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Woman Aspires To Be Muslim Mufti

December 14, 1998

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Souad Ibrahim Saleh is a prominent professor of Islamic studies who spent most of her life lecturing on Muslim law and theology.

Now she thinks the academic world is too small for her scholarly skills and wants to be a mufti _ a top Muslim cleric who issues edicts to interpret the faith.

In Egypt, where women’s rights and Islamic law seem to be in constant collision, her pursuit of the title has sparked further debate by newspapers and among Muslim scholars already arguing whether women can be judges or hold top government jobs.

If Saleh succeeds, she would be the Muslim world’s first woman mufti, and that would likely cause a furor in more conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, where women may not even drive cars.

Saleh, a 58-year-old wife and mother, expects a long struggle. But she offers a practical reason she should be a mufti: She can help women hesitant to deal with male scholars about such sensitive subjects as sex, contraceptives and breast feeding.

``Some women are shy to ask about such issues,″ she said in an interview. ``If they cannot get proper answers for their problems, they might not be able to exercise their rituals as good Muslims.″

Saleh now meets with women at mosques near her house and female students at the college where she lectures, a branch of Al-Azhar University. She also receives calls at home from women with all manner of questions about how to be good Muslims.

For example, a nurse wants to know if it is religiously acceptable for her to see the sexual organs of a man during an operation. Her answer is no, Saleh says, citing a verse from the Koran, Islam’s holy book.

Another caller says she is pregnant by a man to whom she is legally married, but with whom she has not had a formal wedding. She wants to know, will the child be legitimate?

``Yes, because the marriage is religiously sound and the wedding is only ceremonial,″ Saleh replies.

To give weight to her opinions, Saleh wrote early this year to Egypt’s top Islamic official, Grand Mufti Sheik Nasr Farid Wasel, asking him to officially nominate her as a mufti.

She wants to join dozens of male clerics who assist him in interpreting Islam and telling the faithful what they should or should not do.

Wasel, whose job is government-appointed, has so far refused to nominate Saleh. Attempts by The Associated Press to reach him for comment failed. His aides _ who spoke on condition of anonymity _ dismissed Saleh’s request as pointless.

But her case has received backing from some key Muslim scholars, including Abdel Muati Beiyomi, head of religious studies at Al-Azhar, the most important center of learning in mainstream Sunni Islam.

``If a woman is well-versed in Koran and sharia (Islamic law) and she is capable of reasoning and making sound judgment, then why couldn’t she be a mufti? Of course she can,″ Beiyomi said in an interview.

But Sheik Youssef el-Badri _ who has fought a long series of court cases against Egyptian liberal intellectuals _ said Souad can certainly advise women on Islamic issues but she cannot become a mufti.

``A woman has no right to hold a post of jurisdiction in Islam. She cannot be a judge. She cannot be a mufti,″ he said.

Saleh has reason to expect a long struggle: Her request to become a mufti follows lawyer Fatima Lashin’s 10-year battle to be named a judge. Egypt’s highest court has agreed to hear Lashin’s plea, but no date has been set for a decision.

But Saleh can also take heart that the head of Al-Azhar, Sheik Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, has decreed in response to Lashin’s case that women are not forbidden from any post under Islam.

But Saleh does not think it should be that complicated for her to fulfill her goal.

``What I want to do is just to advise women on what is religiously prohibited or accepted,″ she said. ``So what is wrong with that?″

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