Technical term for the legal judgment or learned interpretation that a qualified jurist (mufti) can give on issues pertaining to the shariʿa (Islamic law).
Originally only a mujtahid, that is, a jurist satisfying a number of qualifications and trained in the techniques of ijtihad ("personal reasoning," the fourth source of Islamic law after the Qurʾan, the Prophet Muhammad's sunna, and ijma, or consensus), was allowed to issue a legal opinion or interpretation of an established law. Later, all trained jurists were allowed to be muftis. Fatwas are nonbinding, contrary to the laws deriving from the first three sources, and the Muslim may seek another legal opinion. The fatwas of famous jurists are usually collected in books and can be used as precedents in courts of law.
Because most Muslim countries stopped following the shariʿa during the twentieth century and adopted secular legal systems, fatwas are issued mostly on a personal basis or for political reasons. The practice of having a government-appointed mufti issue fatwas justifying government policy has been a major criticism by reformist contemporary Muslim movements. However, many of the latter often allow individuals without the requisite legal training to issue fatwas. Such edicts may be considered by their followers as binding but they are not recognized by the jurists or the rest of the Muslim community as legitimate juristic opinions.
Masud, Muhammad Khalid; Messick, Brinkley; and Powers, David S., eds. Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
wael b. hallaq updated by maysam j. al faruqi
A fatwa (pl. fatawa) is an advisory opinion issued by a recognized authority on law and tradition in answer to a specific question. Fatawa can range from single-word responses (e.g., "Yes," "No," or "Permitted") to book-length treatises. Although typically focused on legal matters, fatawa also treat more general religious issues, including theology, philosophy, creeds, and ˓ibadat (religious obligations or acts of worship). Traditionally, despite numerous exceptions (particularly since the eleventh century), the issuer of fatawa, termed a mufti—whose authority derives from his knowledge of law and tradition—has functioned independently of the judicial system, indeed often privately.
While court rulings rely on the sifting of evidence and conflicting testimonies, muftis assume the facts presented by their questioners, which, obviously, can bias the answer. Moreover, a fatwa differs from a court judgment, or qada˒, not only in its wider potential scope—for instance, although ˓ibadat are essential parts of Islamic law, they transcend the jurisdiction of the courts—but also because the qada˒ is binding and enforceable, "performative," while the fatwa is not. Instead, it is "informational," and, while decisions of shari˓a courts usually pertain only to the specific cases they adjudicate, thus setting no legal precedents, fatawa are very often collected, published, and cited in subsequent cases.
Schacht, Joseph. Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford, U.K., and New York: Clarendon Press, 1979.
Weiss, Bernard G. The Spirit of Islamic Law. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Daniel C. Peterson
fatwa, in Islamic law, an opinion made by a judicial/religious scholar (a mufti) on a legal, civil, or religious matter. The fatwa is usually a valuable source of information on any subject for private individuals or for judges or other authorities, and it is normally used as a guide and does not have the force of law. Under normal circumstances, a fatwa is legally binding only in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Fatwas are often issued to raise awareness and provide clarification regarding a specific issue for Muslims, who then may or may not follow them. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of fatwas have been produced. They came to the attention of many Westerners in 1989 when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie, whom he accused of blasphemy. Another well-known and deadly fatwa was issued by Osama bin Laden in 1998 and called for Muslims to execute Americans and their allies.
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fat·wa / ˈfätwä/ • n. a ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority.