After the stabbing of author Salman Rushdie during a Friday event in western New York, key questions about the suspect — who was charged with attempted murder on Saturday — remain unanswered. While the alleged assailant’s motives have not been confirmed, the attack on Rushdie’s life follows decades of threats of violence against the author and his associates, motivated by a fatwa that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued in 1989, when he was Iran’s supreme leader. On Sunday, Rushdie was recovering from injuries and had been taken off a ventilator, according to his agent.
The fatwa, which ordered Muslims around the world to kill Rushdie, was issued in response to Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses,” which some readers found blasphemous for its depiction of Islam. Since then, there have been attempts to blow up stores selling his book and violent demonstrations around the world to protest the novel.
The fatwa against Rushdie is one of the most well-known in the world, Islamic legal scholars say, and it brought the term to the West. But they say it has also created ignorance around the term’s true meaning, and a false equivalence of the word “fatwa” with “death sentence.”
Origins and Rushdie
In Islamic law, a fatwa is a “legal opinion on a matter that is raised by a constituent” to a mufti, a Muslim legal authority, according to Lama Abu-Odeh, a Georgetown University Law Center professor.
“It’s neither a judge nor a lawyer, but a person who issues legal opinions,” she said. A fatwa’s ultimate aim is to provide an answer to a legal question in Islam, and states or individuals may follow the opinion’s findings — but they are not obligatory for all Muslims.
Abu-Odeh gave the example of a Muslim who might seek a fatwa from a mufti when deciding whether to consume apple cider that has been fermented.
“You might request a fatwa,” she said, “if it’s unclear to you whether that’s alcoholic or not.”
She stressed that it is an individual’s decision whether to obey the fatwa.
Since the early Islamic period in the 7th century, fatwas have been issued on a host of religious legal matters, including ethical questions surrounding marriage or prayer habits. The Islamic body of fatwas has been developed in the centuries since, and in the digital age they have evolved with social media.
Khomeini, given his religious authority in accordance with Shiite Islam, issued the fatwa against Rushdie, said Abu-Odeh. After it was announced, extremist groups set a multimillion-dollar bounty on Rushdie’s life. Iran supported the directive to assassinate the author until 1998, when its president, Mohammad Khatami, said the country would neither “support nor hinder” assassination attempts.
Abu-Odeh explained that a modern government often grants the status of a mufti to someone who can then issue fatwas. But there are also emergent Islamic movements that have muftis, she said, “because usually Islamic movements arise out of dissent to the official state.”
Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) have issued their own fatwas, such as orders concerning fasting and power blackouts during Ramadan, reported Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat and the nonprofit news outlet New Humanitarian. But, NPR reported, Muslim clerics have also issued fatwas against ISIS, saying the extremist group’s interpretations of Islam are incorrect.
Fatwas in the West
In the West, a fatwa is often equated with “death sentence” in the wake of Khomeini’s order to assassinate Rushdie, Abu-Odeh said.
Intisar Rabb, the director of Harvard Law School’s Program in Islamic Law, said Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie has brought ignorance about the practice to the West.
“There is no historical instance or basis for calling on members of the general public to exercise vigilante justice to put someone to death for statements and, for that matter, for someone to follow such directives.”
Other acts of violence toward those who have portrayed Islam in ways that some of its followers find offensive have made the violent association persist, said Abu-Odeh.
Fatwas in the digital age
The rise of the internet has also changed how fatwas are issued, as websites have sprung up that issue fatwas to Muslims on religious questions they have. Many are English-only websites that cater to the vast Muslim diaspora that does not speak Arabic, and some are operated by Muslim leaders such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Islamic religious scholar who founded IslamOnline.net, which offers information about religious rulings.
Other media also issue fatwas. In Egypt, Abu-Odeh and Rabb said, there are television programs and radio shows in which Muslim viewers call in and request fatwas from muftis about a host of problems they are experiencing related to Islam, which have nothing to do with violence or death. But the ability for “televised fatwas” to be issued has been regulated, according to the Middle East Monitor.
Rabb also gave the example of social media as a platform for fatwas to be issued. “We have other means of communication that evolved right alongside [television and radio],” she said. “And so you get YouTube channels and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram fatwas.” Rabb also pointed to SHARIAsource, Harvard Law School’s digital portal for Islamic law, through which a professor tracked coronavirus-related fatwas, many of which were issued through social media.
The legitimacy of issuing fatwas online has been contested by scholars of Islamic law.
“In the digital age, it’s a mess,” said Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Islamic law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. “In the classical system, you only followed the fatwa of a person who you know is duly credentialed, so you were not supposed to follow a fatwa of an unknown. But in the modern age, this has gone completely out of the window. People follow the fatwas of people who have no idea, no training or degrees.”
Abou El Fadl also expressed concern that many modern fatwas announced through social media have no evidence and “are extremely short.” He mentioned the phenomenon of “fatwa shopping,” through which some Muslims surf the internet to look for an opinion that suits them.
Rabb stressed the importance of fatwas being issued through a qualified religious authority. It is “unconscionable and ill-advised for people to follow” fatwas not issued by such authorities, according to Rabb.
To some extent, fatwas have been democratized in the digital age: Countries including Iran have employed platforms such as Telegram in issuing fatwas — a way for government-backed muftis to perform what they used to do in person during early Islam, Rabb said. “In some ways, maybe muftis were the original influencers.”
But after the recent attack on Rushdie, Rabb recalled seeing the word “fatwa” conflated with “death sentence” popping up in Western media despite the everyday use of fatwas in Islamic life.
“This so-called fatwa is actually contrary to the Islamic understanding of them, historically at least,” she said. “It’s an unfortunate fact that this is the thing that actually popularized the term ‘fatwa.’ ”