Demystifying the Fatwa

by Dr. Maher Hathout

Fatwa has entered the media's vocabulary. Fatwa, like other borrowed Arabic terms, (e.g., intifada, jihad, madrasa, sharia) carries an assumed meaning, is draped in mystery, and leads to misunderstanding. Linguistically, fatwa means "an answer to a question" – the question may be rhetorical or actual. The answer represents only the opinion of the person who offered it. In Islamic jurisprudence, fatwa means the opinion of a scholar based on that scholar's understanding and interpretation of the intent of the sources of Islam, that scholar's knowledge of the subject in question, and the social milieu that produced the issue or question. The scholar's answer or fatwa is not a binding rule; rather, it is a recommendation. The answer (fatwa) may be opposed, criticized, accepted, or rejected. In addition, the answer (fatwa) may itself become the subject of debate or questions.

In an egalitarian system such as Islam, a fatwa gains acceptance based on the integrity of the person who offered the fatwa (in Arabic, a mufti), that person's knowledge of Islamic sources as well as knowledge of the issue and of the social context that raised the issue. Any of the aforementioned prerequisites may be challenged and the answer (fatwa) is an opinion and that opinion may be incorrect. To consider a fatwa issued by anyone as binding on all Muslims is a dangerous contemporary trend that merely stifles Islam's rich history of debate and dissent. Moreover, it would allow individuals to claim authority over others by virtue of their supposed knowledge of God's will. The purpose of a fatwa is to offer an opinion, not to silence discourse.


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