A fatwa (Arabic: فتوى) plural 'fataawa', is a legal pronouncement in Islam, issued by a religious law specialist on a specific issue. Usually a fatwa is issued at the request of an individual or a judge to settle a question where fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, is unclear. A scholar capable of issuing fataawa is known as a Mufti.
Because there is no central Islamic priesthood, there is also no unanimously accepted method to determine who can issue a fatwa and who cannot, leading some Islamic scholars to complain that too many people feel qualified to issue fatwas.
In both theory and practice, different Islamic clerics can issue contradictory fatwas. What happens then depends on whether one lives in a nation where Islamic law (sharia) is the basis of civil law, or if one lives where Islamic law has no legal status. It should be noted that many nations in which Muslims make up a majority of the population do not recognize Islamic law as the basis of civil law.
In nations based on Islamic law, fatwas by the national religious leadership are debated before being issued and are decided upon by consensus. In such cases, they are rarely contradictory, and they carry the status of enforceable law. If two fatwas are contradictory, the ruling bodies (which combine civil and religious law) effect a compromise interpretation which is followed as law.
In nations that do not recognize Islamic law, religious Muslims are often confronted with two competing fatwas. In such a case, they would follow the fatwa of the leader in the same religious tradition as themselves. Thus, for example, Sunni Muslims would not hold to the fatwa of a Shiite cleric.
The fatwa on Salman Rushdie
The most infamous fatwa in recent decades involves Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. The argument relates to an ostensibly blasphemous statement from an early biography of Prophet Muhammad, regarding incorporating pagan goddesses into Islam's strongly monotheist structure.
In February 1989, a few months after the publication of the book, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued this demand for Rushdie to be murdered on Radio Tehran:
In the name of God Almighty. There is only one God, to whom we shall all return. I would like to inform all intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare insult the Islamic sanctions. Whoever is killed on this path will be regarded as a martyr, God willing. In addition, anyone who has access to the author of the book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should refer him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions. May God’s blessing be on you all. Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini.
This pronouncement by the reigning theocrat in Iran ended all pretense of the rule of law in that country.
Subsequently, Rushdie lived in constant fear for his life, guarded by British security police. In 1991, his Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was murdered by stabbing in Tokyo, and his Italian translator was beaten and stabbed in Milan. In 1993, his Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was shot and severely injured in Oslo.
Khomeini died shortly after issuing the fatwa. In 1998 Iran stated that it is no longer pursuing such, however the murder decree was again reversed in early 2005 by the present theocrat, Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei.
Fatwa on Taslima Nasreen
Fundamentalists in Bangladesh declared a fatwa against Taslima Nasreen in 1993, against a series of newspaper columns in which she was critical of the treatment of women under Islam. The next year she wrote Lajja (Shame) which described the abuse of women and minorities. Again there were calls for her death, and her passport was confiscated. Within the legal system, she feels that she may have faced a jail term of up to two years, but it is very likely that she might have been murdered within the jail. She managed to escape the country via Calcutta, was granted asylum in Sweden, and currently lives in Paris.