What is a fatwa? A professor of religious studies explains

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(THE CONVERSATION) When news broke on August 12, 2022 that writer Salman Rushdie had been attacked, many people immediately recalled the fatwa, or edict, calling on all Muslims to take his life, issued in 1989 by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran at the time. Khomeini accused Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” of insulting Islam and blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.

Violent riots and credible death threats sent Rushdie into hiding, and he spent the next nine years under the protection of British police. It only reappeared in 1998, after Iran promised not to implement the fatwa, although it did not rescind it.

According to multiple intelligence sources cited by Vice news, Rushdie’s 24-year-old alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, had been in contact via social media with members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the branch military tasked with protecting the country’s Islamic political system. However, there is no clear evidence that Iran was involved. Whether Matar was inspired by the decades-old fatwa remains a matter of speculation.

Given the widespread media coverage of the fatwa against Rushdie, some may conclude that a fatwa always means a death sentence.

However, a fatwa rarely calls for death, can be issued by various religious authorities, and primarily concerns a particular Muslim individual or community. My explanation of fatwas is based on expertise developed over several years of research on the writings of a Pakistani Muslim theologian and on my collaborative academic work with scholars of Islamic jurisprudence.

What is a fatwa?

The Arabic word fatwa can mean “explanation” or “clarification”. It refers, in simple terms, to an edict or ruling by a recognized religious authority on a point of Islamic law. The process of issuing a fatwa usually begins when a Muslim, faced with a problem of life, belief or law, does not know what to do.

Let’s say, for example, that a Muslim man is debating whether he should take the job offered to him as a teacher at a religious school or continue working in his father-in-law’s better-paying business venture. Faced with such a question, the man can turn to a recognized religious authority to ask for an expertise, or fatwa, in the matter.

In general, Muslims seek fatwas when they have doubts about a point of conduct or when they are embroiled in an argument because they wish to avoid deviating from the precepts of God. They may believe that deviating from the path of righteous conduct could jeopardize their entrance into heaven. For them, the stakes are high.

Who issues a fatwa?

When seeking a fatwa, a Muslim can turn to a local cleric or group of scholars of Islamic law – ulema – who collaborate to make decisions, or to a trusted religious educational institution.

Given the topics that fatwas must address – issues ranging from personal hygiene, marital relations, inheritance law, lifestyle or due allegiance to one’s nation – an encyclopedic knowledge of Islamic law is required, including familiarity with fatwas already issued.

India’s influential Islamic seminary, Darul Uloom in Deoband, which adheres to its own Deobandi version of jurisprudence, has published enough fatwas to fill 12 volumes. One researcher compares reading these volumes to reading the proceedings of the United States Supreme Court.

Why are fatwas necessary?

Why don’t Muslims just consult the Quran for answers to religious questions? The simple answer is that the Quran is silent on certain issues. Also, different interpretations of various passages are possible – how can a believer decide which reading is correct?

As long as the Prophet Muhammad was alive, he could settle such matters. After his death, Muslims turned to members of his family and those around him for help. Forward-looking followers have collected accounts of the Prophet’s sayings and way of life, noting the provenance and reliability of these reports.

Several collections of these stories, called hadiths, are held in such high esteem that they are shared by many Muslim communities. Because they record the words and deeds of the Prophet, these collections are almost as important as the Quran itself in providing guidance for daily life. Sharia and Islamic jurisprudence are based on hadiths.

And yet, despite the availability of resources such as the Quran, hadith and law books, dilemmas arise in daily life for which none of these provide clear guidance. When this happens, a fatwa can be requested. In a sense, fatwas offer a picture of the plans, desires and fears of Muslim individuals and communities.

Islam is made up of various branches and communities; it has no overall institutional structure or recognized single head. As a result, divergent religious decisions are possible. As such, fatwas can either serve to preserve traditionalist readings of the sacred texts of Islam or open the door to reformist interpretations.

Fatwas are not binding. Muslims are not bound to follow their advice. The strength of a fatwa derives from the authority, trust and respect accorded to the clerics, scholars or institutions that issue them. With this authority comes the power to shape the religious and social norms of the community requesting the fatwa. Like anyone in a position of power, fatwa issuers can use or abuse their authority to make decisions aimed at achieving political goals.

The range of fatwas

Although fatwas often begin with a request from a lay Muslim, they may be issued in response to a given situation. Examples include the fatwa issued by Dar al-Ulum Deoband in 2010 against terrorist organizations like the Islamic State because they were deemed un-Islamic; and the fatwa issued by the Indonesian Ulama Council in 2014 against poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Few fatwas like the one against Rushdie call on Muslims to kill this or that individual. But for now, the fatwa against Rushdie stands.

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