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October 31, 2002: Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan. Photo by Dave ChanDAVE CHAN/Handout

Last month, a group of prominent Muslim scholars met in the Turkish city of Mardin to revisit the Mardin fatwa, the 14th-century legal edict written by Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyya, who lived during the brutal Mongol invasion. While the Mongols eventually embraced Islam, they unleashed terror on their religious brethren. Ibn Taymiyya declared that, although the Mongols were nominally Muslim, they did not rule according to classical Islamic law and, therefore, could be killed. The Mardin fatwa is often quoted by Osama bin Laden and other extremists to excommunicate and murder Muslims who don't share their views. The fatwa is also used to justify the murder of unarmed combatants.

The scholars declared that these interpretations of the Mardin fatwa are erroneous, that the killing of non-combatants is forbidden. Furthermore, they made it clear that jihad has multiple meanings, one of which is armed conflict. But only a head of state, not individuals, can declare armed jihad, and only as a defensive means against aggression.

The strong opinion followed a remarkable 600-page fatwa issued by an influential Pakistani scholar, Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, who categorized individuals committing terrorism in the name of Islam to be outside the fold of the faith. He, too, said in no uncertain terms that the killing of non-combatants is forbidden, as is suicide. Suicide bombings, he said, lie outside the bounds of Islam and can in no way be justified. He reiterated this stand by condemning the "black widow" terror attacks in the recent Moscow subway bombings.

These declarations are important in the ideological fight against extremism, for they provide strong ammunition against justifications provided by extremists. Yet, there's another fatwa of Ibn Taymiyya that deserves no less critical examination, given its harmful implications on the lives of so many.

Ibn Taymiyya advocated female circumcision, ruling that "its purpose is to reduce the woman's desire; if she is uncircumcised, she becomes lustful and tends to long more for men." Today, many who practise female genital mutilation and infibulation point to this fatwa as justification for this barbarism. There's no mention of female circumcision in the Koran, while unauthentic narrations relating to this practice are attributed to the Prophet Mohammed. The debilitating effects of female genital mutilation are well-documented, and Muslim scholars must unequivocally condemn this affront to women's dignity.

Perhaps a conference of scholars - such as the one in Mardin - can be held in Egypt, where Ibn Tayyima's views hold sway. The United Nations estimates that as many as 90 per cent of Egyptian women have undergone female genital mutilation.

Or given the underlying intent of the ruling - the control of women - such a conference might take place in Saudi Arabia, where a woman is under male guardianship from cradle to grave. Just look at the plight of 24-year-old Nazia Quazi, a Canadian citizen who's languished in that country since 2007 because her father refuses to sign her exit visa. Despite being a signatory to a number of international human-rights agreements, Saudi Arabia routinely allows cultural patriarchy to trump human dignity, as chronicled in the 2008 Human Rights Watch report Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship and Sex Segregation in Saudi Arabia.

What's urgently needed is an examination of how women in predominantly Muslim countries are lagging behind. Some compare the condition of Muslim women to that of a collapsed lung, which incapacitates the entire body. A community, a nation, can never reach its full potential if half its members are denied certain rights.

There's also a connection between the status of women and terrorism. In their book Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn say greater female involvement in society and the economy seems to undermine extremism. Some point to the low level of female education and societal participation as reasons why some Muslim countries have been disproportionately afflicted by terrorism. Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, argues that, when women are educated, they're more likely to restrain their sons.

While the Mardin fatwa initiative is commendable, it's incomplete. Theological pronouncements against terrorism must go hand in hand with a resolve to better the condition of women in Muslim societies.

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