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Fatwā

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A fatwā (Arabic: فتوى; plural fatāwā Arabic: فتاوى), is a considered opinion in Islam made by a mufti, a scholar capable of issuing judgments on Sharia (Islamic law). Usually a fatwa is issued at the request of an individual or a judge to settle a question where fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is unclear.

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[edit] History

In the early days of Islam, fatawa were pronounced by distinguished scholars to provide guidance to other scholars, judges and citizens on how subtle points of Islamic law should be understood, interpreted or applied. There were strict rules on who is eligible (see below) to issue a valid fatwa and who could not, as well as on the conditions the fatwa must satisfy to be valid. Today many Muslim countries (such as Egypt and Tunisia) have an official mufti position; a distinguished expert in the Sharia is named by the civil authorities of the country. According to the Usul al-fiqh (Principles of Jurisprudence), the latter are as follows :

  1. The fatwa is in line with relevant legal proofs, deduced from Qur'anic verses and hadiths;
  2. It is issued by a person (or a board) having due knowledge and sincerity of heart;
  3. It is free from individual opportunism, and not depending on political servitude;
  4. It is adequate with the needs of the contemporary world.

Today, with the existence of modern independent States, each with its own legislative system, and/or its own body of ulemas, each country develops and applies its own rules, based on its own interpretation of religious prescriptions.

[edit] Fatwa at national level

In nations where Islamic law is the basis of civil law, but has not been codified, as is the case of some Arab countries in the Middle East, fatawa by the national religious leadership are debated prior to being issued. In theory, such fatwa should rarely be contradictory. If two fatawa are potentially contradictory, the ruling bodies (combined civil and religious law) would attempt to define a compromise interpretation that will eliminate the resulting ambiguity. In these cases, the national theocracies expect fatawa to be settled law.

In the majority of Arab countries, however, Islamic law has been codified in each country according to its own rules, and is interpreted by the judicial system according to the national jurisprudence. Fatawa have no direct place in the system, except to clarify very unusual or subtle points of law for experts (not covered by the provisions of modern civil law), or to give moral authority to a given interpretation of a rule.

In nations where Islamic law is not the basis of law (as is the case in various Asian and African countries), different mujtahids can issue contradictory fatawa. In such cases, Muslims would typically honour the fatwa deriving from the leadership of their religious tradition. For example, Sunni Muslims would favor a Sunni fatwa whereas Shiite would follow a Shi'a one.

There exists no international Islamic authority to settle fiqh issues today, in a legislative sense. The closest such organism is the Islamic Fiqh Academy, (a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)), which has 43 member States. But it can only render fatawa that are not binding on anyone.

[edit] Legal implications of a fatwa

There is a binding rule that saves the fatwa pronouncements from creating judicial havoc, whether within a Muslim country or at the level of the Islamic world in general: it is unanimously agreed that a fatwa is only binding on its author.

This was underlined by Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Al-Obeikan, vice-minister of Justice of Saudi Arabia, in an interview with the Arabic daily "Asharq al awsat", as recently as on July 9, 2006, in a discussion of the legal value of a fatwa by the Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA) on the subject of misyar marriage, which had been rendered by IFA on April 12, 2006 (see relevant excerpts in note below). [1]

Despite this, some theologians present their fatwas as obligatory, [2] or adopt some "in-between" position.

Thus, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar in Cairo, Muhammad Sayid Tantawy, who is the leading religious authority in the Sunni Muslim establishment in Egypt, alongside the Mufti of Egypt, said the following about fatwas issued by himself or the entire Dar al-Ifta:

"Fatāwa issued by Al-Azhar are not binding, but they are not just whistling in the wind either; individuals are free to accept them, but Islam recognizes that extenuating circumstances may prevent it. For example, it is the right of Muslims in France who object to the law banning the veil to bring it up to the legislative and judicial authorities. If the judiciary decides in favor of the government because the country is secular, they would be considered to be Muslim individuals acting under compelling circumstances." Otherwise, in his view, they would be expected to adhere to the fatwa. [3]

In Morocco, where king Mohammed VI is also Amir al-Muminin (Commander of the faithful), the authorities have tried to organize the field by creating a scholars' council (conseil des oulémas) composed of muslim scholars (ulema) which is the only one allowed to issue fatwas. In this case, a national theocracy could in fact compel intra-national compliance with the fatwa, since a central authority is the source. Muslims in other nations would obviously not be required to obey it.

[edit] Some contemporary fatawa

Fatawa are expected to deal with religious issues, subtle points of interpretation of the fiqh, as well as various mundane matters, as exemplified by the cases cited in the archives linked below. In exceptional cases, religious issues and political ones seem to be inextricably intertwined, as exemplified by the following fatawa:

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 pronounced a death sentence on Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi released a fatwa on April 14th 2004, stating that the boycott of American and Israeli products was an obligation for all who are able. The fatwa reads in part:

If people ask in the name of religion we must help them. The vehicle of this support is a complete boycott of the enemies' goods. Each riyal, dirham …etc. used to buy their goods eventually becomes bullets to be fired at the hearts of brothers and children in Palestine. For this reason, it is an obligation not to help them (the enemies of Islam) by buying their goods. To buy their goods is to support tyranny, oppression and aggression. Buying goods from them will strengthen them; our duty is to make them as weak as we can. Our obligation is to strengthen our resisting brothers in the Sacred Land as much as we can. If we cannot strengthen the brothers, we have a duty to make the enemy weak. If their weakness cannot be achieved except by boycott, we must boycott them.
American goods, exactly like the great Israeli goods, are forbidden. It is also forbidden to advertise these goods, even though in many cases they prove to be superior. America today is a second Israel. It totally supports the Zionist entity. The usurper could not do this without the support of America. “Israel’s” unjustified destruction and vandalism of everything has been using American money, American weapons, and the American veto. America has done this for decades without suffering the consequences of any punishment or protests about their oppressive and prejudiced position from the Islamic world.[1][2]

[edit] Other meanings

Fatawa like the above have drawn a great deal of attention in Western media, giving rise to the use of the term fatwa to apply to statements by non-Muslims that advocate an extreme religious or political position, and loosely or as slang for other sorts of decrees, for example:

"The pope issued a fatwa."

[edit] Quotations

  • "In Sunni Islam, a fatwa is nothing more than an opinion. It is just a view of a mufti and is not binding in India." ― Maulana Mehmood Madani, president of the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind [4]
  • "The current fashion for online fatwas has created an amazingly legalistic approach to Islam as scholars - some of whom have only a tenuous grip on reality - seek to regulate all aspects of life according to their own interpretation of the scriptures." ― Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, January 17, 2006
  • Excerpts from an interview given by Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Al-Obeikan, vice-minister of Justice of Saudi Arabia, to the Arabic daily Asharq al awsat on July 9, 2006, in which he discusses the legal value of a fatwa by the Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA) on the subject of misyar marriage, which had been rendered by IFA on April 12, 2006:
Asharq Al-Awsat: From time to time and through its regular meetings, the Islamic Fiqh Academy usually issues various fatwas dealing with the concerns Muslims. However, these fatwas are not considered binding for the Islamic states. What is your opinion of this?
Obeikan: Of course, they are not binding for the member Islamic states.
Asharq Al-Awsat: But, what is the point of the Islamic Fiqh Academy's consensus on fatwas that are not binding for the member States?
Obeikan: There is a difference between a judge and a mufti. The judge issues a verdict and binds people to it. However, the mufti explains the legal judgment but he does not bind the people to his fatwa. The decisions of the Islamic Fiqh Academy are fatwa decisions that are not binding for others. They only explain the legal judgment, as the case is in fiqh books.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Well, what about the Ifta House [official Saudi fatwa organism] ? Are its fatwas not considered binding on others?
Obeikan: I do not agree with this. Even the decisions of the Ifta House are not considered binding, whether for the people or the State.

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