Should Islam ban insurance (as a form of gambling) or permit it (because its purpose is to reduce risk)? What about the telegraph, the hat, and reasonable interest on certificates of deposit? The answer to these and other questions comes in a fatwa, an advisory opinion on Islamic law issued by a religious authority known as a mufti. More than any other mechanism, fatwas provide a way for Islam to adapt to new places and times; as such, they constitute a basic building block of Muslim life, though one only recently receiving the attention they deserve.1 Skovgaard-Petersen, a Danish scholar, moves the process greatly forward through his excellent study of their "gradual institutionalization" in twentieth-century Egypt, the country perhaps most crucial to their development. As his title suggests, he argues that the mufti was the key intermediary between events on the ground and the government's interpretation of them. Even more: the mufti became "a central figure" in developing the political meaning of Egypt's Islamic identity.
Skovgaard-Petersen pays particular attention to a ground-breaking fatwa by the renowned scholar, Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), in which he permitted Muslims in South Africa to eat the meat of animals slaughtered by Christians. Not only was the distance involved startling, but so was the permission. With this, ‘Abduh introduced a "new kind of public fatwa: the daring well-researched statement, where the State Mufti is reconsidering the Islamic tradition taking into account the needs of the time." He has had many successors, and cumulatively they have done much to adapt Islam to modernity.
1 For another recent analysis, see Muhammad Khalid Masud, Brinkley Messick, and David S. Powers, Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), reviewed in MEQ, June 1997, pp. 86-97.