Islamic fatwas – are they laws or opinions?

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

The 24-year-old attacker did not cite the fatwa as the reason for the knife attack, only that he disliked Rushdie and felt satanic verses, Rushdie’s controversial book, of which he is said to have only read a few pages, as insulting Islam.

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

“Khomeini’s fatwa has immense power because it is not only followed 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 a scholar of Islamic law, such as Khomeini, or an official statement from an Islamic institution.

“A fatwa can be about a simple personal matter like missing a prayer, or a controversial issue like 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 across Bangladesh signed and endorsed a fatwa on terrorism in June 2016. (J. Samnoon/VOA)

The application of a fatwa largely depends on who the mufti is, rather than its content.

There are also other limitations.

“A fatwa issued in Afghanistan may carry some weight there…but a religious leader in America pronouncing 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 out and kill people just because someone issued a fatwa,” said Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Professor of Islamic Studies at American University. have [a] block the implementation of such a fatwa.

The fatwa is not a law

For centuries, thousands of fatwas have been issued by many scholars and institutions. There are fatwas against Western colonialism, nuclear weapons, tobacco, terrorism and suicide bombings. A 2008 fatwa was issued by a Pakistani religious scholar against former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari for his alleged flirtation with then-US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. There are also fatwas in favor of vaccination, singing and women’s rights.

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

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

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

“There is no Muslim institution equivalent to the Vatican and the Pope in Roman Catholicism. Fatwas are only relevant to the government body and religious institution that seek to uphold them. This does not diminish nothing like how a fatwa can become important in geopolitical culture wars, and in the case of Salman Rushdie, tragically caused real damage,” Hatim El-Hibri, assistant professor of media at VOA, told VOA. George Mason University.

In the absence of government approval or when a mufti has no followers, a fatwa remains the opinion of an individual.

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

FILE – Osama bin Laden, then leader of al-Qaeda, speaks to a select group of reporters in the mountains of Afghanistan’s southern 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 al-Qaeda’s fatwas, but there were several other fatwas against al-Qaeda itself and terrorism which are supported by many Islamic scholars and official entities in several Muslim-majority countries.

Need fatwas

The origins of fatwas date back to the early days of Islam when Muslim leaders answered questions about the religion’s position on various mundane issues.

“After the Prophet Muhammad, when questions arose, the companions answered them with fatwas. [of the Prophet]“said Brown of Georgetown, adding that the practice has evolved over centuries as an Islamic custom.

“The fatwa is not unique and distinct only to Islam,” Wayne State’s Beydoun said. Leaders of other religious groups also offer religious opinions on new issues that their religions have not yet answered or on issues that need religious clarification, he said.

While some fatwas have raised concerns as they announce much broader security and human rights implications, through others social and political reforms and progressive ideas have been propagated in various Muslim communities. , according to experts.

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

Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa received worldwide condemnation in all religious communities, and many Muslim writers and activists condemned the attack on Rushdie. But whether this still drives individuals to act on it is up for debate.

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