What is a Fatwa?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In Islam, a fatwa is a legal decree which is made by someone who has extensive knowledge of Islamic law. Westerners have come to be confused about the precise meaning of a fatwa, thanks to the politicization of fataawa (the plural of fatwa) by extremist activists and organizations. Fataawa can in fact govern everything from whether or not it is appropriate for women to wear make-up to the best way to resolve a land dispute, and they are not considered to be legally binding, which is very important.

Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salmon Rushdie in 1989.
Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salmon Rushdie in 1989.

Islamic jurisprudence is extremely complex, much like other systems of jurisprudence based on religious values. The Qu'ran is considered to be one authority for jurisprudence, along with the sharia, or Islamic law, and the hadith, the records of the words and deeds of the prophet. Historically, Islamic jurisprudence has also included the ijma, or consensus of the Islamic community, along with qiyas, reasonings by analogy which are used by Islamic scholars. In addition, periodic fatwas may be issued to address the changing world.

A fatwa may address a nuanced point of sharia law.
A fatwa may address a nuanced point of sharia law.

Traditionally, a fatwa can only be issued by someone who is extremely knowledgeable about Islamic law, and ideally a fatwa comes from a place of sincerity and genuine concern. In order to be considered a valid fatwa in many regions, the fatwa must also not be personal or political in nature, and it should be appropriate for the modern world. Many Muslim countries have appointed a mufti to issue fataawa, acting as a religious authority.

Islamic law and jurisprudence is based on religious values.
Islamic law and jurisprudence is based on religious values.

When a fatwa is issued, the issuer must provide backup and support. It is not enough to say that something should be done in a certain way; the issuer should be able to find a precedent in the very large body of Islamic jurisprudence, and a fatwa is often supported with quotes from other sources so that people can understand the reasoning behind the fatwa. It is also possible to see contradictory fataawa from different religious authorities, and in some cases these authorities may meet to discuss the issue and release a new fatwa which reflects the outcome of the discussion.

Fataawa are not legally binding. Muslims who request a fatwa about an issue of concern may seek out a second opinion or even ignore the fatwa, especially if they feel that it contradicts with the spirit of Muslim law and life. Fataawa generally rely on the support of scholars to gain popular ground, and if a fatwa is also used in an Islamic court of law, it may gain additional weight with the Muslim community.

One infamous fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, ordering the death of author Salmon Rushdie, and some Westerners are under the erroneous impression that all fataawan take the form of execution orders. This is not, in fact, the case; one counterexample from scholars at Al-Azhar University, recommends interfaith study between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, illustrating the incredible diversity of fataawa.

Muslims who request a fatwa about an issue of concern may seek out a second opinion or even ignore the fatwa.
Muslims who request a fatwa about an issue of concern may seek out a second opinion or even ignore the fatwa.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Fatwas are also issued against celebrity Muslims when they do something un-Islamic or opposed to Islamic law. For example, when Shahrukh Khan, the Indian actor, had a third child through surrogate pregnancy, he was given a fatwa by an Islamic authority.

Since celebrities are role models for society and people follow what they do closely, fatwas are issued against Muslim celebrities all the time. Nothing really comes about as a result. They are not given punishment or anything like that, since no one has the authority to do that. They are warned publicly with a fatwa so that other people don't follow and make the same mistakes.


@ZipLine-- That may be the case but the issue is that there are many religious authorities. Even though they are all Muslim, these authorities can have different ideologies and they may apply shari'a (Islamic law) differently. This is why there can be one fatwa denouncing violence, and other encouraging it.

For the most part, people listen to the Islamic fatwas decreed by the religious authority in their area or country. Some countries are more strict than others.


@MagicStrom-- I agree with you. I think you've made a very good point. Not all fataawa are negative. An Islamic fatwa is simply a clarification of an issue by a religious authority. It can be in the form of approval or disapproval, but it aims to clarify Islamic law so that people can apply it correctly.

@MagicStrom: There’s a book written in 2010 called “Fatwa” by a renowned Islamic scholar. The book — which is actually a fatwa itself — denounces extremism and violence, and rejects the idea that suicide bombing equals an automatic spiritual transcendence.
As the article points out, the western world is often confused about the nature and severity of fataawa.

In 2009, several fataawa were issued by an Islamic authority in Indonesia, the worlds most populous Muslim nation. Among them were a ban on smoking by both children and pregnant women, as well as a ban on marrying minors.

And in 2010, another Islamic organization in Indonesia declared a fatwa haram on tobacco, effectively forbidding smoking where it had formerly been regarded as a habit to be avoided.

I think all religions and governments would view these as extremely positive decrees that promote public safety and the protection of minors.

I hope that these fataawa temper the unfortunate, extreme and relatively minor decrees issued by fringe groups.

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