The Relevance of Fatwas
This really should be titled The Personal Relevance of Fatwas to me, a western educated but Ghanaian/Muslim culture raised woman who does not follow the tenets of faith religiously (haha) but still considers herself Muslim: a piece that will hopefully be relevant to other people. However, that’s way too long of a title.
So I was on twitter and came across a tweet asking “Any fatwā out there that forbids joining the Saudi army because they slaughter Muslims?”. And I got to thinking: even if there were, would it matter? What would be its relevance?
However, let’s start from the beginning. Google says a fatwa is “a ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority”
So it’s a ruling ( a judgement, a decision) on a legal matter regarding fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Presumably it only applies to people living under Islamic jurisprudence. And lastly it has to be a legal ruling made by someone with the authority and knowledge to do so. Who decides who has this authority, though? And how binding is this ruling? Does it become a part of law? What happens?
The Islamic Supreme Council of America says “A fatwā is an Islamic legal pronouncement, issued by an expert in religious law (mufti), pertaining to a specific issue, usually at the request of an individual or judge to resolve an issue where Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), is unclear.”
Also according to them, there is nobody alive today with the requisite knowledge in Islamic Law to actually make independent legal reasonings; anybody working within the corpus of Islamic Law must stay within what has already been decided by previous scholars. Anybody with the requisite training can issue fatwas, but only based on previous legal work and they are not binding on anybody. Individuals can decide who they trust and consider an authority and therefore whose fatwas they will trust.
Now, I really have no idea as to the legitimacy of the Islamic Supreme Council of America. They were the second search result (after the google definition). However, they seem to be one of many Islamic councils and I personally have no way to differentiate among them. From my cursory examination of their authority (which, according to their own definition I have the right to do), they seem no better and no worse than all of the other Islamic councils. And in actuality, the majority of Sunni Muslim scholars have very similar definitions of fatwa. The relevant parts of the definition are: a) it’s a legal pronouncement b) with no real legal/binding power that is c) made by someone who is an Islamic scholar and is trained in Islamic Jurisprudence.
So if I were confused on a religious matter and required a fatwa to help me make a decision, I could go to an Imam I trust and he would give me his opinion (fatwa). Since I trust said Imam, he and I probably have similar values and interpret the Qur’an and hadiths in the same way. And if my issue is whether or not I could join the armed forces of a particular country, my Imam and I are very likely to have the same opinion. And that cuts to the core of why I personally don’t find fatwas compelling. I don’t have to. Ayatollah Sistani may find it haram to join the armies of Saudi Arabia or America, but the many muslims in both the Saudi and American armies (and their Imams) clearly don’t.
This makes it rather clear that fatwas are not the overwhelming religious orders that every Muslim is bound to that the media makes them out to be. And if you are, like me, a western educated but Ghanaian/muslim culture raised woman who does not follow the tenets of faith religiously but still considers herself Muslim, then you may not consider the Ayatollah a legitimate source for fatwas, which makes say the long ago fatwa to murder Salman Rushdie completely irrelevant. Actually, you would find most if not all (I must admit, I don’t religiously keep up with the Ayatollah’s remarks) of the Ayatollah’s proclamations to be inapplicable to daily life. And really, so are any fatwas the media deems worth reporting.