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Fatwa

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Fatwa

    A fatwa is a formal legal opinion issued by an Islamic legal scholar, or mufti. The scholar usually gives a fatwa in response to a question from an individual. Muftis base these decisions on their interpretations of shari'ah, or God's law. Fatwas cover a broad range of issues, including theology, law, and philosophy. Though not legally binding, fatwas often influence judges in their decisions.

    Muftis and Their Role.

    Muftis are usually private individuals of high moral character and intellectual ability. Some have held official public positions and have formally advised courts. Some muftis receive salaries from the state, while others go unpaid, accepting gifts and support from mustaftis, or questioners.

    When issuing fatwas, muftis cite the Qur'an, the sunnah, or another accepted authority. They should never allow personal opinion to bias their responses and should consult other scholars if they are unsure about an issue. Mustaftis come from all levels of society, and include men, women, laborers, scholars, and heads of state. Questioners typically accept their fatwa if it seems competent and based on tradition. Fatwas of the highest caliber contain detailed examples of ijtihad—formal, reasoned, interpretation. Occasionally, a mufti will issue a fatwa on his own initiative.

    Muftis and the practice of issuing fatwas stemmed from the need of the early Islamic community to learn and to follow Muslim principles. Before the development of universal schooling and literacy, only a few people studied the Qur'an and related texts. Muftis served as spiritual guides for both the people and the state, and established Islamic law as a unifying force. They ranged from local scholars who issued informal fatwas to powerful officials who influenced public policy. Some people had to travel to find a mufti, and others had to choose among several. Those dissatisfied with a response could seek out a second fatwa, and people embroiled in a dispute often questioned different muftis. Opposing sides in court sometimes bring competing fatwas to support their cases. Muftis have even engaged each other in “fatwa wars” over larger doctrinal issues.

    Form and Content.

    Muftis nearly always issue fatwas in written form. Many go unrecorded, written directly on the slip of paper containing the question. More elaborate fatwas exist in archives or in published collections. They vary in length from single word responses to book-length treatises. They also vary in scope. A minor fatwa may deal with the application of a single law. A major fatwa could legitimize a nation's new economic policy. Other fatwas deal with such issues as contracts, punishments, rituals, and foreign rule.

    The way in which a question is worded strongly affects the answer. Many mustaftis wrote questions to highlight certain facts or to elicit a particular response. During the Ottoman Empire, officials revised questions so that muftis could answer them with brief statements. Questions should pertain to actual events and not hypothetical situations. Mustafis should omit personal names and locations, making the questions as generic as possible.

    Fatwas from different regions vary according to language, conventional formulas, and rhetorical style. Treatises suggest proper wording for openings and closings, stock phrases such as Allahu a'lam (God knows best) that appear at the end of most fatwas, and special terms of address. They also discuss the organization of the texts and advise against leaving blank spaces to avoid alteration or addition.

    Muftis have issued fatwas for a variety of reasons. During the Ottoman Empire, for example, fatwas sanctioned declarations of war and peace, as well as domestic reforms and laws on such subjects as taxation and criminal justice. The legitimacy of the sultan also hinged on the advice of muftis. A fatwa led to the deposition of Sultan Murad V in 1876 on the grounds of insanity. Fatwas also encouraged religious tolerance. When the Ottomans questioned Sufi practices, muftis confirmed the legitimacy of Sufi music and dancing while condemning the intolerance of critics.

    During colonial times, fatwas became important tools for mobilizing the population. They defined Islamic territory and advised Muslims when to wage war against unbelievers and when to emigrate from a seized land. In 1891 an Iranian mufti prohibited smoking for as long as the British had the monopoly on tobacco. In the late 1930s, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and other groups published leaflets demanding that every Muslim fight a jihad, or holy war, for Palestine. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini issued the most famous fatwa in recent times, calling for the execution of author Salman Rushdie in 1989 for his book, The Satanic Verses, which Khomeini considered an attack on Islam.

    Modern print and electronic media has greatly widened the potential impact of fatwas. These decisions exert a strong influence on public and legal matters throughout the Islamic world, and Muslims continue to rely on muftis for spiritual guidance. See also Ijtihad; Justice; Law; Religious Scholars.

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