Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui
It was Ramadan. The women and their children were leaving the mosque one by one after the Taraweeh prayer. Radia, a girl around the age of 13, was among them. As she approached the exit, a few elderly women approached her. “Come, Radia,” they said, “you go to school, right?” The women had some questions about the Quran, and thought she might know the answers. Although she was still learning herself, she came to the women, took out a Quran, and started explaining what she knew.
“I think that’s how it started, with the elderly women and neighbors back home in Morocco.” Dr. Radia Al Waseef, now a muftiya working at Abu Dhabi’s Official Fatwa Center, smiled as she recounted the story. We were sitting in her office, where she works from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day alongside three other female scholars of the Quran, serving the public through an Islamic hotline service established by the UAE’s government in 2008.
I was first introduced to Dr. Al Waseef in the summer of 2016 by an article published in The Guardian. Before reading that article, I knew nothing about the practice of issuing fatwas, non-binding religious rulings that guide people to do what is right under Islam. Yet what surprised me most was the fact that contrary to common stereotypes, both men and women work in this profession. Intrigued by the small group of women who work at the center and what they do, I reached out and asked for permission to make my capstone project— a ten-minute documentary— about them.
By the time I finally had the chance to visit the center and meet Dr. Al Waseef and other muftiyas at the beginning of 2017, the number of muftiyas the center employed had grown from 30 to 60, following increasing public demand for their service. Dr. Al Waseef told me that she typically gets 30 to 40 calls per day, but during Ramadan, the number triples.
While the calls are usually about the day-to-day practice of the religion, they could be about anything.
“We receive calls from people with serious problems, some who think life will stop for them, and even a few that were on the verge of committing suicide,” said Dr. Al Waseef. She added that she could go on for days filled with joy when she helped solve someone’s problem, and that she loved the fact that she was teaching people and delivering a message to an audience wider than the elderly women at the neighborhood mosque of her childhood.
“At the beginning, some people questioned the legitimacy of having female muftiyas, but there is no proof from Sharia that it is forbidden,” said Dr. Al Waseef. As a devout Muslim whose job is to pass on and clarify God’s will, she is meticulous in making any statement. “The existence of a muftiya has been a norm since the time of the prophet — peace be upon him — and it is a necessity in building this society.”
Many women who call Dr. Al Waseef are more comfortable discussing female-specific issues with her, and Dr. Al Waseef also believes that since she has often experienced similar situations— she can emphasize with women more easily and provide a more holistic solution.
However, this is not the only reason why it is important to have women working as muftiyas.
“Allah has created life from a couple, a man and a woman, and this is how life should be. Women should be involved in everything. Their role is irreplaceable,” said Dr. Al Waseef in a tone that was soft, but resolute — the same tone she uses to help countless people gain a better understanding of the religion she not only believes in, but lives.
Andrea Chung is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]