The word “fatwa” has become well known around the world. People often hear that a Muslim cleric or scholar has issued a “fatwa”. In some cases, this word has been associated with very negative things, such as a death sentence on a person or a severe punishment. The word “fatwa” has been made popular by media outlets looking for more sensational stories in order to capture the largest possible audience. In their pursuit of ratings, the media need to find an enemy that they can portray as evil and vicious, because such stories trigger fear in viewers and make them interested in following such stories in the media. Media outlets love to find words such as “fatwa” that they can use in their reports. This gives the report a more serious tone, and makes it appear as if the reporter is an expert on the subject, because no one knows what this word means and no one has heard it before. However, the media turns such a word into a keyword that catches the eye and the ear or the average person, all in the pursuit of more viewers and higher ratings.
So what does the word “fatwa” actually mean? It is an Arabic word, and it literally means “opinion”. Related words in Arabic are “afta”, which means to give an opinion, and “yastafti”, which means to ask for an opinion. In fact, in Arabic countries, an opinion poll is called an “istifta”, which is simply a different form of the same word. As you can see, there is nothing sinister or scary about the word itself. So why do media outlets not just say “opinion” so that everyone can understand what they are talking about? Would you care about the opinion of some cleric in Iran or Afghanistan? Probably not. But the use of a foreign sounding word such as “fatwa”, along with all of the negative and evil connotations that it carries, will catch the attention of a good number of people. This translates into more viewers, higher ratings and more advertising dollars.
This was the linguistic meaning of the word “fatwa”. In a religious context, the word “fatwa” carries more meaning. This is because when a Muslim has a question that they need to be answered from an Islamic point of view, they ask an Islamic scholar this question, and the answer is known as a “fatwa”. This “fatwa” carries more weight than just the random opinion of any person on the street. Muslim scholars are expected to give their “fatwa” based on religious evidence, not based on their personal opinions. Therefore, their “fatwa” is sometimes regarded as a religious ruling. Here is an example of a fatwa: As you know, Muslims are expected to pray five times every day at specific times during the day. A person who is going to be on a 12 hour flight may not be able to perform their prayers on time. So they might ask a Muslim scholar for a “fatwa” on what is the appropriate thing to do, or they might look up the answer in a book or on the internet. The scholar might advise them to perform the prayer to the best of their ability on the plane, or to delay their prayer until they land, for example. And they would support their opinion with evidence.
It is interesting to note that in Islam, there are four sources from which Muslim scholars extract religious law or rulings, and upon which they base their “fatwa”. The first is the Quran, which is the holy book of Islam, and which is the direct and literal word of God, revealed to Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). The second source is the Sunnah, which incorporates anything that the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) said, did or approved of. The third source is the consensus of the scholars, meaning that if the scholars of a previous generation have all agreed on a certain issue, then this consensus is regarded as representing Islam. Finally, if no evidence is found regarding a specific question from the three first sources, then an Islamic scholar performs what is known as “ijtihad”. This means that they use their own logic and reasoning to come up with the best answer according to the best of their ability.
It is also interesting to note that different scholars frequently have different opinions regarding any given question. This is why there is usually more than one “fatwa” regarding any one question. In fact, there are a number of methodologies for how to understand evidence gathered from the previously mentioned sources of Islamic law. Scholars who follow different methodologies will frequently arrive at different answers to the same question. It is well known that in Islam there are four “schools of thought”, and each of them differ with respect to certain aspects. However, it is important to know that these differences are usually about minor issues. For example, in terms of beliefs, the vast majority of Muslims agree on most aspects of belief, most importantly the concept of monotheism, and belief in the angels, Prophets, holy books and the day of judgement.
Muslims believe that any given action that they perform in their lives falls into one of five categories:
Obligatory Commendable Permissible Despised Not Permitted
All actions fall into the “permissible” category, unless there is evidence from one of the four sources previously mentioned (Quran, Sunnah, Consensus, Ijtihad) that proves otherwise. Here are some examples:
- The five daily prayers are obligatory upon Muslims. Those who do not perform them are committing a sin, and they will be accountable for that on the day of judgement. Performing additional voluntary prayers is commendable. Those who perform them will be rewarded, but those who do not are not committing a sin. Driving a car is permissible, meaning that the action of driving is not good or bad in itself. There is no sin or reward attached to it. Most things fall under this category. Divorce is a despised action. Although there is no sin associated with it, it must only be considered as a last resort when all other means of solving the problems between the spouses have been exhausted. Drinking alcoholic drinks is not permitted. Those who do so are committing a sin, and will be held accountable for it on the day of judgement.
When someone asks a Muslim scholar about performing a specific action, the reply will be a “fatwa” explaining which of these five categories this action would fall under. So if you ask a Muslim scholar to give a fatwa about adultery, they would tell you that it is “Not Permitted”. If you ask about fasting in Ramadan, they would answer that it is “Obligatory”. Muslims are usually encouraged to ask for reasoning and evidence behind any fatwa, and should avoid blindly following the opinions of Muslim scholars without understanding the reasons behind them. This is because Muslims should always feel that they are practicing Islam to gain the pleasure of God, and not to gain the pleasure of acceptance of any human being.