British Muslims Caught Amidst FOGs – A Discourse Analysis of Religious Advice and Authority

By Usman Maravia

In this blog entry, I will provide an overview of my latest article which explores the writing style of Islamic advice texts on COVID-19. The issues that were addressed in these advice texts were related to the topic of mosque closures, funerary rites, fasting during Ramadan, and suspending Friday and daily prayers to help curb the spread of COVID-19. These texts were being circulated in the UK in March and April of 2020, a crucial period wherein information was passed on to address issues that, in the scope of the study, British Muslims would face in Ramadan, which began on 25th April 2020.

The context

My interest in this topic was sparked by an unfortunate COVID-19 related death of an elderly Muslim from Walsall. A family member of the deceased stated in the Press that “It is imperative that we learn from this tragic loss and comply with Government guidelines to save lives”. What further caught my interest was that if the aim of the Islamic advice documents was to help Muslims stay safe during the pandemic, a unified and standardised message with collaboration between Muslim faith leaders and health professionals would have been helpful. Instead, a range of documents were found to be circulated as well as these documents differed in their titles – leading to ambiguity of exactly what preventative British Muslims were to take and where exactly lay the authority.

Moreover , the titles of these documents differed. Some were titled fatwa, which is a non-binding legal opinion of an Islamic legal expert, but still a document that could potentially carry much influence on Muslim communities in the UK. Some documents were written by healthcare professionals and were titled guidance documents – I wondered, do these documents carry the same weight as fatwas? And yet other documents were neither titled a fatwa nor guidance but in a hybrid style of the two categories, again I wondered, why were these words used in the titles?

The FOG corpus

As such, I sought to identify a) the underlying reasons behind the titling of the documents; and (b) the construction of discourses in the documents. In collaboration with my colleagues Zhazira Bekzhanova (Astana IT University, Kazakhstan), Mansur Ali (Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University), and Rakan Alibri (University of Tabuk), we collected a total of 76 texts that were available online on websites of British mosques, Facebook pages and other online venues. We found that of these 76 documents, 14 documents were clearly titled fatwa. We also found that six documents were titled guidance documents, and an eye-catching 56 documents, which we refer to as other documents, included a range of words in their titles such as analysis, clarification, confirmation, guidelines, method, pathway, permissibility, plan of action, points, recommendation, response, ruling, and statement. This classification led to our jocular acronym FOG i.e., fatwas, other documents, and guidance documents. This compilation then led to the creation of the specialised FOG corpus consisting of around 110,000 words.

We examined these written electronic texts in the social context of Muslims and COVID-19 in the UK. We explored the way language was used in real-life in fatwas, guidance documents, and other documents. We then focused on the way the authors of these documents differ in their writing styles to create a certain impression on the audience by increasing, in Bourdieu’s terms, symbolic capital. Moreover, we focus on representation of social actors (van Leeuwen, 1995) in deciphering power relations across the FOG documents. Moreover, references to social actors are widely analysed and interpreted across the FOG documents. Other than text producers of these documents, the audience’s references are also analysed, explained, and interpreted through the prism of authorities.

Corpus methods

We applied corpus-assisted critical discourse analysis, which helped us to uncover important patterns in relation to FOGs. Using AntConc software, we analysed the frequency of words, word lists, lexical bundles, collocations, concordance plots, and concordances to detect linguistic patterns in the FOG corpus. Corpus methods also assisted us with the tools to detect power hierarchies and inequalities within the texts. Moreover, our corpus-assisted study strengthens Brookes and McEnery’s study, that texts do acquire symbolic capital through an accumulation of patterns of textual cohesion and rhetorical strategies. We found that the documents appear to follow an underlying hierarchy among British Muslim scholars.

Findings

To elaborate, a particular writing style can be found across the FOG documents. We found fatwas and guidance documents to be textually diametric, whereas other documents were found to feature greater intertextuality as well as maintaining respect to the authority of muftis and their fatwas, but with reservations. The fatwas were found to be written by senior muftis and contained important references to the Qur’an and Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. Fatwas also included legal terminology in Arabic related to Shariah law. Moreover, fatwas contained phrases such as ‘according to’ and ‘Allah knows best’.

Such a writing style is in accordance with the traditional writing style of fatwas and thereby holds higher symbolic capital. On the other hand, guidance documents were produced by healthcare professionals and did not contain such theologically related phrases but rather relied on scientific and medical language. Interestingly, we found the other category of documents to be written in a hybrid-style of fatwas and guidance documents. Such a writing style appears to increase the symbolic capital of these documents as well as it empowers the writers to challenge existing fatwas – whilst maintaining respect for senior muftis.

While the FOG documents reveal that multiple voices are welcome in addressing a national emergency, we recommend that a standardisation of documents, issued in collaboration with the NHS and senior muftis, could perhaps give a clearer action plan for British Muslims in future. As such, this study is intended to give an impetus to social scientists to explore the discourse of British Muslims and COVID-19 through a linguistic lens.

Our article is available to read in MDPI’s open access journal Religion. Additionally, further research is being carried out on the topic of COVID-19 by the British Islamic Medical Association’s (BIMA) as part of ‘Operation Vaccination’.

For my article on addressing vaccine resistance from an Islamic perspective, please read Vaccines: religio-cultural arguments from an Islamic perspective published by JBIMA.

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