Islamic Fatwas – Laws or Opinions?


Immediately after British-American writer Salman Rushdie was stabbed to death in New York on August 12, a decades-old fatwa by the founder of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, became the catchphrase as the prima facie cause of the attack.

The 24-year-old assailant did not state the fatwa as a motive for the stabbing, only that he disliked and perceived Rushdie the satanic verses, Rushdie’s controversial book, of which he had reportedly read only a few pages, as an insult to Islam.

Despite several statements by Iranian officials, including a 1998 statement by former President Mohammad Khatami that the Islamic Republic does not support Khomeini’s fatwa to kill Rushdie, it is believed to still be in effect, largely due to the influence of the man, who published it.

“Khomeini’s fatwa has immense power because it is not only persecuted but revered by the global Shia community,” Khaled Beydoun, a law professor at Wayne State University, told VOA.

A fatwa can be the opinion of a mufti or scholar of Islamic law such as Khomeini, or an official statement from an Islamic institution.

“A fatwa can be as simple as a personal matter, like missing a prayer, or as controversial as embryo cloning or transgender surgery,” said Jonathan Brown, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.

FILE – More than 100,000 Islamic clerics, scholars, teachers and others from across Bangladesh signed and approved a fatwa against terrorism in June 2016. (J Samnoon/VOA)

The enforcement of a fatwa depends largely on who the mufti is and not on its content.

There are other limitations as well.

“A fatwa issued in Afghanistan may carry some weight there… but a religious leader in America that proclaims something has very limited impact because Muslims live in a non-Muslim society where there are laws and the laws say that you can’t go and kill people just because someone issued a fatwa,” said Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Professor of Islamic Studies at American University. “Well, now you have it [a] block the implementation of such a fatwa.”

Fatwa is not a law

Thousands of fatwas have been issued by numerous scholars and institutions for centuries. There are fatwas against western colonialism, nuclear weapons, tobacco, terrorism and suicide bombing. In 2008, a Pakistani religious scholar issued a fatwa against Pakistan’s former President Asif Ali Zardari for his alleged flirtation with Sarah Palin, the then US vice presidential candidate. There are also fatwas in support of vaccinations, singing and women’s rights.

“A fatwa is not a legal decree. A legal decree is issued by a court,” said Ahmed.

But some fatwas carry as much weight as the law in a country.

Fatwas issued by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia or the Supreme Leader of Iran are enforceable as laws, and fatwas promulgated by state muftis in Malaysia are published in the official newspaper.

“There is no equivalent Muslim institution to the Vatican and the Pope in Roman Catholicism. Fatwas only mean the government agency and the religious institution trying to enforce them. This in no way diminishes how important a fatwa can become as part of the geopolitics of culture wars and, in the case of Salman Rushdie, tragically led to real harm,” Hatim El-Hibri, an assistant professor of media at George Mason University, told VOA.

Without government approval or when a mufti has no supporters, a fatwa remains an individual’s opinion.

FILE - Then-Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden speaks to a select group of reporters in the mountains of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province December 24, 1998.

FILE – Then-Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden speaks to a select group of reporters in the mountains of southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province December 24, 1998.

In 1996 and 1998, al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden reportedly signed two fatwas declaring Islamic Jihad against the United States.

No Muslim government endorsed the al-Qaeda fatwas, but there were several other fatwas against al-Qaeda itself and terrorism, which are endorsed by many Islamic scholars and official bodies in several Muslim-majority countries.

necessity for fatwas

The origins of fatwas date back to the early days of Islam, when Muslim leaders responded to questions about the religion’s attitude to various secular matters.

“After Prophet Muhammad, questions that arose were answered by fatwas by the Companions [of the Prophet]’ said Georgetown’s Brown, adding that the practice has evolved into an Islamic custom over the centuries.

“Fatwa is not unique and not unique to Islam,” Wayne State’s Beydoun said. Leaders of other faith groups also offer religious opinions on new issues not already answered by their religions or on issues that need religious clarification, he said.

While some fatwas have raised concerns as they herald wider security and human rights implications, others have been promoting social and political reform and progressive ideas in various Muslim communities, experts say.

“Viewing fatwas with negative connotations will be an integral part of the broader cultural Islamophobia that we live in,” Beydoun said.

Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa was condemned by all religious communities worldwide, and many Muslim writers and activists have condemned the attack on Rushdie. But whether it still drives individuals to act on it is open to debate.


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