The boy was sitting, intently customizing his new electronic device: a next generation smartphone. Because he was a religious boy, one of the things that best reflected his personality traits was downloading the noble Quran on his new phone. During the download, he felt a bowel movement, that familiar movement that always precedes one of the most primitive and important actions of a human being .
The boy stayed until the end of the download, where he then headed towards the bathroom, and suddenly stopped halfway.
Could he enter the bathroom holding the phone, knowing it contains the noble Quran in it ? Was he about to commit an act that would violate the sanctity of the Holy Book ?
With his gut writhing in pain and his mind wrung by uncertainty, the boy sought an answer online. Surfing several websites fatwa-issuing websites, he ended up asking a virtual shaykh to issue a fatwa that would pull him out of the deep yawning chasm between his mobile phone and his bowels.
Up until fifty years ago, in societies where illiterates accounted for more then three quarters of the population, fatwas were a vital necessity. In the absence of technology and modern communication devices, these illiterate people were required to think and judge for themselves the best solutions to their daily quandaries, without any intermediary help. At the time, the journeys to reach urban centers were long and expensive, and so each person, with the little information they had, would reach a decision that satisfied their own conscience, and therefore God.
Today, modern means of communication offer everyone the opportunity to obtain a fatwa for his own special instance. As a consequence, people are no longer bounded to think, to weigh up, to argue. Modernity has made available a technology that has finally unraveled the religious from the rational. With the availability of modern means of communication, God has made it possible to obtain a fatwa at any time, any place, and on any subject. This contradicts what Islam considers one of its most important features, namely the absence of a clergy mediator, and the principle that states: "Consult your heart, even if people give you their opinions." It is the human heart the ultimate authority that judges his work.
That boy, uncertain in the bathroom doorway, is neither uneducated nor without finances, nor unintelligent. However, he is the son of a culture in which the victory of religion as an ideology has led to the destruction of any possibility to practice religion on his own terms and in a creative and fruitful way; on the other hand, he lives according to the dictates of a Western world in which the defeat of religion as ideology has led to the marginalization of religious practice from public life, thus losing the function of producing meaning for the person and for the society.
The biggest defeat of religion is its transformation into an ideology, and it does not matter who wins or loses: its first victim will always be the person.
The virtual shaykh answered with another question: "Have you memorized the noble Quran?" "Sure," the boy answered, caught by surprise. The shaykh, at this point, issued his fatwa: the boy would bring into the bathroom neither the phone, nor his head.
Wael Farouq is an Egyptian intellectual and author of several books. He is currently visiting professor at Università Cattolica di Milano.
Follow him @FarouqWael