Many people have heard the word fatwa. Most famously, particularly for people in the West above a certain age, the word will ring a bell in connection with the case of the Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie. In 1988, Rushdie wrote a novel titled The Satanic Verses that provoked a major international controversy because of its disrespectful, even insulting, references to Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Huge Muslim protests occurred in several countries. Salman Rushdie received multiple death threats in response to his novel, but the most notorious of them was a fatwa — issued on 14 February 1989 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran — that called for his assassination. Rushdie was obliged to go into hiding for a very long time.
Because of that story many people in the West assumed, quite wrongly, that the word fatwa actually means “death sentence.” Thus, because, in this specific case, the fatwa did indeed declare Salman Rushdie to be deserving of death, they assumed that the sentence “Khomeini issued a fatwa” was synonymous with “Khomeini issued a death sentence.” I can’t count the number of times that I heard people jokingly talking about “taking out a fatwa” on somebody or other.
The mistake is rather like, say, hearing that “Judge Jones prounounced sentence the defendant” and then assuming that the noun sentence actually means the pronouncing of a death sentence upon someone, or fining him $10K, or sending him to prison for 10-25 years, or whatever the content of the judge’s sentence might happen to be.
Anyway, here’s an article that I wrote in 2002 for an encyclopedia. It’s on the concept of a fatwa:
An advisory opinion issued by a recognized authority on law and tradition in answer to a specific question. Fatwas can range from single-word responses (e.g., “Yes,” “No,” or “Permitted”) to book-length treatises. Although typically focused on legal matters, fatwas also treat more general religious issues, including theology, philosophy, creeds, and ‘ibadat (religious obligations or acts of worship). Traditionally, despite numerous exceptions (particularly since the eleventh century), the issuer of fatwas, termed a mufti—whose authority derives from his knowledge of law and tradition—has functioned independently of the judicial system, indeed often privately.
While court rulings rely on the sifting of evidence and conflicting testimonies, muftis assume the facts presented by their questioners, which, obviously, can bias the answer. Moreover, a fatwa differs from a court judgment, or qada, not only in its wider potential scope—for instance, although ‘ibadat are essential parts of Islamic law, they transcend the jurisdiction of the courts—but because the qada is binding and enforceable, “performative,” while the fatwa is not. Instead, it is “informational,” and, while decisions of shari‘a courts usually pertain only to the specific cases they adjudicate, thus setting no legal precedents, fatwas are very often collected, published, and cited in subsequent cases.
Schacht, Joseph. Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press, 1979.
Weiss, Bernard G. The Spirit of Islamic Law. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Posted from Victoria, British Columbia