In anticipation of modern developments in various fields, international Muslim clerics and muftis have decided to establish a committee on fatwas for Muslims in Southeast Asia.
The regional Fiqh council aims to produce fatwas as well as share knowledge on existing fatwas and deliberation methodology in various countries, said Muhyiddin Junaidi, head of the international relations division of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI).
Closer co-operation between fatwa-issuing authorities in different countries would be suitable not only for Southeast Asian Muslims but also for Muslims worldwide, he suggested.
"For a start, we are going to streamline the deliberation process of issuing a fatwa at the regional level," Muhyiddin told Khabar Southeast Asia.
Fatwas declare various subjects as haram (sinful), such as violent jihad, terrorism, suicide bombings, a meningitis vaccine imported from Europe for hajj pilgrims, blocking public streets to conduct mass sermons, and vasectomies.
An ASEAN initiative
Establishment of an ASEAN Fiqh council to respond to contemporary problems faced by Muslims was one of 11 recommendations issued at the end of an international conference on fatwa held in Jakarta in late December 2012.
The committee is expected to provide solutions in co-operation with the Islamic Fiqh Council -- a body within the Muslim World League, based in Saudi Arabia -- and fatwa-issuing bodies in other countries.
"They can share their experiences in deliberating a fatwa including the methodology and exchange knowledge regarding the fatwas issued in their respective countries," said Secretary General of Islamic Fiqh Council Soleh Zabin Al-Marzouqi.
The majority of ASEAN's 230 million Muslims live in the three predominantly Muslim countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei – while sizeable Muslim minorities live in Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Indonesian Minister for Religious Affairs Suryadharma Ali told reporters that a line of Islamic experts on fatwa has agreed to convene biannually to discuss how they can best respond to, among others, advances in medicine, astronomy, social dynamics, science and technology.
"We would monitor the developments over the past two years and see which ones need [Islamic] laws because not all existing fiqh can cater to the needs of today's world. We would need to issue new fiqh as a reference for Islamic conduct suitable to the current context," Suryadharma said.
He said the committee does not intend to centralise the issuance of fatwa to increase their legitimacy, but he did not rule out the possibility that a fatwa could affect government policies.
The MUI has issued approximately 8,000 fatwas since it was founded in 1975. Suryadharma cited an example from 2009 when the Indonesian government halted using a meningitis vaccine produced by a European pharmaceutical after the MUI declared it haram because it had traces of porcine enzymes. The government had to buy a new stock of vaccine.
"A fatwa should be adopted collectively. The more congregations that endorse a fatwa, the more legitimate it would be for the Muslim people," said the politician from the Islam-based United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan/PPP).
Ratna Shofi Inayati, an ASEAN expert at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), told Khabar that the establishment of a regional forum that allows ASEAN Muslim clerics to exchange information on fatwa-issuing matters is a good effort. It is a form of people-to-people relations that is encouraged in ASEAN community blueprints.
"However, it is better to also co-ordinate their activities with the governments of ASEAN member states – especially those that have Muslim minority populations," she said.