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Roland Laffitte

Misinterpreting the word 'fatwa'

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's call for the execution of Salman Rushdie contributed to misconceptualising Fatwa [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 May, 2016

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Comment: The word fatwa has become synonymous with an authoritarian and irrevocable decision, commonly a death sentence. But this eclipses the word's scope and often anodyne context, writes Roland Laffitte.

The word fatwa in its literal sense, denotes an 'answer' or a 'clarification' given by a learned body on a particular issue in the field of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Common usage of this word has taken it out of its Islamic religious context to make it mean 'an irrevocable, arbitrary decision'. In some ways it replaces the Russian word 'ukase' - an edict from the Tsar in former Russia - that came to have a similar meaning, and more specifically a 'sentence to death'.

This corresponds to a trend that is telling of widespread prejudices against Islam. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's call for the execution of Salman Rushdie in 1989 also contributed to this misconception.

A fatwa can relate to any issue in Islamic law. Traditionally, it must respect quite a complex due process, delivered by a person or body authorised to decree fatwas - usually the mufti (whose literal meaning is 'he who delivers a fatwa') - and be duly substantiated and justified under Islamic law.

This happens according to the criteria of each legal school (madhab), the organisation of the ulemas and the links established between them and the political institutions in the various countries and eras – providing for an infinite variety of configurations and possibilities. The scope of a fatwa depends therefore on many factors, and it is primarily the prestige of the figure or legal body delivering it which determines its influence.

Daily life

Any sultan or emir (political leader), Imam (religious leader), qadi (judge), or even just simple believer can ask the mufti a question that touches on matters of belief, pious behaviour, social practices, personal status or compliance of a political act with Islamic law. This happens on a daily basis.

In 1979, a fatwa from Sheikh Ali Gad al-Haqq - issued in the name of Dar al-Iftah (the institute that delivers fatwas) in Cairo - authorised the use in humans of bone grafts, heart valves and other pig-derived substances in cases where there was a "very urgent need" and the life could be saved in no other way. In terms of organ transplant, the different legal schools consider that an organ taken from a body and transplanted into the body of a living person will not contaminate the dead person; a view shared even by the most traditional, Hanbali school.

A fatwa then, may be an ethical issue, of the kind considered by any ethical, religious or secular committee. It was recently announced that a Saudi religious leader had issued a fatwa declaring the game of chess haram 'forbidden or illicit'. That leader was none other than Abdul Aziz al ash-Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

This demonstrates that a fatwa can just as easily be a call for calm, whether or not it is respected is another issue

Nevertheless, even in one of the countries where religious authorities have huge sway over civil society and the state, and where the Islam - which proclaims itself Salafist - is one of the most austere and rigorous, such fatwas have no legal force and are therefore not binding, no more so than those of al-Azhar in Egypt.

Separation of the mufti and the judge

There have been two other recent examples of fatwas in Iraq. A Shia religious leader called for forming militias to "kill the wahhabists" – actually referring to Sunnis – wherever they may be, crying out "what are you waiting for, a fatwa from Sayyed? Well there you have it!"

On March 23 2013 on the site al-Manar, the 'Sayyed' he spoke of – the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, decreed a fatwa in which he declared the "sacred nature of Iraqi blood, especially Sunni blood", and called on Shias to "protect the Sunnis from the dangers stalking them in Iraq". This demonstrates that a fatwa can just as easily be a call for calm, whether or not it is respected is another issue.

Returning to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie: it may be surprising that in this case, the ruling and the enforceable order are not separate things. In March 1989, the Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah – considered the spiritual leader of Lebanese Hizballah at the time - confided in a journalist from the French newspaper Libération, that "Khomeini's ruling in favour of the death penalty for Rushdie was not in keeping with Muslim tradition".

This can be explained by the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini was not only the Supreme Mufti in the Shia clergy, but that he was also at the helm of political authority. Across Islamic civilisation, this is really a one-off, and far from the general rule of thumb. The most common arrangement both geographically and historically, is the separation of the mufti and of the judge, who are themselves independent of the emir or sultan, despite having been named by him.

This is however being replaced in the 'modernist' and 'secular' states who have followed in the footsteps of the colonisers in the total subordination of the mufti and of the judge to the government. It can however be seen in movements where a religious leader is the head of state.

countless fatwas are issued on a daily basis in different countries and by specialised ulemas on subjects that are as diverse as they are anodyne

The current trend within the recent armed revolutionary movements claiming allegiance to the "salafia jihadia" or "jihadist salafism" runs quite contrary to this: set up by political leaders raising the flag of Islam, they have drawn on a long-standing body of theological and legal doctrines, and preach practices that are contested by the vast majority of ulemas from different countries and schools. In their eyes, the rulings made for example by Osama bin Laden and, more recently by Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi cannot be considered as legal fatwas.

Today, the head of the Islamic Algerian Awakening Front (Jabhat al-sahwa al-islamiyya) and self-proclaimed Imam, issues fatwas, the most recent of which came against the writer Kamel Daoud. The leader explains that "if the Islamic Sharia were to be applied in Algeria", which he advocates fiercely, "the punishment [for Daoud] would be death for apostasy and heresy".

In March, the Oran court voted to sentence the leader to six months in prison, three of those in isolation, for "death threats". While all this is going on, far from the media circus and the continuous stream of restless fears stirred up by various figures, countless fatwas are issued on a daily basis in different countries and by specialised ulemas on subjects that are as diverse as they are anodyne.


Roland Laffitte is an etymologist, academic and writer based in France.

This is an edited translation originally published in French by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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