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Lost for words
December 5th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Lost for words
(a plea to my Muslim friends)

How does one wholesomely respond to a fatwa stating that « women who swim in the sea are committing adultery —even if they wear a hijab »?

Apparently, the reasoning behind this particular fatwa, from the point of view of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis in Egypt, is that 'sea' is masculine [Arabic nouns are gender-specific, and 'sea' is masculine], so when the water touches the woman's private parts she becomes an 'adulteress' and should be punished (i.e. slowly stoned to death, for this particular offence).

How can one make a case that language is conventional,
and that not everything is a commandment of Allah?

The conventional nature of language should appear from two facts:
• others languages might designate the same object / meaning,
• I may pronounce an Arabic world without knowing its meaning.
Designation and meaning are two different aspects ( nāma-pannatti  and attha-pannatti,  cf. ), which co-arise but are not the same (like the two sides of a coin).

Moreover, the 'meaning' is tainted by personal experience: if you speak Arabic, you might designate the sea by the designation بحر  but if I were to pronounce this, my designation would only point to another  meaning (an Arabic word of which I know the pronunciation but not the "commonly-agreed meaning for Arabic speakers").
Even between Arabic-speakers, the meanings of بحر  for someone who has actually experienced the sea, and for someone else who hasn't, would differ.

Language is conventional, and tainted by personal experience. If it's tainted by personal experience, what you understand  is not a direct command from Allah, ever! Don't pretend you can, as a human, grasp the full meaning of Allah's words: raising yourself to Allah's level is (according to the Qur'ân) a strongly-condemnable lack of humility.

It might be important at this point to remember that Allah had multiple prophets, who did not all speak Arabic: Arabic is one language used by Allah among several others. Of course, Allah may well have spoken in the most beautiful, most perfect Arabic form but no one would expect any less, in any language Allah would speak in. Because Allah used multiple languages (all worthy of his Word, to various prophets), claiming the primacy of the gender of 'sea' in Arabic over all other languages is unjustified.

According to Islam, Allah's commands are stipulated in a particular text (the Qur'ân), which indicates that not all  texts are Allah's commands.
Fatwas are interpretations and, even though they are meant to be issued by learned and qualified muftis, these men are not Allah's messengers, these men are subject to human errors (which regularly leads fatwas to be repelled).

Some fatwas from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis in Egypt forbade women from eating certain vegetables or even touching cucumbers or bananas, due to their possible phallic imagery which supposedly may tempt women to deviate. First, if it was so obvious, such a fatwa would have been issued long long time ago (it's not as if bananas were discovered only recently)… Second, the 'imagery' and the associated insecurities are first and foremost in the men's mind! So, observe Allah's creation as it is,  then deal with the insecurities directly at their source (instead of blaming it on the other gender, or anything else). You're responsible and will be judged for your acts, including for the acts of making false excuses or for being unfair to parts of the Creation.

Another recent Egyptian fatwa suggests to marry girls aged 10… Fantasies of a pre-nubile virgin doesn't make anyone a Muslim, even under the "for her own good" excuse; it only makes one an ignorant who happily forgets all the obligations and responsibilities that come with Muslim marriage (hence who will anger Allah for not  following the Qur'ân and for cherry-picking rules…).

I'm sorry, I'm all for inter-faith dialogue and focusing on what we share ( or, but I do not recognise Islam, or the Qur'ân, in these  particular fatwas… not even close! These fatwas are not Wise.

If you're Muslim, it makes sense to consider  what your muftis talk about… but you also have to reflect  on their words!
You cannot take their words at face value, for these muftis are human, they can make mistakes, and you should not appropriate mistakes. No matter what a teacher says, you  are responsible for what you take away. Allah gave you a brain: use it!
A fatwa based on the gender associated to one word ('sea') is an aberration; enquire into the very nature of words and language. A fatwa based on something 'obvious' like the shape of a vegetable is an aberration; if it was so trivial to interpret Allah's will, it would have easily been done earlier in the past 15 centuries. A fatwa blaming women for men's thoughts is an injustice. 

As Muslims, it is a very bad idea to start oppressing parts of the Creation of Allah! Do you actually imagine that Allah would praise the oppression of His work?
You have to remember that the Qur'ân itself contains this undeniable 'improvement' over the Bible that blame is equally  placed on both Adam and Eve for their mistake. The Qur'ân does not say that Eve tempted Adam to eat from the tree, or even that she had eaten before him. Eve, in the Qur'ân, is not a seducer or deceiver. Allah punishes no one for another’s faults.  Punishing a woman for the inappropriate thoughts of men? You have to think it through, not just listen to the self-serving justifications by faulty men!

Of course, bathing in the sea hardly is a fundamental human right. Many poor people might never see the sea!
But the reasoning  behind such fatwas is mistaken and similar mistakes lead to much oppression. Such naïve, superficial interpretations call for an enquiry into the conventional nature of language, and for the respect of all of Allah's creation (which fully includes women, vis-à-vis whom men have responsibilities to fulfil, rather than to discard by the 'magic' of some self-serving fatwas). So, with all the due respect to Allah, please think! Don't appropriate the prejudiced mistakes of manipulative muftis! Allah is wise, so be wise.

Islamic art: "Allah" (God) in Arabic calligraphy by © Samir Malik (