamic scholars here feel the same, but he's fine with pushing the envelope - at least somewhat.

"I don't care what people say about me," he says, his face spreading into a wide grin. "I'm following prophet Muhammad's ways, who met with Jews and Christians regularly. I'd like to mix more with nationalities. I feel an office like this one should not be operating behind closed doors."

To that end, he makes sure that the council's decisions get publicized in local newspapers and in other forms of media, and that there's a number through which to make anonymous queries - a sort of dial-a-fatwa - like that of the man who wanted to know if his wife should resume praying.

That request, he says, was actually about something more.

What the man was really asking is whether he can expect his wife to return to normal sexual relations with him: If she's able to do fulfill one duty, the logic goes, she also fulfill others. Taha's answer: No.

"He asks this way," he explains, "but it's a way of getting an answer to the question he really asked."'

Such are the gymnastics involved in being a flexible religious authority who wants to uphold the values of the Koran and make it easy for people to get the religious guidance they seek. …

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