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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

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What is the role of a fatwa?

Until recently the words fatwa and mufti were absent from most people's vocabulary. Today they have become common terms in our media and public conversations. Osama bin Laden and other terrorists use fatwas to legitimate their acts and rally Muslims to support them; many major religious leaders issue fatwas to counter religious extremism and terrorism. Fatwas are currently playing a far more prominent and comprehensive role in Islam. What is a fatwa? What authority does it have over Muslims?

A fatwa is a formal, written legal opinion based on a mufti's (legal scholar's) interpretation of the law, given in response to a request by an individual or a court. It is authoritative, though nonbinding. Its authority is based on the mufti's education and status within the community and the persuasiveness of his opinion. The qualifications of a mufti and the rules for issuing a fatwa were developed in great detail. Theoretically, a mufti must be a mujtahid (an interpreter of law qualified to exercise legal reasoning). Many of the more important opinions have been included in collections of fatwas, which have become authoritative in their own right.

Muftis and their fatwas historically have been independent of the judicial system, although some muftis were officially attached to various courts. In modern times, some Muslim governments—for example, Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—have tried to influence and control fatwas by appointing Grand Muftis or through official consultative councils or organizations within government ministries of religion. At the same time, print and electronic media have substantially increased the role of muftis and the impact of their fatwas by making them instantly available to the public on a global basis.

Fatwas have been used extensively to challenge claims of the Islamic legitimacy of violence used for political ends. In 2010 Pakistan's Muhammad Qadri, a well-known religious scholar and popular preacher, issued a 600-page fatwa that is said to be an “absolute” condemnation of terrorism. To weaken terrorist recruiting, Qadri condemned terrorists and suicide bombers as unbelievers and declared that terrorism and violence has no place in Islamic teaching and no justification can be provided for it.

People are also able to seek advice or a fatwa from a mufti about their personal situation through web sites and television programs, with titles like Ask the Mufti. In recent years, for the first time, women have been trained and are functioning as muftis in Turkey, Syria, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

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