What is a fatwa?
A fatwa technically is a legal opinion on a matter of Islamic law, practice or convention.
Who can issue one?
Anyone can ask an Islamic scholar, an aalim (the singular for ulema), for a considered opinion or interpretation of something unclear in Islamic law. In Islam, there is no place for the clergy — the religion is intensely personal, with the believer’s relationship with God being based on tenets clearly laid out in the Quran. But a few years after the Prophet, powerful religious intermediaries emerged, hoping to be the go-betweens and interpreters of the faith. Divisions, arguments followed, and continue. Depending upon socio-economic variables among the peoples who embraced Islam, the role of the aalim varied.
Can one actually ask for a fatwa?
Muslims do, typically, and fatwas are usually answers to their queries. At Dar ul Uloom, the most influential seminary in the world after Al Azhar in Egypt, a separate fatwa department even does the job online now. All kinds of people ask questions of all kinds, relating to personal affairs, Islamic law, social matters, food, hygiene, disputes — and they are answered or not answered. Questions range from interesting nuances in Islamic jurisprudence to queries like “Should I cut my hair on a Monday”, and the like.
Does a fatwa have to be obeyed?
No. It is an opinion.
So why is a fatwa often understood to mean the equivalent of a death warrant?
‘Fatwa’ became a much-discussed word in 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa to kill novelist Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses, which allegedly insulted the Prophet. Iran backed the fatwa until 1998, when President Mohammad Khatami decreed it was not applicable. The call to kill Rushdie triggered outrage and horror, and compounded by the strained relations between Iran and the West, the Islamic fatwa came to be thought of by many as a synonym for a death warrant. Fatwas came to symbolise an imagined dark stereotype of the Islamic world, which stood in opposition to the so-called enlightened western idea of ‘freedom of expression’. This over-simplified interpretation of fatwa was subscribed to, in part, in India as well at that time of deep political ferment.
And yet, the Dar ul Uloom issued a fatwa decreeing any call for killing Rushdie as un-Islamic. And in 2008, the Dar ul Uloom issued a landmark fatwa saying terror was un-Islamic.
How have the politics of fatwa played out in more recent times?
Several reactionary fatwas, especially on personal law, have been issued in India by people posing as authorities on Islamic law, or by those who are simply anxious for political prominence.
Most recently, two imams in Hyderabad issued fatwas against raising slogans of Bharat Mata Ki Jai, decreeing that invoking any thing or idea as something to be deified or prayed to, was un-Islamic. The fact is there is nothing binding on any Muslim to follow that — and equally compelling arguments can be made on the other side.
In neighbouring Pakistan, the Canadian imam Tahir ul Qadri, who made a bid for political power recently by his agitation on containers in Islamabad alongside cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, is best known for what is seen as a detailed anti-terror fatwa.