A fatwā (Arabic: فتوى; plural fatāwā Arabic: فتاوى) in the Islamic faith is a nonbinding but authoritative legal opinion or learned interpretation that the Sheikhul Islam, a qualified jurist or mufti, can give on issues pertaining to the Islamic law. The person who issues a fatwā is called, in that respect, a mufti, i.e. an issuer of fatwā, from the verb أَفْتَى 'aftā = "he gave a formal legal opinion on". This is not necessarily a formal position since most Muslims argue that anyone trained in Islamic law may give an opinion (fatwā) on its teachings. If a fatwā does not break new ground, then it is simply called a ruling.
- Issuer qualifications
- National level
- Legal implications
- Contemporary examples
- Controversial fatwas
- Other meanings
An analogy might be made to the issue of legal opinions from courts in common-law systems. Fatwās generally contain the details of the scholar's reasoning, typically in response to a particular case, and are considered binding precedent by those Muslims who have bound themselves to that scholar, including future muftis; mere rulings can be compared to memorandum opinions. The primary difference between common-law opinions and fatwās, however, is that fatwās are not universally binding; as Sharia is not universally consistent and Islam is very non-hierarchical in structure, fatwās do not carry the sort of weight as that of secular common-law opinion.
In religious context, the word fatwa carries more meaning. This is because when a Muslim has a question that they need to be answered from an Islamic point of view, they ask an Islamic scholar this question, and the answer is known as a fatwa. This fatwa is said by followers to carry more weight than just the random opinion of any person. Muslim scholars are expected to give their fatwa based on religious scripture, not just their personal opinions. Therefore, their fatwa is sometimes regarded as a religious ruling. Here is an example of a fatwa: Muslims are expected to pray five times every day at specific times during the day. A person who is going to be on a 12-hour flight may not be able to perform their prayers on time. So they might ask a Muslim scholar for a fatwa on what is the appropriate thing to do, or they might look up the answer in a book or on the internet. The scholar might advise them to perform the prayer to the best of their ability on the plane, or to delay their prayer until they land, for example. And they would support their opinion with scripture. The fatwa is not legally binding or final, it is a respected interpretation of the sharia given by a mufti on a particular case. If the individual doesn't like the fatwa given, he/she can seek out another Mufti or Qadi for a second opinion which might have the desired outcome.
In Islam, there are four sources from which Muslim scholars extract religious law or rulings, and upon which they base their fatwa. The first is the Quran, which is the holy book of Islam, and which Muslims believe is the direct and literal word of God, revealed to Prophet Mohammad. The second source is the Sunnah, which incorporates anything that the Prophet Mohammad said, did or approved of. The third source is the consensus of the scholars, meaning that if the scholars of a previous generation have all agreed on a certain issue, then this consensus is regarded as representing Islam. Finally, if no scripture is found regarding a specific question from the three first sources, then an Islamic scholar performs what is known as ijtihad. This means that they use their own logic and reasoning to come up with the best answer according to the best of their ability. Muslims believe that any given action that they perform in their lives falls into one of five categories:
- Not Permitted
All actions fall into the "permissible" category, unless there is evidence from one of the four sources previously mentioned (Quran, Sunnah, Consensus, Ijtihad) that proves otherwise. Here are some examples:
When someone asks a Muslim scholar about performing a specific action, the reply will be a fatwa explaining which of these five categories this action would fall under. So if you ask a Muslim scholar to give a fatwa about adultery, they would tell you that it is "Not Permitted". If you ask about fasting in Ramadan, they would answer that it is "Obligatory". Muslims are usually encouraged to ask for reasoning and evidence behind any fatwa, and should avoid blindly following the opinions of Muslim scholars without understanding the reasons behind them. This is because Muslims should always feel that they are practicing Islam to gain the pleasure of God, and not to gain the pleasure of acceptance of any human being. It is also interesting to note that different scholars frequently have different opinions regarding any given question. This is why there is usually more than one fatwa regarding any one question. In fact, there are a number of methodologies for how to understand evidence gathered from the previously mentioned sources of Islamic law. Scholars who follow different methodologies will frequently arrive at different answers to the same question. It is well known that in Islam there are four schools of thought, and each of them differ with respect to certain aspects. However, it is important to know that these differences are usually about minor issues. For example, in terms of beliefs, the vast majority of Muslims agree on most aspects of belief, most importantly the concept of monotheism, and belief in the angels, Prophets, holy books and the Day of Judgment.
In the early days of Islam, fatwās 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 was eligible to issue a valid fatwā and who could not, as well as on the conditions the fatwā must satisfy to be valid.
According to the usul al-fiqh (principles of jurisprudence), the fatwā must meet the following conditions in order to be valid:
- The fatwā is in line with relevant legal proofs, deduced from Qur'anic verses and a hadith; provided the hadith was not later abrogated by Muhammad.
- It is issued by a person (or a board) having due knowledge and sincerity of heart;
- It is free from individual opportunism, and not depending on political servitude;
- It is adequate with the needs of the contemporary world.
With the existence of modern independent states, each with its own legislative system, or its own body of ulamas, each country develops and applies its own rules, based on its own interpretation of religious prescriptions. Many Muslim countries (such as Egypt and Tunisia) have an official mufti position; a distinguished expert in the sharia is appointed to this position by the civil authorities of the country. But his fatwās are binding on no one: neither the state that appoints him, nor any citizen.
Fatwas have been transmitted by publication, "in collections of individual muftis, in annual fatwa collections, ... or in special religious columns of periodicals and newspapers ..." Starting in the 1990s, online fatwa services such as IslamQA.info, fatwa-online.com, and AskImam.org, became available, making the searching and finding of fatwas on different subjects even easier. According to at least one source (Sadakat Kadri) these sources reintroduced the advise of trained scholars to many Muslims who had turned to do-it-yourself religious interpretation, but also changed the nature of fatwa advice giving, which had traditionally been local and so "relatively confidential and conditioned by customs familiar to both parties." Scholars from Cairo and Saudi Arabia exported their views to mostly (80+%) non-Arab Muslim world. Muslims are able to observe differences in opinions among scholars of different fatwa sites and to "contemplate previously unimagined dilemmas and temptations."
During what is often referred to as the Islamic Golden Age, in order for a scholar to be qualified to issue a fatwā, it was required that he obtained an ijazat attadris wa'l-ifta ("license to teach and issue legal opinions") from a Madrasah in the medieval Islamic legal education system, which was developed by the 9th century during the formation of the Madh'hab legal schools. Traditionally, the primary issuers of fatwas were Muftis, who were scholars in Islam. Their job was to interpret Shari'a and they did so within their own communities. Their authority in law and their ability to issue fatwas was entirely based on their reputation and social standing.
In post-colonial Middle Eastern states, the issuing of Fatwas moved away from the Ancien Regime practice of coming from a Mufti and instead became much more centralized as governments did so. The state department gained the control over appointing Muftis and the fatwas they were allowed to issue to the public. This did cause some discourse among the public, because of the governments involvement in religious matters.
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, fatwā by the national religious leadership are debated prior to being issued. In theory, such fatwā should rarely be contradictory. If two fatwā 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 fatwā 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. Fatwā 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 fatwā. In such cases, Muslims would typically honour the fatwā deriving from the leadership of their religious tradition. For example, Sunni Muslims would favor a Sunni fatwā whereas Shiites 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 Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)), which has 57 member states. But it can only render fatwā that are not binding on anyone.
There is a binding rule that saves the fatwā 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 fatwā 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 fatwā by the Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA) on the subject of misyar marriage, which had been rendered by IFA on April 12, 2006. He said, "Even the decisions of the official Ifta authority [the official Saudi fatwā institute] is binding on no one, whether for the people or the state." Al-Obeikan, however, was subsequently removed from his position as advisor to the royal cabinet in May 2012 after opposing moves to relax gender segregation, and in August 2012, Obeikan’s morning radio show "Fatwas on Air," in which he would issue daily fatwas, was canceled after a royal decree that authorizes only members of the Council of Senior Scholars to issue fatwas.
Still, sometimes, even leading religious authorities and theologians misleadingly present their fatwā as obligatory, or try to 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 Grand Mufti of Egypt, said the following about fatwās issued by himself or the entire Dar al-Ifta:
"Fatwā 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 fatwā.
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 (ulama), which is the only one allowed to issue fatāwā. In this case, a national theocracy could in fact compel intra-national compliance with the fatwā, since a central authority is the source. Even then, however, the issue would not necessarily be religiously binding for the residents of that nation. For, the state may have the power to put a fatwā in effect, but that does not mean that the fatwā is to be religiously accepted by all. For instance, if a state fatwā council made abortion acceptable in the first trimester without any medical reason, that would have direct impact on official procedures in hospitals and courts in that country. Yet, this would not mean that the Muslims in that nation has to agree with that fatwā, or that the fatwā is religiously binding for them.
Fatwā are expected to deal with religious issues, subtle points of interpretation of the fiqh as exemplified by the cases cited in the archives linked below. In certain cases, religious issues and political ones seem to be inextricably intertwined. The term fatwā is sometimes used by some Muslims to mean to "give permission" to do a certain act that might be illegal under Islamic law; other Muslims view this to be incorrect.
Despite the word "fatwā" not being included in the Qur'an, individuals commonly obtain fatwā to guide them in everyday life. Due to the lack of a central unifying rulemaker, different sheiks may give different answers to the same question. This leaves an opportunity for the controversial practice of "fatwā shopping", in which an individual asks the same question of different sheiks until they receive an answer they like.
Examples of famous or controversial fatwā include the following:
On December 2, 1947 the University of Al-Azhar religious scholars, the most respected in the Sunni Muslim word, called for holy war against the Zionists.
In April 1974 the Muslim World League issued a fatwa stating that followers of the Ahmadiyyah movement are to be considered "non-Muslims".
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 pronounced a death sentence on Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses.
In 2001, religious authorities in the United Arab Emirates issued a fatwā against the children's game Pokémon, after finding that it encouraged gambling, and was based on the theory of evolution, "a Jewish-Darwinist theory, that conflicts with the truth about humans and with Islamic principles".
In 2001, Egypt's Grand Mufti issued a fatwā stating that the show "Who will Win the Million?" (modelled on the British show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) was un-Islamic. The Sheikh of Cairo's Al-Azhar University later rejected the fatwā, finding that there was no objection to such shows since they spread general knowledge.
In Syria, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badruddin Hassoun issued a fatwa prohibiting every type of smoking, including cigarettes and narghile, as well as the selling and buying of tobacco and any affiliation with tobacco distribution (see also Smoking in Syria).
Yusuf al-Qaradawi released a fatwā on April 14, 2004, stating that the boycott of American and Israeli products was an obligation for all who are able. The fatwā 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.
Sheik Sadeq Abdallah bin Al-Majed, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, issued a fatwā that prohibits vaccination of children claiming it is a conspiracy of the Jews and Freemasons.
Indian Muslim scholars issued a fatwā of death against Taslima Nasreen, an exiled controversial Bangladeshi writer. Majidulla Khan Farhad of Hyderabad-based Majlis Bachao Tehriq issued the fatwā at the Tipu Sultan mosque in Kolkata after Juma prayers as saying Taslima has defamed Islam and announced an "unlimited financial reward" to anybody who would kill her.
In 1998, Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq, issued a fatwā prohibiting University of Virginia professor Abdulaziz Sachedina from ever again teaching Islam due in part to Sachedina's writings encouraging acceptance of religious pluralism in the Muslim world.
In June 1992, Egyptian writer Farag Foda was assassinated following a fatwa issued by ulamas from Al-Azhar who had adopted a previous fatwa by Sheikh al-Azhar, Jadd al-Haqq, accusing secularist writers such as Foda of being "enemies of Islam". The jihadist group Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya claimed responsibility for the murder.
In September 1951, the mufti of Egypt issued a fatwa stating that both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola were permissible for Muslims to drink. In order to arrive at that decision, the Department of Fatwas had the Ministry of Public Health analyze the composition of the two drinks. As they did not find the pepsin or any narcotic or alcoholic substances to be present, nor any "microbes harmful to health," the mufti found that it was not forbidden under Islamic law. Occasionally the debate regarding whether or not Coca-Cola or Pepsi is drinkable by Muslims does continue to appear, notably recently in 2012 when a French study was released declaring that Coca-Cola contained a small amount of alcohol. Muslims are not permitted to drink alcohol, however the amount of alcohol found in the beverage was discovered so small as to be permissible according to the fatwa system.
Osama bin Laden issued two fatwās—in 1996 and then again in 1998—that Muslims should kill civilians and military personnel from the United States and allied countries until they withdraw support for Israel and withdraw military forces from Islamic countries.
In 2003, on his television show John Safran Vs God, Australian comedian John Safran tricked Sheikh Omar Bakri into placing a fatwā on Safran's colleague Rove McManus by showing him falsified evidence seeming to indicate that McManus had been making fun of Islam.
In 2005, the Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwā that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that Iran shall never acquire these weapons.
Another example of a fatwā is forbidding the smoking of cigarettes by Muslims.
In September 2007, the Central Java division and Jepara branch of the Indonesian organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (the Awakening of the Religious Scholars) declared the government's proposal to build a nuclear power station nearby at Balong on the Muria peninsula haram or forbidden. The fatwā was issued following a two-day meeting of more than a hundred ulama to consider the pros and cons of the proposal addressed by government ministers, scientists and critics. The decision cited both positive and negative aspects of the proposal, which it had balanced to make its judgment. Key concerns were the question of long-term safe disposal and storage of radioactive waste, the potential local and regional environmental consequences of the plant’s operation, the lack of financial clarity about the project, and issues of foreign technological dependence.
In 2008, undercover reporting by a private TV channel in India showed several respected clerics demanding and receiving cash for issuing fatwās. In response, some were suspended from issuing fatwās and Indian Muslim leaders announced that they would create a new body that will monitor the issuing of fatwās in India.
In 2008, a Pakistani religious leader issued a fatwā on President Asif Ali Zardari for "indecent gestures" toward Sarah Palin, U.S. Vice Presidential candidate.
In 2008, Indian Ulama from the world-renowned seminary of Deoband have categorically issued a fatwā against terrorism and mentioned that any sort of killing of innocent people or civilians is Haram or Forbidden. The fatwā also clarified that there is no Jihad in Kashmir or against India as freedom of religion is guaranteed by the state as any state that guarantees freedom of religion can not have Jihad sanctioned against it. This fatwā was reiterated in 2009 where Indian Home Minister P. Chidrambram hailed the move. The full text of the fatwā in English is available here
Deoband Ulama in India have repeatedly mentioned that the Taliban government in Afghanistan was Un-Islamic. This was most recently reiterated at a convention in Karachi recently. These include the idea of establishing shariah rule with force in the name of Jihad and levying of "jizya" on Sikh citizens of Pakistan, which was termed as nothing more than extortion by armed gangs. The stand was explained by Maulana Abu Hassan Nadvi as below
This can't be called a war in the name of Islam. Even during a legitimate jihad, which is fought not by a rag-tag army of misguided youth but by the state against identified aggressors, Islam has set certain principles like you can't harm the old, sick, women and children. You can't attack any place of worship. But terrorists kill people indiscriminately. They are earning Allah's punishment.
Suicide bombing in any form has also been declared haram and forbidden by Indian ulama. This stand is also supported by Saudi scholars such as Shaykh Muhammad Bin Saalih al-'Uthaymeen, who have issued fatawā declaring suicide bombings are haram and those who commit this act are not shaheed (martyrs).
Fatwas have the role of explaining religion and guiding the faithful in modern matters that were not previously tackled by scholars or specifically addressed by the Quran or the Hadith of Mohammed. Some fatwas stand out as controversial and often lead to hardship, violence and misunderstanding of religion.
In 2012, Sheikh Murgan Salem al-Gohary of Egypt, a former Taliban, issued a fatwa calling for "the destruction of the Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids in Egypt", because "God ordered Prophet Mohammed to destroy idols." Egypt is host to thousands of ancient statues and drawings that do not seem to have bothered Muslims for the past 1400 years. These monuments are a major attraction to tourists and scientists interested in ancient Egyptian culture, and not worship. It is unclear why the pyramids were added to the fatwa because they are tombs of pharaohs and not statues or idols. During the 1980s foreign tourists were the target of terrorist attacks by extremist groups.
In 2012, Abdul-Azeez ibn Abdullaah Aal ash-Shaikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued a religious edict prohibiting contact and cooperation with foreign media outlets because they seek to "spread chaos and strife in Muslim lands." He added that contacting foreign media outlets to "divulge the country’s secrets or address various matters" was tantamount to "treason and major crime." He said that "It is not permissible and is considered betrayal and assistance to the enemies of Islam." Also, "A believer has to help keeping security, that of his nation and community, and protecting his religion." This fatwa is vague and itself is in need of another explanatory fatwa. Foreign media appears to have been singled out because it is mostly free and does not conform to Saudi Arabian government censorship. The fatwa uses the extremely strong terms (i.e., "haram" or unlawful, "treason," "betrayal," and "major crime") for the simple act of contacting the press. This fatwa has the potential to endanger the lives of ordinary citizens and members of the media due to the connotation of its language and overall ambiguity. It also threatens the financial interests of legitimate global business. In democratic societies, journalism and the media play an indispensable role in educating the public and combating corruption.
In 2011-2012, Abdel-Bari Zamzami of Morocco issued a series of religious edicts that a man has the right to engage in sexual intercourse with his wife up to six hours after her death despite recognizing that such an action is despicable in mainstream society, Zamzami persisted in backing his original fatwa, claiming marriage does not end in death. Zamzami also announced that it is against the religion to take to the streets after the King delivers a speech; this fatwa made the population, as well as the media, question his intentions.
In 2012, The Indonesian Ulema Council has issued an edict for Muslims not to wish Christians a happy Christmas. The edict said that wishing a happy Christmas was akin to confirming the "misguided" teachings of Christianity.
In 2013, the grand mufti in Kashmir issued a fatwa terming singing as un-Islamic, forcing Kashmir's only all-girls rock band to abandon it.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Sharia courts have no legal sanction and no one is bound to accept a fatwa in India.
Asharq Al-Awsat: From time to time and through its regular meetings, the Islamic Fiqh Academy usually issues various fatwās dealing with the concerns of Muslims. However, these fatwās 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 fatwās 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 fatwā. The decisions of the Islamic Fiqh Academy are fatwā 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 fatwā organism]? Are its fatwās 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.
Some fatwās have drawn a great deal of attention in Western media, giving rise to the term fatwā being used loosely for statements by non-Muslims that advocate an extreme religious or political position, and loosely or as slang for other sorts of decrees. Examples of such uses include the statements "The pope issued a fatwā" and "According to sources in today’s Tibetan resistance, the Chinese Communist 'fatwā' to silence Patterson has never been rescinded."