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A rare imam who juggles fatwas, interfaith confabs

Sheikh Ishaq Abdel-Jawad Taha issues scores of religious rulings every day to average Palestinians and also participates in interfaith dialogue with Israelis.

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"They consider me a modern sheikh. I'm very proud of that," Taha acknowledges, before reaching for one of the huge black-and-white binders where he keeps questions up for discussion. Almost like a presiding Supreme Court judge, he collects questions that have been submitted to him from around the country, in this case, the West Bank and Gaza.

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Above and beyond fielding calls from the public, he oversees a council of 24 other religious scholars to whom he distributes a kind of dilemma du jour, giving each expert two weeks to think and research before coming to a ruling.

Despite the political split between the two territories since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007, he says the system is still working: He has a number of Islamic religious authorities who are loyal to the Al-Fatwa Council, not Hamas.

Elana Rozenman, who runs an interfaith women's group called Emun-Trust, was instrumental in bringing Taha for the evening of discussion and learning, along with Rabbi Daniel Landes, the head of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

"Anytime a Muslim sheikh at his level and in his position of prominence is willing to meet with and teach with someone like Rabbi Landes, it's a very encouraging sign in general, and it shows specifically that he's a very unique individual," Ms. Rozenman says.

Their first official meeting began in March, when he agreed to participate in such a bilateral study evening after the shooting deaths of eight Israeli students by a Palestinian gunman at a Jerusalem yeshiva. The meeting was charged – and the room was packed. "We jump-started the partnership at that point," Rozenman says.

On the one hand, such groundbreaking work makes him one of the more temperate imams in Middle East. On the other, on some issues involving women, he rules in a way that would probably make the average American feminist apoplectic.

Some of the recent questions that have come in, for example, address whether it's OK for a woman to travel alone. Their ruling: only for up to 80 kilometers (50 miles), based on the fact that in days of yore, the limit was three days and three nights.

A particularly interesting question in the docket asks how much a woman is permitted to "reveal" to a suitor who's interested in asking for her hand in marriage. His answer: everything must be covered except her face, hands, and feet.

"Others say she should show her neck," he explains, reading through the specifics of question. He's sent it out to eight others – a third of the council.

"This inquiry came about because people want to know," Taha says. "Some men want to see the beauty of their intended's hair, or see whether she is fit underneath her cloak. It's a problem because if he doesn't want to propose, and she agrees to be seen with no head covering, she's exposed herself to a stranger."

His opinion sounds ultraconservative, but to others, there's a wisdom in it. "I say you can only show what is allowed, the face and the hands and feet, because I don't want to give a chance to irresponsible people to make fun of women or take advantage of that option." This call for modesty, he notes, is very different from how things look in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where sharia, or Islamic law, rules.

"Here, fatwa is not a law," he says. "It is a sacred order for whomever wants to commit himself or herself to it."

Among those who do, in various ways, are his wife and their 14 children, seven sons and seven daughters.