When the late Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued an Islamic edict against Salman Rushdie on February 14, 1989, an Arabic word the cleric used to call on Muslims to execute the author reverberated across the world.
The fatwa was issued in retaliation for The Satanic Verses, a 1988 book by Rushdie that Khomeini deemed blasphemous to Islam.
With that chilling Valentine’s Day decree, the two-syllable word, fatwa, inserted itself into the popular lexicon of the West, and has appeared more tenaciously than perhaps any other Middle Eastern term.
It came immediately to the minds of millions of people when they learned that a man wielding a knife last month attacked Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution, a retreat for artists in New York State.
A fatwa, however, “rarely calls for death,” writes Miriam Renaud, a faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies at DePaul University, in an August 17 article in The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit news organization.
Various Islamic religious authorities can issue fatwas. Most of them are in response to questions about a range of issues posed by individuals or a group of people within a Muslim community.
Fundamentally, the word fatwa means “explanation” or “clarification” about issues surrounding Islamic law, says Renaud. “The process of issuing a fatwa usually begins when a Muslim, confronted with a problem of life, belief or law, is unsure what to do.”
Generally, Muslim individuals solicit fatwas from a local cleric or a group of Islamic law scholars when they are unsure about how to conduct themselves or when they are concerned that they might be “deviating from God’s dictates,” writes Renaud. “They may believe that straying from the path of righteous conduct could jeopardize their entry into heaven. For them, the stakes are high.”
Because fatwas cover a wide range of topics—everything from personal hygiene and marital relations to inheritance law, lifestyle and national allegiance—they require a thorough grounding in Islamic law as well as a sound knowledge of past fatwas.
Muslims cannot simply consult the Quran for answers to religious questions, Renaud explains, because the holy book is either silent on certain issues or various passages in it are subject to different interpretations, making it difficult for believers to decipher the correct reading.
Despite their authoritativeness, fatwas are nonbinding—that is, Muslims are under no compulsion to obey them. “The force of a fatwa derives from the authority, trust and respect accorded to the clerics, scholars or institutions who issue them,” says Renaud. “With this authority comes the power to shape the religious and social norms of the fatwa-requesting community.”
Although fatwas are often solicited by ordinary Muslims, they can also be issued in response to certain situations. For example, a leading seminary in India, the Dar al-Ulum Deoband, issued a fatwa in 2010 against the Islamic State after deeming the terrorist group to be un-Islamic.
“Rare are the fatwas like the one against Rushdie that call on Muslims to kill a particular individual,” Renaud concludes. “But for now, the fatwa against Rushdie stands.”
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