Explainer: The lasting effect of fatwas


Aug 15 (Reuters) – The 1989 fatwa imposed by the late Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses has stalked many liberal writers and thinkers whose writings were also seen as insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

The attack on Rushdie on Friday in New York is not an isolated case. Writers, academics and journalists – particularly in the Middle East – who dared to criticize or question the Islamic faith have faced similar threats or condemnations from religious figures.

They were either murdered, arrested, flogged, forced into hiding or banished. Her books have been banned and denounced as blasphemous by religious bodies funded by governments the West sees as allies and champions of moderate Islam, such as Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

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In recent years, Muslim underground fighters and jihadi preachers and leaders have used social media to incite Muslims around the world to kill those they say denigrate Islam and the Prophet.


A fatwa is a legal enactment on a point of Islamic law or opinion issued by a senior Islamic religious leader, religious authority or qualified body of scholars. It can treat a range of issues – including individuals.

Fatwas calling for someone’s death can be brought against those believed to have offended Islam or the Prophet.


Fatwas do not disappear over time and are rarely revoked.

Thirty-three years after Khomeini declared Rushdie’s book blasphemous and placed a bounty on his head in 1989, the author was repeatedly stabbed to death during a public appearance in New York State.

Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old Shia Muslim-American of Lebanese descent, pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault in court on Saturday.


In the past three decades, some Sunni Muslim preachers and jihadists with millions of followers have also issued fatwas calling for the deaths of Muslims they believe to be infidels and calling for action through videos, speeches and statements.

Author Salman Rushdie gestures during a news conference before the presentation of his latest book ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’ at the Niemeyer Center in Aviles, northern Spain October 7, 2015. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso

They are carried out by indoctrinated militants, sleeper cells and followers who want to heed the call of their religious leader and do their religious duty.

On October 14, 1994, a Muslim extremist stabbed Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz several times in the neck, inspired by a fatwa by Omar Abdel-Rahman, then a leading Sunni militant cleric of Al-Gama’a Al-Islamya (Islamic). Group).

Abdel-Rahman, who issued his fatwa while on trial in a US prison for involvement in a New York bombing, said Mahfouz’s blood should be shed because his 1959 novel Children of the Alley was blasphemous to Islam.

The man arrested for attempted murder of Mahfouz admitted during interrogation by Egyptian police that he had never read his books but acted on the fatwa issued by his militant preacher.


The border between radical and state-governed conservative Islam is fluid.

Arab governments allied with the West have failed to rein in their own religious authorities and doctrines or to protect writers and thinkers who have been put on the death list by Muslim hardliners.

For example, the state-funded Al Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic authority, banned Mahfouz’s book long before he was attacked for insulting Islam by featuring characters representing the Prophet Muhammad.

On June 8, 1992, Egyptian liberal writer Farag Fouda was gunned down by two members of the Islamic Group after being accused by Al Azhar of being an “enemy of Islam” and an “apostate”.

Some secular intellectuals suspect that the public condemnation by Al-Azhar scholars amounted to a death sentence. Such decisions by Al Azhar, they say, were taken by jihadists as license to kill him.

Saudi Arabia’s judicial system is based on Sharia, Islamic law, and its judges are clerics from the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam. In the Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia, religious crimes such as blasphemy and apostasy carry the death penalty.

There has been a plethora of fatwas by Saudi religious clerics demanding trial, jail and the death penalty against writers, bloggers, columnists and activists for “heretical articles” and apostasy.

Such fatwas in the kingdom have drawn hateful reactions and death threats on social media. Some authors have had to remove their posts, issue public apologies and repent in court. Others suffered floggings and prison terms.

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Writing by Samia Nakhoul, editing by Dominic Evans and Alison Williams

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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