When the writer Salman Rushdie was attacked, many people immediately recalled the fatwa calling on all Muslims to take his life, wherein the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Leader at that time, accused Rushdie’s 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses,” of insulting Islam & blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad.
What is Fatwa?
The Arabic word fatwa can mean “clarification.”A fatwa (Religious Dictates) technically is a legal opinion on Islamic law, a legal ruling on a point of Islamic law (sharia) given by a qualified jurist in response to a question posed by a private individual, judge, or government.
To understand the fatwa easily, let’s say, for example, when a Muslim person is unclear on several questions like “whether I should cut hair on Thursday?” “Can I hire a surrogate for my child?” or say that a Muslim man wonders whether he should accept the teaching job offered at a religious school or continue working in his father-in-law’s well-paid enterprise. So, whenever a Muslim is faced with such a question, the man may turn to a recognized religious authority to request an expert ruling, or fatwa, on the said matter.
Who can issue a Fatwa?
Anyone can ask an Islamic scholar, an aalim (the singular for ulema who are educated in religious schools, Madrasas), an opinion or interpretation of something unclear in Islamic law. Fatwa is just an opinion from aalim. Depending upon socio-economic variables among the peoples who embraced Islam, the role of the aalim varied.
Fatwas are usually answers to their queries. Did you know? At Dar ul Uloom, the most influential seminary (a college where priests, ministers, etc., are trained) in the world after Al Azhar in Egypt, a separate fatwa department does the job online now. All kinds of people ask questions related to personal affairs, Islamic law, social matters, food, etc., which are either answered or not answered.
Is Fatwa legally binding?
No. It is an opinion, and it is not legally binding. Our Indian Constitution doesn't provide for the same either. They are considered authoritative but they are not binding judgments.
Can a Fatwa be issued for death warrants?
Death fatwas are usually carried out by indoctrinated militants, sleeper cells, and followers who want to answer the call of their religious leader and are determined to their religious duty. ‘Fatwa’ became a topic of discussion 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 passed a decree that it was not applicable. The fatwa issued to kill Rushdie triggered outrage and horror and resulted in a strained relationship between Iran and the West.
This was when many thought of Islamic fatwa as a synonym for a death warrant. Unfortunately, fatwas came to symbolize an imagined dark stereotype of the Islamic world, triggering the right to freedom of expression. However, there is a positive side to fatwa as well, it’s not all negative as it is believed.
Advantages of Fatwa
It clarifies any issue that arises in Muslim society.
It provides legal guidance within the ambit of the Shari'ah governing Muslims in their day-to-day affairs.
Fatwa is not legally binding when it is issued, it carries a significant effect in contemporary society as it provides guidelines and rules to follow.
Examples of Death Fatwas
Acting upon a fatwa issued by Omar Abdel-Rahman, a leading Sunni militant cleric of Al-Gama'a Al-Islamya (an Islamic Group), a Muslim extremist stabbed Egyptian Nobel-laureate Naguib Mahfouz many times in the neck on 14th October 1994.
In 2013, a woman in Afghanistan was shot dead by her relatives after a village preacher issued a fatwa accusing her of adultery. However, the local religious leader was later arrested by the police.
Fatwa issued against prominent personalities in India
Not only writers like Salman Rushdie, but there have also been many musicians, actors, or performers of any medium who have received a fatwa.
A R Rahman- Mumbai-based Raza Academy issued a fatwa against musician A R Rahman for being part of the Majid Majidi-directed Iranian movie Muhammad: Messenger of God.
Salman Rushdie- A fatwa was proclaimed in 1989 by Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The subject was Rushdie’s novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ and an allegedly blasphemous statement taken from an early biography of Muhammad regarding the incorporation of pagan goddesses (gods having physical statues like Hindus worship) into Islam’s strongly monotheistic structure (As Muslims don’t worship physical structures of Gods).
Taslima Nasreen- Fundamentalists in Bangladesh proclaimed a fatwa against Taslima Nasreen in 1993 for a series of newspaper columns in which she was critical of the treatment of women under Islam. This fatwa again called for her death, and her passport was confiscated.
Sania Mirza- A fatwa was issued against Mirza by Haseeb-ul-Hasan Siddiqui, a leading cleric, in 2005 for wearing indecent clothes while playing tennis, that is, short tennis dress stating that she should rather wear long tunics and headscarves like those worn by Iranian badminton players.
Salman Khan- A fatwa was issued against Salman Khan in 2008 for allowing Madame Tussaud’s museum in London to make his wax image. Before this, in 2007, Bareilly-based Darul Ifta Manzar-e-Islam issued another fatwa for attending a Ganesh puja at Mumbai’s Lalbaugcha Raja Mandal, where singer Sonu Nigam had performed aarti.
Veena Malik- In 2011, a fatwa was issued against Malik, the Pakistani actress who tried her luck in India. The fatwa was for signing an agreement to find a husband through a reality show (Swayamvar on National Television)
Shah Rukh Khan- In 2013, a fatwa was issued against the actor for his decision to produce a child through a surrogate mother, and it was also alleged that the fatwa was also for the child’s pre-birth sex determination.
Many other examples include Indian idol junior first runner-up Nahid Afrin, activist Malala Yousafzai, etc.
SC rulings on Fatwas
Vishwa Lochan Madan case- In 2014, the Supreme Court of India ruled on the validity of Fatwas. On a petition filed by Vishwa Lochan Madan, the SC bench comprising Chandramauli Kr. Prasad and Pinaki Chandra Ghose held that no individual/institution by name should give a verdict or issue a Fatwa touching upon a person's rights, status, and obligation unless such a person has asked for it. And that fatwa cannot be legally enforced.
Uttarakhand HC Banned Fatwa
Relying on the 2014 SC judgment, a division bench of Uttarakhand High Court banned individuals/institutions in the state from issuing fatwas, holding that it infringes upon statutory rights, fundamental rights, dignity, status, honor, and individual obligations. The bench comprising Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Sharad Kumar Sharma declared illegal a fatwa banishing the family of a rape victim from their village Laksar "Roorkee." Later, on a special leave petition that Jamiat Ulama E Hind filed against this order, the Supreme Court stayed the High Court order.
While some tend to criticize it, believing that they are strange and impacts freedom of expression, few others also consider it helpful for many reasons. Shockingly, some of the fatwas are complete fabrications – like the one claiming a Saudi edict permitted men to eat their wives in cases of extreme hunger. We firmly believe that in such sensitive issues, one must use their minds and not blindly follow anything for the sake of religion and search for both advantages and disadvantages.