Staunton, November 10 – In the midst of the pandemic, a fetwa issued by the ulema of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Russia saying that Muslims should not marry non-Muslims has sparked a minor media firestorm with Russian outlets holding it up as an example of Muslim intolerance and Muslims overwhelmingly rejecting.
Such controversies over even this specific issue have happened before and will happen again, and they reflect a general ignorance among non-Muslims about what a fetwa is and a more specific ignorance of the structures and even concerns of the Islamic community of the Russian Federation and of religious groups more generally.
A fetwa is literally a legal opinion issued generally by a mufti that expresses his opinion about a legal question. It is not a papal encyclical or declaration of an Orthodox conclave. Thousands upon thousands of these are issued in the Muslim world ever year, and it is generally possible to find a fetwa in support of almost any position one wants to advance.
Such diversity and inconsistency are nowhere more common than in the Russian Federation where there are now more than 80 MSDs, each of which routinely issues fetwas on a wide variety of topics. These are frequently at odds with one another, and so Muslims are free to pick and choose which one they consider authoritative or not.
And at the same time, the issue of marriage between members of different religions is a matter of controversy for most religions. Many believe that marrying outside the faith is a kind of betrayal or put less starkly creates conditions in which it will be difficult to be certain how the children from such a marriage will be raised.
Many Christian churches in the past, for example, have insisted that if one of their members marries outside their denomination, he or she must agree to raise children in the faith even if the other partner in the marriage disagrees. That alone can be a source of tension in families and even lead to the exit from the faith of all involved.
In the Russian Federation, many Muslims have a particular concern: They believe that if one of their number marries outside the faith, the children will be raised in another faith. This will lead not only to a loss in the membership of the umma but to assimilation given that in many cases, a shift in faith will lead to a shift in ethnic identity.
Given that the most common form of inter-religious marriage among Russia’s Muslims is with Russian Orthodox Christians, that is a real fear for many Muslim nations which fear they are under threat already. And that explains why many Muslims oppose inter-religious marriage and see it as a threat, even as others are convinced that love should determine outcomes.
One Muslim leader has described the latest recommendation, for that is all a fetwa really is among Muslims in a secular state, “a fetwa of despair,” a feeling that Islam is in retreat and will not convert others through intermarriage but rather lose its adepts to others (business-gazeta.ru/article/487788