Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, possesses a wonderfully exotic title, a scholarly manner and the unique burden of issuing about 5,000 fatwas a week -- the judicial rulings that help guide the lives of the Muslim faithful. On a recent visit to the United States, he explained to me the process of "resolving issues of modern life." And modern life offers Gomaa and his team of subordinate muftis plenty of fodder for resolution, from the permissibility of organ transplants, to sports gambling, to smoking during Ramadan, to female judges, to the use of weapons of mass destruction, to mobile phone transmitters on the top of minarets.
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Islam for many non-Muslim Americans, who must look back to puritan Massachusetts for a time when hermeneutics -- the art of interpreting a holy text -- was such a consequential public matter. In the West, theological debates have long been confined to seminaries, causing nothing more serious than denominational splits. In Egypt, Gomaa is a theological celebrity. His office, the Dar al-Iftaa, is part of the Ministry of Justice. And though his rulings are nonbinding unless adopted into Egyptian law, they are widely influential.
Reform in the Arab world is not likely -- at least soon -- to reflect the Western privatization of theological beliefs. All of life is subject to sharia law and most Arab governments gain at least a part of their legitimacy by reflecting it. At its worst -- but rarely -- this involves the classical Islamic punishments of stoning and amputation. At its best, sharia law plays an equivalent role to the rule of law, binding both rulers and ruled by the same objective standard of justice.
So it obviously matters greatly how sharia law is interpreted, and who does the interpreting. But Islam, for better or for worse, has no pope or traditional clergy. Instead, it has several schools of interpretation -- all of which view the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad as normative, but reconcile local customs with Islam in different ways.
Some, on the Saudi Arabian model, view the seventh century as the purest Islamic ideal, which is difficult to reconcile with modernity, pluralism, democracy, women's rights and success in the modern world.