Immediately after British American writer Salman Rushdie was stabbed in New York on August 12, a decades-old fatwa given by the founder of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, became the buzzword as the prima facie cause for the attack.
The 24-year-old attacker has not cited the fatwa as his motive for the stabbing, only that he did not like Rushdie and perceived The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s controversial book, of which he reportedly had read only 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 was not supporting Khomeini’s fatwa to kill Rushdie, it is still believed to be in force, primarily because of the influence of the man who issued it.
“Khomeini’s fatwa carries immense potency because he’s 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 scholar of Islamic laws, like Khomeini, or an official pronouncement by an Islamic institution.
“A fatwa can be about a simple personal matter such as missing a prayer, or it could be about a controversial issue such as embryo cloning or transgender operation,” said Jonathan Brown, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.
The enforcement of a fatwa depends largely on who the mufti is, rather than what its contents are.
There are also other limitations.
“A fatwa issued in Afghanistan may have some weightage 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 cannot go and kill people simply because someone issued a fatwa,” said Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic studies at American University. “So, immediately, you have [a] block in implementing such a fatwa.”
Fatwa is not law
For centuries, thousands of fatwas have been issued by numerous scholars and institutions. There are fatwas against Western colonialism, nuclear weapons, tobacco, terrorism and suicide bombing. A 2008 fatwa was issued by a Pakistani religious scholar against Pakistan’s former President Asif Ali Zardari for his alleged flirting with Sarah Palin, then a U.S. vice presidential candidate. There are also fatwas in support 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 in a country.
Fatwas issued by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia or by the Supreme Leader of Iran are enforceable as laws, and fatwas declared by state muftis in Malaysia are published in the official newspaper.
“There is no equivalent Muslim institution to the Vatican and the pope in Roman Catholicism. Fatwas only have the relevance of the governmental body and religious institution that seek to enforce them. This in no way diminishes how a fatwa can become important as part of geopolitical culture wars, and in the case of Salman Rushdie, tragically led to real harm,” Hatim El-Hibri, assistant professor of media at George Mason University, told VOA.
Absent endorsement from a government or when a mufti has no followers, a fatwa remains the opinion of an individual.
In 1996 and 1998, al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden reportedly signed two fatwas declaring Islamic jihad against the United States.
No Muslim government endorsed al-Qaida’s fatwas, but there were several other fatwas against al-Qaida itself and terrorism that are supported by many Islamic scholars and official entities in several Muslim-majority countries.
Need for fatwas
The origins of fatwas go back to the early days of Islam when Muslim leaders responded to questions about the religion’s take on various mundane matters.
“After the Prophet Muhammad, when questions arose, they were answered through fatwas by the Companions [of the Prophet],” said Georgetown’s Brown, adding that the practice has evolved over the centuries as an Islamic custom.
“Fatwa is not unique and distinct only to Islam,” said Beydoun of Wayne State. Leaders of other faith groups also offer religious opinions about new issues that are not already answered by their religions or issues that need religious clarification, he said.
While some fatwas have raised concerns, as they herald far wider security and human rights consequences, through others, social and political reforms and progressive ideas have been propagated in various Muslim communities, experts say.
“To view fatwas with negative connotations will be part and parcel of the broader cultural Islamophobia that we live in,” Beydoun said.
Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa has received global condemnation across religious communities, and many Muslim writers and activists have condemned the attack on Rushdie. But whether it still propels individuals to act upon it is open for debate.