While I was in the United Arab Emirates recently, the newspapers were dominated by a single subject -- the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. One of the first news items to clear F1 off the front page was a remarkable story which, to my surprise, does not appear to have been picked up anywhere in the British media. And that is that the emirate of Dubai has announced it intends to appoint what, it appears, will be the world's first state-sanctioned female muftis (interpreters or expounders of sharia law) next year.
Justifying the move, the Grand Mufti of Dubai, Dr Ahmed al-Haddad, said:
Evidence points to the fact that women, too, can order acts of virtue and ban acts of vice just like a man can. And of course she can do that only with acquired scholarship and training, which is what female contemporaries of the Prophet have done as well as the women who came after them.
In many Muslim countries women are already involved with the issuing of fatwas, or legal rulings, but frequently these are confined to "female issues". Dr al-Haddad, however, argues that "a woman who is learned and trained in issuing fatwas is not limited in her role to issuing fatwas that relate to women only, but rather she is qualified to issue on matters of worship, jurisprudence, morality and behaviour".
This will be noted particularly in Egypt, where Soad Saleh, professor of comparative jurisprudence at Cairo's famed al-Azhar University, has been campaigning for ten years for a female mufti to be appointed. Long a prominent authority on religion, Saleh says Egypt's Grand Mufti was enthusiastic when she first mentioned it, but that nothing has happened since.
Saleh was careful to make the following point when asked about the cause of the delay: "These are social attitudes that date back a long, long time, which we must not attribute to Islam. Because Islam, which honoured women and gave them all their rights, can never be guilty of them."
This line -- that it is man-made rules that need to change, not religion -- is strengthened by the UAE being the first place where these first muftis will be appointed. For, however true the image of the Emirates as an easygoing boom state may be for expats, it is still a highly traditional society which observes a conservative form of Islam. If Malaysia or Indonesia, for instance, had been the first to train female muftis, the move could have been dismissed as the deviant product of overly (and openly) liberal Muslim elites. Not so in the Arabian Gulf.
If the Grand Mufti of Dubai was accused of being a liberal or a reformist, he would probably be mightily offended and would repudiate such descriptions in the strongest terms. Islam needs no "liberalising" or "reforming", he would say. He is merely clearing away the clutter and accretion of male-dominated tradition and culture.
This is an important pointer for the future, as western critics of Islam tend to assume that women's rights in Muslim countries can only be safeguarded and increased through secular means, by pushing religion aside. But in Islamic states, it is much more likely that women's emancipation will come from within their religion, from enlightened individuals such as Dr al-Haddad.
Those who say this is not enough, or ask why it has taken so long for Islam to accept women in such positions, should perhaps turn their thoughts to the Catholic Church. It has, after all, been around for over 600 years longer than Islam; and it is still nowhere near letting women into the priesthood. The reason for this is that, crucially, Christ's disciples were all men, whereas, as Dr al-Haddad points out, Muslims can look to several examples of women in positions of religious and political authority in and around the time of the Prophet. Let us hope that more, like him, choose to do so.