Since passing a law imposing fines and a jail term on anyone holding religious lectures or teaching the memorisation of the Qur'an without prior government approval, the UAE Cabinet on Sunday set up a Fatwa Council to regulate religious views in the country. The council is now the sole authority granted permission by the government to give fatwas – an Islamic ruling – that are deemed moderate by Abu Dhabi's absolute monarchy.
In addition to preaching "moderate Islam" the council will seek to align fatwas and become the sole reference point for all religious views in the Emirates. Gulf News reported the council's chairman, Dr Mohammad Matar Al-Ka'abi, praising the initiative saying that "unifying and regulating fatwa practices in the UAE will prevent personal or improvised fatwas and rebut extremist and terrorist fatwas, in keeping with the leading role played by the UAE in combating terrorism and radicalisation".
It's the first step of its kind in the Middle East. No other country in the region has enacted a law that criminalises the belittling of religions and all forms of discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin.
The move is likely to raise further concerns amongst rights groups. The UAE is already one of the most repressive states in the world. The lack of freedom of speech within the Emirates is regularly cited by the UN in their reports highlighting the poor state of human rights in the country. The Fatwa Council, in the eyes of its critics, is likely to fuel further concerns over the chilling effect it will have on political freedoms.
Al Ka'abi praised the council's role saying: "The Fatwa Council will issue Islamic rulings on various issues at the request of government entities, institutions or the general public, resorting to a defined system to issue, announce and archive rulings."
A leading Islamic scholar Dr Ahmad Al Qubaisi also sang the council's praise saying that the "council will limit fatwas by scholars as not all of them are qualified to issue them. Setting up a sole fatwa authority is necessary," he added, "because many individuals have started bypassing the authority of official religious bodies and have issued fatwas that cause disputes and dissent among Muslims".
The UAE Fatwa Council is chaired by Shaikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, Chairman of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies and Vice-President of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Mauritania.