The review of ‘Angels and Demons’ that is reproduced in this month’s Sea of Faith Bulletin includes these words: ‘Rushdie’s life was endangered when the Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa, or sentence of death.’ The review was taken from the American Atheist News, I enjoyed reading (most of) it, and – I want to emphasise this point – it was entirely appropriate to reproduce it in the Bulletin.
So, what’s my problem? Simply this: a fatwa is not a sentence of death, and never has been. A fatwa is a legal opinion, issued by a suitably qualified Islamic jurist. Usuli Shi’a Muslims – such as the majority in Iran – are expected to follow the fatwas of a living mujtahid (jurist capable of exercising independent legal judgement). Khomeinin died some 20 years ago, so he doesn’t count any more!
One of the most notable Sunni fatwas on the twentieth century was the Al-Azhar Shi’a Fatwa, an exemplary piece of Islamic ecumenism. A recent one forbids the use of weapons of mass destruction, reportedly because they endanger the lives of Muslims as well as non-Muslims, but I haven’t yet seen the text (which I would expect to value the lives of non-Muslims as well). The same scholar, Ali Gomaa, has issued a fatwa forbidding female genital mutilation, which he describes as ‘a deplorable custom’ with ‘no written grounds in the Qur’an’.
Thanks Malcolm. That a "fatwa" is a sentence of death must be one of the most common misunderstandings among the many we have of Islam.
Posted by Scott McKenzie