When a historic blizzard swept Saudi Arabia last week, residents reveled in the snow, creating Saudi-style sculptures.
A flurry of photos on social media show frosty camels, snow sheikhs adorned with red-and-white headdresses, and snow women wearing black veils concealing their frosty faces.
Sheikh Mohammed Saleh Munajjid, a prominent Saudi cleric, wasn't amused. He issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against such sculptures, suggesting instead “lifeless” forms such as boats and fruits.
He based his ruling on Islam’s historic stance against the worshipping of “images of animated life painted by hand, carved in wood or copper,” reminding followers that in pre-Islamic times “infidels” would worship statues they fashioned out of dates.
Sheikh Munajjid’s edict met with such a backlash on social media, however, that he was forced to climb down late Monday. He conceded that snow sculptures outlining the bodies of humans or animals were acceptable as long as they remain “without the clear landmarks of a face such as an eye, a nose or a mouth,” similar to scarecrows.
While social media has been blamed for a proliferation of questionable fatwas, which can propel an imam from obscurity to overnight celebrity, the reverse is also true: Millions of Muslims across the world can instantly critique the credentials and jurisprudence behind each imam’s fatwa.
This online interaction reflects the Islamic principle of ijma, or consensus, on religious edicts, under which public opinion is able to cast off weak or impractical fatwas.
Last May, Saudi cleric Abdullah Swuailem issued an edict forbidding travel to non-Muslim states except “in extreme necessity,” adding that “whoever dies in the land of infidelity could go to hell.” The previous year, Dubai’s Department of Islamic Affairs said husbands could divorce their wives via text message. Both edicts met a backlash and were disregarded.
Without a central body responsible for fatwas, Islam leaves it to religious scholars to judge the fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, of each edict.
The strength of a fatwa rests on its basis in the Holy Quran or in the sunnah tradition, comprised of sayings, or hadiths, attributed to the prophet Muhammad by his followers. The closer the source of a hadith was to the prophet, the stronger the fatwa. Others are weighed against previous fatwas and practices accepted by a majority of Islamic scholars as fiqh.
Many Muslim states seek to regulate fatwas using semi-governmental institutions so as to weed out those deemed politically threatening and promote those aimed at ensuring stability, as seen during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Yet they remain largely powerless at censoring the Internet, where with the click of a button a cleric can directly reach millions of Muslims across the world – and some clerics in Saudi have more than a million Twitter followers.
So what was once a one-sided discussion of Islamic do’s and don’ts has become a robust and evolving debate.
Saudi Twitter users made that clear to the Saudi cleric. Even after he amended his anti-snowman fatwa, they posted photos of their latest snow-sheikhs tagged to his Twitter account – with "clear landmarks of a face."