Between 1-5 February 2024 I had the distinct pleasure of traveling to Singapore for the first time to attend a conference on “Fatwa in Contemporary Societies” hosted by Singapore’s Islamic Religious Council (MUIS) as well as the Office of the Mufti. The theme of the conference was, “confident,” “resilient,” and “empowered.” I can honestly say that these are the three words that best describe my experience.
Singapore has an interesting history in dealing with Muslim affairs. The Chief Qadi functioned under the Mohammedan Marriage Ordinance of 1880 and used to adjudicate personal status laws. This ordinance was followed up with the Muslim Ordinance in 1957. Then Singapore’s fatwa council was established in 1968 through the enactment of the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). And in 1999, to support the growing need of the thriving Muslim community, the Office of the Mufti was established. Since then, there have been four Muftis of Singapore with the current one being a gentleman of the highest class and erudition, a man I am fortunate to call a friend, H.E. Dr. Nazirudin Mohammad Nasir.
Both MUIS and Singapore’s Office of the Mufti have been trailblazers in helping Muslim minorities manage their religious and spiritual affairs. This conference was a fabulous showcase of their consistent hard work and efforts to help make sense of Islam for Singaporean Muslims in light of their ever-changing lives.
While I could go on and on, I want to highlight a few things that stood out for me at this conference:
FIRST, the Office of the Mufti is extremely clear in their methodology of how they issue fatwas. They have several publications (all welcomed new editions to my library) that delineate their interpretive methodology. They strike a perfect balance between learning from the traditional methodology of the past, but also advocating for the need to exercise independent legal thinking (ijtihad) in light of the changing dynamics of people, place, time, and circumstance. In perusing the first volume of “Fatwas of Singapore” I happened upon their fatwa on organ donation, a contentious issue for sure. The Office of the Mufti affirms that in the past based on medical knowledge at the time the fatwa was more conservative and disallowed organ donations, but they have investigated the matter further and taken into consideration other global fatwa bodies’ position on the matter and reversed their fatwa. This is an example of their academic honesty and integrity.
TWO, the conference spoke about two issues that are current and urgent: lab produced meat and the use of AI in the fatwa process. As for the former, this is a hot topic in Singapore due to limited space for raising cattle. Something I as an American/Egyptian never even thought about. Working together with appropriate government agencies and industry leaders, the Office of the Mufti has been at the forefront of this issue helping pave the way for food security in Singapore. I loved seeing the images of the Mufti and his team wearing scrubs at the labs inspecting and testing the “meat.”
The second issue was the use of AI in the fatwa process. While still very new and raw, again the Office of the Mufti is taking a lead and working with experts, like Google, to understand how they can use this new tool to streamline their work. I was fortunate to attend a special breakout session on this topic.
These two examples demonstrate the breath and vision of Singapore’s Islamic leadership.
THREE, both MUIS and the Office of the Mufti are reaching out to other international fatwa bodies to create strategic partnerships. I was part of the delegation from Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, but there were other organizations like the International Islamic Fiqh Academy attached to the OIC present as well. This emphasizes an important fact that we can longer rely on individual muftis and fatwas and we need to garner our resources and expertise to have quicker responses to the needs of our community. Muslim jurists at the time of the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 were calling for such efforts, and while it took a century to get here, it’s amazing to see this happen and I am humbled that I am able to witness it and play a small part in it!