The appointment of a new mufti for Australia recently was welcomed by many Australians. The new mufti has a better reputation than his predecessor - he watches Australian football, speaks English fluently and is less controversial. It is believed that he may take positive steps in solving some of the problems and controversies facing Muslim communities in Australia.
But problems arise in understanding the meaning and the function of the office of the mufti and there is a danger in overemphasising the unity and fixed nature of this institution, its necessity and its legitimacy in Australian society. In a modern society with an independent judiciary and a secular legal system Australian Muslims do not need the old and unworkable institution of mufti.
Traditionally in Islam mufti was a person who issues fatwa which simply means stating legal principles. A mufti was a legal expert or consultant who interpreted and clarified details of legal doctrine, advised the litigants and judges, as well as the state authorities. There was no one to whom the mufti was accountable. He had absolute authority to identify the path of Islam and was answerable to no one except Allah.
Unfortunately, this traditional approach is well reflected in the new mufti’s comments made in his inaugural press conference, in which he blamed the Australian media for the problems facing Australian Muslims, and firmly stated that “Islam is one way” and if you don’t follow it properly (as perhaps stated by himself) you have deviated from the path, “simple as that” (The Australian, June 12, 2007).
The institution has little authority in modern Muslim nations. Any power it has is very limited. The office of mufti should not have any place in modern Muslim societies and particularly in Australia.
Labelling the mufti as “the spiritual leader of Muslims” is misleading. The assumption that the mufti is the spiritual leader of Muslims is simply incorrect, both in the Islamic context and in practice in Australia and elsewhere.
While there is an overall unity or common consensus among Muslims with regard to essential principles of faith such as believing in God, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca, or practices such as respecting elders and neighbours, the diversity among Muslims around the world and particularly in Australia - in matters of attitudes, rituals, culture and values - is so huge that the most common ground for Muslims here is to identify themselves as “Australian Muslims”. Similarly Islam is a rich and diverse religion and may mean different things to different people.
Hence, no institution or organisation can claim to represent more than 300,000 Australian citizens whose only difference from other Australians is that they were born into a family with a different yet beautiful, rich and diverse religion. Indeed a sizable proportion of those people may only identify as Muslims by the names given by their parents or as a means of identifying their religion. In no other ways may they be identifiable as Muslims.
Muslims carry out their rituals and communicate with their God not through the blessing of Sheikh al-Hilali or Sheikh Fehmi al-Imam but through their own hearts and communities. They have no need for the intermediate role of muftis.
Imams (praying leaders), who carry out certain rituals in communities need to be trained in Australian universities in Islamic studies departments, not in foreign-funded Islamic schools and centres. They should be leaders who make a real contribution to enriching the diversity and beauty of the hardworking Muslim women and men who wish to live in peace and harmony in the Australian society while still being able to observe their rituals and personal religious beliefs.
Australian Muslims today, like their other fellow Australian citizens and colleagues, are part of the mosaic of Australian society and are subject to Australian law and judicial system. There is no need for an extra office to issue fatwa on legal matters. The office of the mufti in Australia is not necessary and should, under no circumstances, be officially recognised in Australia. Putting the office in perspective will benefit both Australia Muslims and the wider community.
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