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What a fatwa is and is not

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Indian born writer Salman Rushdie speaks at a news conference in Zurich, Switzerland, Tuesday, April 16, 2002. Iran's late revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa "” or Islamic edict "” against Rushdie on Feb. 14, 1989. Khomeini

Indian born writer Salman Rushdie speaks at a news conference in Zurich, Switzerland, Tuesday, April 16, 2002. Iran’s late revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa "” or Islamic edict "” against Rushdie on Feb. 14, 1989. Khomeini ordered Muslims to kill the Indian-born author because Rushdie had allegedly insulted Islam in his best-selling novel, ``The Satanic Verses.’'

Franco Greco, AP

Editor's note: Portions of this column are revised from a blog entry by one of the authors.

In 1988, the award-winning Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie published his fourth novel, titled “The Satanic Verses.”

It provoked international controversy. Protests erupted in several countries against what Muslims saw as its mocking disrespect toward the Prophet Muhammad and his family. (For instance, among other things, the novel refers to Muhammad by the derogatory name “Mahound,” which was often used by medieval European writers to vilify him, and it gives the names of his wives to prostitutes in a brothel.)

Rushdie received death threats, and on Feb. 14, 1989, the “Supreme Leader” of Iran, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a “fatwa” calling for his assassination. The British government put him under special police protection and he essentially went underground. Although the Ayatollah Khomeini died less than four months after his notorious “fatwa,” Salman Rushdie remains on several Islamist hit lists. Since then, despite continuing threats, Rushdie has gradually re-emerged into public life. He was even knighted in 2007.

But Khomeini’s “fatwa” continues to exercise a curious deforming effect on public understanding: The term “fatwa” has wrongly come to be synonymous, in many people’s minds, with “death sentence.” When someone says, “Bob issued a fatwa against Jim,” that means effectively the same thing as “Bob has publicly called for Jim’s death.”

This completely misunderstands and misrepresents the nature of a “fatwa.” And, of course, it contributes to the fear that many in the West harbor regarding “sharia” or “Islamic law.”

A fatwa is an advisory legal opinion by a recognized authority on Islamic law and tradition, issued in answer to a specific legal question. Without meaning any disrespect, it’s not altogether unlike an opinion by television’s “Judge Judy.” She’s a retired magistrate, not a currently serving one, and her decisions have no enforcing state authority behind them. Participants on her program agree to abide by her rulings, but that’s a matter of a private contract of binding arbitration.

Fatwas can range from single-word responses (for example, “Yes,” “No,” or “Permitted”) to book-length treatises. Although they’re typically focused on legal matters, fatwas also treat more general religious issues, including theology, philosophy, creeds and what are called in Arabic “ibadat” (that is, religious obligations or acts of worship).

Traditionally, despite numerous exceptions (particularly since the 11th century), the person who issues fatwas, termed a “mufti” — literally someone who can issue a “fatwa” — often functions privately, independent of the judicial system.The mufti’s authority derives from his knowledge of Islamic law and tradition, not from any ordination (which doesn’t exist in Islam) nor, really, from government appointment. And, as within American jurisprudence, muftis often disagree with each other.

While court rulings rely on the sifting of evidence and conflicting testimonies, muftis assume that the facts presented to them by their questioners are accurate, which, obviously, can bias their answers. (Again meaning no disrespect, in this regard they function a bit like newspaper advice columnists or like the former radio talk show with Dr. Laura Schlesinger: They have only the reports of those who contact them to go by; they don’t typically speak with the other people involved before they give their advice.)

Moreover, a fatwa differs from a court judgment, or “qada,” because it has a much wider potential scope — for instance, although “ibadat” (such as fasting, scripture study, almsgiving and prayer) are essential parts of Islamic law, they exceed or transcend the jurisdiction of the courts.

Furthermore, a “qada” is legally binding and enforceable by the state, while a “fatwa” is not. Instead, it is considered “informational.” Furthermore, while decisions of sharia courts usually pertain only to the specific cases they adjudicate, thus setting no legal precedents, fatwas are very often collected, published and cited in subsequent cases.

The Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and his novel did, it’s true, call for Rushdie’s assassination. But “fatwa” doesn’t mean “death sentence” any more than “jury verdict” does. Some jury verdicts recommend the death penalty, but most have absolutely nothing to do with capital punishment. A particular advisory legal opinion by the Ayatollah Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie’s death, but, overwhelmingly, most fatwas deal far less dramatically with far less dramatic issues.

Two solid books on Islamic law, the first a classic, are Joseph Schacht's “Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence” (Oxford, 1979), and Bernard Weiss, “The Spirit of Islamic Law” (Georgia, 1998). A prolific and valuable writer on all things Islamic, including Muslim jurisprudence, is Khaled Abou El Fadl, who teaches at UCLA Law School.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.