The Grand Mufti of Google

That’s the title of the “Lives” column (by Shahan Mufti) in the September 22nd New York Times Magazine, which begins with a mystery:

“Reply me its very imported,” the subject line demanded, bossy and impatient. Before I even opened the message, blinking over my morning coffee, I knew where this was going.

For a couple of years now, I have received e-mails from complete strangers soliciting my opinion on deeply private matters. The content of these queries varies widely, but there are always telltale signs: they are almost always written by nonnative English speakers; they all claim, as this one attempted, to be important; and they always describe a conundrum, soliciting my direction on what to do.

Eventually, he figures out what’s going on:

My surname, Mufti, is an Arabic word meaning “one who gives a fatwa.” In Islam, the prescribed path to salvation, the Shariah, is really known only to God. Muftis are scholars tasked with deciphering God’s will on a given matter, from the ancient and profound to the modern and rather mundane — which insurance plan to choose, what financial investments to make. About 500 years ago, I am told, some of my ancestors were employed as muftis in the courts of a Muslim emperor in South Asia. Though I was born in the American Midwest, and mostly attended American schools, my name remains a vestigial marker of my ancestors’ profession.

I Googled “mufti” one day and scrolled through the results: a Wikipedia entry, a few dictionary definitions and a Web site with a parade of men in tight pants and flashy sunglasses from a kitschy Indian designer. The link to my personal Web site sits at the top of the second page of results. I am the first flesh-and-blood mufti — if only in name — you encounter if you are desperate enough to be looking for one on the Internet.



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