Opening Speech by Mufti Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir at the Conference on Fatwa in Contemporary Societies 2024

Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister For Economic Policies, Mr Heng Swee Keat

Minister for Social and Family Development, Second Minister for Health & Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, Mr Masagos Zulkifli

Eminent scholars and Muftis,

Distinguished speakers, and Ladies and Gentlemen,

Assalamualaikum wr wbr

Welcome to our conference on Fatwa in Contemporary Societies, with the theme of confident, resilient, and empowered communities through fatwas.

On behalf of Muis and the Fatwa Committee, thank you for joining us, especially to our guests who have travelled far to be here with us in Singapore. We hope you feel at home amongst friends and colleagues who are truly honoured with your presence.This is our first major conference on fatwas in Singapore since the Covid-19 pandemic. So I thought, it would be appropriate to begin with a few words on how the fatwa institution has evolved since.

No doubt the pandemic was a period of global emergency and the suspension of normal life. But the solitude and unprecedented calm also presented opportunities for us to reset, refresh and rethink.

The experience in dealing with the pandemic gave us courage, built our confidence, helped us gain wisdom, by focusing on the big picture, and strengthened our determination to find solutions.

For our fatwa institution in Singapore, it has never been business as usual since. It reinforced our belief and hope that with the right commitment and preparations, we can overcome difficult challenges – we can thrive when the going gets tough.

At this juncture, allow me to pay tribute to all members of the Fatwa Committee for their outstanding contributions during that period of unprecedented challenges. I ask from the Al-Mighty to accept their service and reward their sacrifices.

In particular, the late Al-Marhum Ustaz Hj Ali bin Mohamed, who left us last year. He was a member of our Fatwa Committee for years. Our senior scholars did not only teach us wisdom, but also commitment and dedication in serving the community.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The pandemic was a powerful reminder, that we must be prepared for, and come to terms with, new realities. Some of the new realities require minor adjustments, but some require significant shifts in our mindset and approaches.

In a world where geo-politics have become more uncertain and turbulent, where peace is under serious assault, when the environment is truly in danger, leaders and communities, more than ever before, need to beconfident, resilient, and empowered to make the right but difficult choices, guided by principles and values.

For faith communities, this is what we believe sound religious leadership and guidance can, and should achieve. The ways in which we engage with new issues and challenges, and how we formulate our responses and guidance, will shape the behaviours and character of our communities.

Late last year, my fellow religious leaders came together to come up with a guidance on the conflict in Gaza. We recognise how serious and painful the conflict has been, we are all still deeply affected by it, and the world desperately needs peace and safety. But at all times, we must always act responsibly and not jeopardise relations between communities here where we live.

We are thankful our communities came together to contribute to humanitarian assistance and to continue to pray for peace and safety. Our peaceful and harmonious way of life here is a contribution to global peace, even if indirectly, because the world still lacks conviction that diversity can be an asset and not a liability.

It is for this reason too that fatwas play an extremely significant role. Fatwas can nurture dynamism, confidence, hope and resilience in religious life, as much as it can, on the contrary, breed ambivalence,complacency, and pessimism. It can be a source of strength for the community, or lead to weakness.

But this is not just about a policy or leadership choice that fatwa or religious bodies need to make. More importantly, this is about fulfilling a sacred mission, which is to reflect as best as possible, the true character of God’s law. As the great philosophers of Muslim law, such as Al-Shatibi, Al-Qarafi, Ibn Qayyim, all noted, the Sharia is about justice (al-qist wa al-‘adl), mercy (al-rahmah wa al-ihsan), and the welfare and well-being of the people (maslaha).

God’s law is not to burden or harm, but to protect and bring goodness. This is the essence of the Sharia, its ruh and spirit. The responsibility of the Mufti and those entrusted to interpret religious laws is to preserve this essence of the Sharia.

This is particularly more acute in the context of Muslims living as minorities, where the nature of our societies mean we often encounter complex questions and challenges and have to contemplate difficult adjustments to our religious life. The challenge is also more pronounced because there are not as many historical references to fall back on. Some who studied Muslim law, much of the legal literature that form the foundations of Muslim jurisprudence, although not exclusively, developed in majority contexts.

At the same time, minorities also have great opportunities to contribute to the wider society, where they can, inspired by the Prophet’s universal mission, to bring goodness to the “al-alamin” - a plural and diverse sphere of contribution. It is not singular, parochial or unimaginative.

With an unhindered vision, and unlimited imagination to contribute, Muslim minorities can work seamlessly with other communities for the common good of their societies.

All these conditions make the situation of minorities unique but at the same time, a highly significant part in the collective experience and consciousness of Muslims. I would go so far as to argue that their experiences are a linchpin to Muslim law – they add to, and underscore, its richness and dynamism.

Whilst Muslim jurisprudence is universal, its universality is not in a single and homogeneous interpretation, but in its multiplicity and diversity that makes it applicable in different times and places. Hence it is important to consider the situation that minorities live in and what they have achieved, not as a secondary source or an afterthought, but on equal terms with, and certainly no less important than, any other contexts.

This requires a fundamental shift away from a cognitive bias that minorities are weak, problematic, highly dependent or putting greatdemands on the state, to minorities that are confident, resilient, and empowered to contribute.

It is for this reason we in Singapore are deeply grateful for the progressive vision of Egypt’s Darul Ifta’ when it recognised Singapore’s contributions in fatwa through the Imam Al-Qarafi Award. It is befitting that Imam Shihabuddin Al-Qarafi’s ideas and thought are so pertinent to our unique experiences, even as he wrote in the 13th century:

Inquire about the customs of his land, give him advice based on his customs, and guide him accordingly, do not impose the customs of your own land and what is established in your books.

In Singapore, the issues that the Muslim community have encountered in its socio-religious life over more than five decades have been challenging and raised very serious questions.

Do our religious identity, duties and responsibilities, conflict with a modern and multi-religious nation and society? Every time there is a new biomedical or technological development, a legal or social change, or a foreign geopolitical development sometimes, there is a new question or challenge for our religious leadership. Can Muslims be part of this development, can they access this technology, should they react like others?

The muftis of the past, my predecessors, and I’m so grateful that one of them, Dr Fatris Bakaram, is here, were trailblazers in their own right when they dealt with such new issues, like living in a multi-religious society, organ donation, inheritance of assets, wakaf, medical procedures, and many others.

There was a common theme that ran through their decisions and guidance. All of them asked the same question – how would their decisions help the community, not hinder them in dealing with change? They were focused on empowerment, and the renewal of religious thought. Naturally, their views would depart from established classical positions.

Some misconstrue such decisions as a sign of weakness. To them, religion is a tool for protest or rebellion against modernity and modern institutions. So when religious authorities allow for adjustments, it is interpreted as a sign of weakness. When these decisions are based on values such as compassion and flexibility, this is seen as betraying God’s laws that ought to be firm and unchanging.

This view confuses the forest with the trees. The Sharia has one of the most important and enduring principles, of preserving human life and well- being, that shape the ethics and laws of Islam. And how we apply these principles are often limited by our own courage and imagination. We could certainly work towards an Islam that seeks to preserve and protect all human life, and secure all forms of well-being, instead of holding an exclusivist view that limits who and what we work with.

This is all the more critical at a time where there are many emerging mega shifts, like global warming, and the transformative use of artificial intelligence. So how should we prepare for a more challenging future?

Based on our experiences, we have identified seven key approaches in our fatwa methodology. This is outlined in the commemorative booklet which you would already have a copy at your seats. We hope this could benefit other Muslim communities, in particular, minorities like us, as they develop their own approaches.

Allow me to explain one of these approaches. One of the most challenging aspects of fatwas today is to truly understand what we are dealing with, to examine its details, and to be honest with the new facts as we learn and discover them.

Why is this important? Because the Islamic tradition is built on centuries of rigorous thought and development, which leads some to mistake this vastness for exhaustiveness. In other words, some still say our role is no more than a transmitter of ideas and opinions of the past.

But it clearly isn’t fair, in fact, irresponsible, in my view, to shift the job of dealing with new challenges to scholars of the past. They would have felt out of place in our contemporary realities. They didn’t live with artificial intelligence, challenging geopolitics, and rise in global temperatures. But we expect them to still give us guidance on our own challenges.

And even if one strongly believes in this view, I still have bad news, because the role of transmitter of views have become obsolete or redundant with the advent of Large Language Models such as ChatGPT, which, by the way, can do a much better and faster job than any of us. I understand that it has, at least tonight, taken over the job of translators. It will certainly take over the Mufti’s role and be a better Mufti if it were confined to relaying opinions of past jurists.

In my humble view, it is the methodologies and approaches of past jurists which are a lot more constructive for us today, than just the specific rulings they came up with. And the interesting thing is, this is not new.

For example, in a dialogue between two great jurists Imam Abu Hanifah and Qatadah in Baghdad, they discussed whether there was a need to examine speculative or hypothetical questions. Imam Abu Hanifah felt it important to think of future scenarios.

Imam Qatadah disagreed, and could not respond to Abu Hanifah’s hypothetical question, and even challenged its necessity. But Abu Hanifah justified his methodology “We prepare for a calamity before it happens, so that when it does happen, we know how to deal with it, and get out of it.” That is indeed a very profound wisdom well ahead of his time.

It is in this spirit we should prepare for many complex challenges. To this end, I am pleased to share that we are launching the Fatwa Lab initiative at this conference. We will hear more about this tomorrow, but allow me to mention two projects as examples as appetisers for you.

The first is on the role of Artificial Intelligence. AI will change a lot on how we live and work. There are many possibilities, but landmines too. The onus is on us to figure out how it can enhance our work. We are not suggesting for AI to replace the Fatwa Committee, Mufti or religious leaders – some of us still need our jobs for now. But how generative AI can boost fatwa research and outreach in innovative, comprehensive, and responsible ways.

The Fatwa Lab initiative is studying prompt engineering and training the Large Language Models on Singapore’s fatwas and our own fatwa methodologies. That way, generative AI can help us identify important dimensions and aspects of a new question or issue we want to deal with. This will help us minimise gaps when issuing a fatwa. In fact, my team at the Office of the Mufti has now embarked on the Google AI Trailblazer project, with the support of Smart Nation Singapore, for this purpose.

The second challenge is on sustainability and the environment. We are stewards entrusted to protect earth and its resources, and to use them responsibly. Science helps us understand what is happening, and what will happen, to our earth, based on current practices.

Rather than wait until the situation worsens or becomes too dire when it might be too late to reverse changes, fatwa research should examine new developments that will contribute to a safer and more sustainable environment.

An example is alternative food sources. Some argue there is no such need today. We can, and should continue to enjoy ‘real’ food, like real meat. They are entitled to their choices.

But what choice should fatwa institutions take? How do differences, whether obvious or subtle, in these new products or processes, affect religious rulings? How do we interpret our traditions at a time where these new technologies did not exist then?

These are very difficult and complex questions. They are not just about whether to force old views on new issues or allow new changes or technologies only because there is necessity or during times of emergency.

This is about fostering confidence, resilience, and empowerment in our religious thought – to continuously find creative solutions by studying the dynamic principles of our religion and its traditions.

I am indeed very grateful that the Fatwa Committee has made its decision on one such technology, which is lab-cultivated meat. The Committee carefully considered not just the needs of the present, but the future.

There was also a lot of new things to learn from the technology itself. We visited the labs and we saw with our own eyes where meat is cultivated in bioreactors. Whilst these are originally animal cells, we are essentially dealing with something fundamentally different.

So how should we, in Islamic jurisprudence, treat something which looks familiar yet is fundamentally different? When should we apply well-established principles and rules, and when do we have to think afresh?

Once again, these are difficult questions and there are always options. The option to play safe, and let future generations deal with this, but risking a larger crisis in the future. Or to show leadership by responsibly exercising ijtihad where it is required.

The Committee decided that it is permissible (halal) to consume lab-cultivated meat whose cells are from animals that are halal or permissible in Islam, and whose final ingredients do not contain any non-halal components. This fatwa will be further discussed in tomorrow’s Fatwa Lab session on food technology.

Allow me to say a few words in Arabic.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Fatwas are not just about legal rulings and decisions. Fatwa institutions are not just legal committees. They play a significant role in the shaping of religious life and character of Muslim communities. They can help build and strengthen communities of success, who live their religious lives with confidence, resilience and are empowered to navigate challenges.

It is my hope that this conference, and Singapore, in particular, can contribute meaningfully to a reset and refresh in the ways we think of fatwas and religious guidance. Your presence and participation in these conversations are therefore deeply meaningful to us and we seek your support and prayers for a successful conference.

Thank you.