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,"
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
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
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
"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
"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. …