What is the definition of a fatwa?
A fatwa is an official legal decision by a mufti (a person with legal and religious authority in Islam) or imam (religious leader) to answer a question posed by an individual or a court.
Basically, a fatwa is considered a ruling or decree from an Islamic expert or authority figure to fill in the holes of what the Quran or Hadith do not cover. It’s an official edict or statement on a particular issue, but it is not always mandatory to follow the directions of the fatwa.
What are examples of fatwas?
A Muslim can ask their imam or a mufti for advice on anything that is not explicitly talked about in the Quran or the Hadith.
For example, they can ask about what they should do in their marriage, like how to solve a specific problem with a spouse. They could ask about personal hygiene questions, political issues, relationship advice, and anything else that they want to make sure they do according to Allah’s standards.
Sometimes, fatwas are not prompted by individual Muslims going to their imams for guidance. There are many cases where a large Islamic power has issued a fatwa for all of Islam or a large population of Muslims. These are usually in response to a person or a group’s actions that supposedly go against Islam. For example, the Indonesian Council of Ulama in 2014 even decreed a fatwa against illegal wildlife poaching and trade.
One fatwa recently made it into the news in August 2022 when there was an assassination attempt on the writer Salman Rushdie during one of his speaking engagements in the United States. The fatwa had been issued in 1989 by Iran’s Supreme Leader, who claimed that Rushdie’s novel was blaspheming against Islam and its prophet. Rushdie had sought out protection from authorities in Britain for a few years after this fatwa was issued, but had since then resumed normal life. Rushdie was attacked by a 24-year-old Muslim man, and while there is no confirmed connection between the attack and the fatwa, it is an example of the power that Islam has over its followers.
What is the point of a fatwa?
A fatwa is supposed to instruct a Muslim or a population on what to do when there is not an explicit instruction in the Quran or the Hadith on the matter. This helps a Muslim have the assurance that what they are doing is most honoring to Allah and therefore will gain them more of his favor.
Fatwas are also needed for allowing Muslims to use new technologies and media, medical procedures, and other things that did not exist in the 7th century AD. Even plastic surgeries have fatwas; some are allowed and others are considered sinful.
Fatwas place a large amount of trust and authority into the hands of imams and muftis. Fatwas are dependent on that individual’s interpretation of the Quran and Hadith. Interestingly, fatwas can be different or even contradict each other on the same matter, depending on the Muslim's sect, country, or even the individual authority.
What does this mean in the big picture for Muslims?
Islam is a works-based religion. They believe that when a Muslim stands before Allah on Judgement Day, their good deeds will be weighed against their bad deeds. Muslims are extremely scared of messing up because this hurts their chances of escaping hell and getting into paradise.
Seeking out a fatwa from an Islamic leader gives a Muslim more assurance in their actions and helps them believe that what they are doing is pleasing to Allah. Instead of using their own personal judgment, Muslims try to do everything perfectly and seek Muslim leaders’ judgments, which is very different from how we, as Christians, are instructed to live.
How should Christians make decisions
Seeking advice is definitely important for Christians, however we also have the Holy Spirit within us to help us choose what is good and just. Jesus’ life, sacrifice, and resurrection freed us from having to follow the Laws of the Old Testament with its small details.
Instead of having to refer to a rulebook for every decision, Jesus gave us two commandments. To love God with all our heart, and to love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 26:36-40). Using the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and asking if something is honoring to God and others, followers of Jesus can make decisions without having to refer to a spiritual leader every time.
Jesus’s love and presence in our life changes us from the inside out and gives us the ability to discern what is honoring to God and others through the Holy Spirit, His Word, and wise counsel. We do not have to be perfect to be accepted by Him or to gain entry into heaven.
On the other hand, Muslims have a fear of messing up, because their salvation depends on pleasing Allah. Islam is works-based. Thankfully, a believer's relationship with the Lord is not.
Ask your Muslim friends about fatwas
It may be awkward at first, but talking about the differences between Islam and Christianity is a great opportunity for us to share Jesus with our Muslim friends. When talking about fatwas, you can share how we do not need to doubt every decision we make because of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent to help us. Start by asking simple questions:
- Have you ever sought out a fatwa from an imam?
- Why are fatwas important to Muslims?
- What is the end goal of a fatwa?
These questions give you insight into your Muslim friend’s heart and experiences. If you see that they are living their life afraid to mess up, pray for an opportunity to share the grace of Jesus with them. The love of Christ is powerful, so be ready to share it at all times!
"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."