Cheat sheet: What is a mufti, anyway?

Published October 25th, 2015 - 03:13 GMT
The term's been blasted all over the Internet since Netanyahu's Holocaust comments last week. But chances are half of us are still trying to figure out what it means. (AFP/File)
The term's been blasted all over the Internet since Netanyahu's Holocaust comments last week. But chances are half of us are still trying to figure out what it means. (AFP/File)

In case you’ve been living under a (Dome of the) Rock, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implicated former mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini as a Holocaust instigator last week. Now the world’s gone mufti mad.

Darkly comical memes and hashtags left people laughing at the Israeli PM's history-bending anecdote. But it’s also probably left half the Internet wondering—what even is a mufti?

If you think you heard it wrong or were too embarrassed to ask what one was when it’s at home, a mufti is the term for a Muslim leader.

These guys are often ranked above other clerics as super-qualified scholars who interpret Islamic law. But isn’t that a sheikh, imam or caliph, you ask?

So what’s the difference?

Yup, it’s complicated. Sometimes a sheikh is just a preferred title in the Arab world, much like monsieur or signor, this over-used tag is used mostly to address elderly men out of reverence. In a stricter sense, it’s used to denote a religious figure in the community. But there aren’t necessarily strict qualifications here—often just a beard and the cloak of religiosity will do. Or it’s just the Arabic word for cleric, scholar et al, merged into the English lexicon.

Imam is a more prestigious title among the Shia sect, but it can also just be the leader of the prayers at a mosque. Clear as mud, right?

So, do these king of sheikhs pass fatwas?

Yes. There are a myriad of muftis pumping out Islamic law’s authoritative legal opinions. This is the guy who passes critical decisions about things Muslims need to know, like announcing when the Eid holiday starts. 

Is the Grand Mufti then like the Pope?

Not really. Though he’s quite the VIP in the Muslim world, these are appointed at district or country level. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, for instance, would carry a lot of clout given Jerusalem’s holy significance for Islam. But the religion generally rejects hierarchy in leadership, hence the muddled minefield.

Muslims believe no human can claim to mediate for God, so even a mufti doesn’t have the authority to judge or pardon other humans—or, contrary to what Netanyahu suggested last week, incite annihilations of fellow beings.

By DD


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