Page last updated at 08:37 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 09:37 UK

'Real Islam' just a phone call away

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News


A user and a scholar show how the helpline's website works

A telephone and internet helpline offering advice about the true teaching of Islam is being launched in the UK today.

Callers to the Islamic Hotline will get answers to their questions within 48 hours, from scholars trained at one of the world's principal Islamic universities. Users are also able to email their enquiries through the service's website.

The Islamic scholars behind the helpline hope it will combat radicalism in Britain and help ordinary Muslims answer difficult questions about their faith.

The Islamic Hotline believes it has good news for British Muslims - keeping the laws of Islam is not as difficult as you thought.

But it also sounds a warning - the UK has a large and growing population of young Muslims who are dangerously out of touch with the older generation, and often cut off from the real teaching of their religion.

Professor Anas Aboshady
Prof Aboshady gives advice to those who call the hotline

The hotline's backers have singled out Britain as the country most urgently in need of the service.

El Hatef, as the hotline is known in Arabic, was set up in Egypt eight years ago to counter radicalism by bringing the minds of the nation's best Islamic scholars to bear on people's doubts and questions about their religion.

Since then, two million questions from Egyptians have been answered, mostly from women, and many about sex.

Some are naive, deeply personal and only obliquely related to religion.

Others betray the sort of ignorance or error onto which militants fasten when recruiting Muslims to their cause.

Is violence sometimes justified to defend Muslim interests? Should Sharia take precedence over domestic laws?

Should Christians be considered infidels? What should be the punishment for converting to another religion?

'Tranquil Islam'

The hotline's founder, Cherif Meguid, accuses the radicals of trying to enforce only a single, narrow and oppressive form of the religion.

"Radicals have hijacked our faith," he says. "This brand of Islam is radical, is harsh, is hard-line, as opposed to the brand of Islam which is available in Egypt, which is quite tranquil... at peace."

But does the hotline not simply promote Mr Meguid's own alternative interpretation of the religion?

This gives Islamic law some flexibility
Professor Anas Aboshady
Al Azhar University

He says its authority rests on the prestige of Al Azhar University in Cairo and its thousand-year tradition of examining all four of the main schools of thought within Islam.

Al Azhar, which carves out an oasis of relative tranquillity amid the bustle of Cairo's chaotic Islamic quarter, is the closest thing that Sunni Islam has to a central source of authority, a sort of Muslim Vatican.

Compared to the Salafi movement in Saudi Arabia, its rulings might be considered liberal, except for one important principle, one which the Islamic hotline hopes to export to the UK.

That is that Muslims have always been offered latitude in the rules of their religion, a choice as to which of the schools of thought they follow.

One of the Al Azhar scholars who answers hotline questions, Professor Anas Aboshady, says only 10% of rulings within Islam are generally agreed. In 90% of cases there is disagreement.

Prof Aboshady provides callers with a sense of the varying interpretations of Islamic law and then recommends one in their particular case.

"We are not sticking to one view, or one school of law," he says. "What we present is what we believe is suitable to people in different times and places and let them choose which is suitable to them.

"This gives Islamic law some flexibility, so we are not changing the religion or creating new religion, but simply give people the chance to choose which is suitable to them."

The effect, according to Prof Aboshady, allows Muslims to live as easily in modern times as in the past - and in Britain as easily as in Egypt.


As a mother, Hanaa Ismail from Cairo praises El Hatef for helping people tackle what she calls "issues in the family, about the relations between a man and his wife, what a wife's duties are".

She says one key to the hotline's effectiveness is the anonymity it offers to callers perplexed by deeply personal issues.

"They get embarrassed to ask even their own mother about them.

Hanaa Ismail
Hanaa Ismail says she values the anonymity the hotline offers

"She might be abused by a man for a long while and yet she could get embarrassed to talk about it. This has been... an Arab tradition.

"With this helpline she can ask for help without any embarrassment, and [the scholar] won't know who she is, and she can ask about all the details."

Rizwan Ali dropped into an internet cafe in north London to examine the Islamic hotline's British website.

It will be possible to place questions online as well as by phone, in Urdu and Arabic as well as English. It will cost about £4 to have a question answered.

For Rizwan, the advantage lies in being able to get tailor-made advice appropriate to life in Britain - help he says is otherwise hard to find.

"For someone like myself born and raised in the UK and living a London-orientated life, this website is great, giving me one-to-one contact with scholars who offer impartial advice."

Rizwan types in his own question - about whether the traditional Islamic rule that women should travel only with their husband's permission applies in modern Britain.

In Cairo, Prof Aboshady gives his judgement.

He says the rule was designed to protect women at a time when travel was dangerous. In Britain that no longer applies.

Prof Aboshady says true Islamic teaching was designed to make life easier for Muslims and for the non-Muslims with whom they live.

The backers of the Islamic hotline believe it is an idea that can help defeat the radicals and their austere vision of Islam.

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