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Salman Rushdie Stabbing: What Is A 'Fatwa' And Why Does 'Satanic Verses' Author Face One?

Salman Rushdie Stabbing: What Is A 'Fatwa' And Why Does 'Satanic Verses' Author Face One?

Fatwas have been issues since the early Islamic period in the 7th century and were used to direct followers on a number of issues including matters/questions of religion, ethics, prayer rituals or habits, questions and dilemmas regarding marriage and relationships and more. 

Writer Salman Rushdie has received death threats over his book The Satanic Verses
Writer Salman Rushdie has received death threats over his book The Satanic Verses Getty Images

Earlier in August, noted writer Salman Rushdie was stabbed in an unprovoked attack by a man in New York. While the health of the author, who sustained severe injuries in his eye and other parts and was recuperating in the ICU, has reportedly shown signs of recovery, it remains unclear why the assailant Hadi Matar, a resident of Fairview, New Jersey, attacked the author. But analysts and experts feel that the attack was the culmination of a decades-long fatwa against the author, who has faced threats and boycotts ever since the publication of his controversial novel ‘The Satanic Verses’. 

What was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie?

The fatwa had been issued by Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 calling for his death following the publication of ‘Satanic Verses’, which many Muslims claimed was a blasphemous attack on Islam. The decades since the book’s publication have seen not only open threats and calls for boycott against Rushdie but also attempted attacks on shops selling the book and world-wide demonstrations against it that have on several occasions turned violent. 

Following the announcement of the fatwa, multiple extremist groups put out multimillion-dollar bounties to kill the author. A decade later in 1989, Iran which had till then supported the assasination directive, said that it would neither support nor hinder any attempts on Rushdie’s life.

What is a fatwa?

A fatwa is a “legal opinion on a matter that is raised by a constituent” to a Muslim legal authority or a Mufti under the Islamic law. Fatwas are not issued by a judge or a person but a person. They are purely recommendations, not binding orders meaning they are not obligatory or mandatory for all individuals, organisations or states to follow. Lama Abu-Odeh, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center in the US, told the Washington Post that the aim of a fatwa’s is “to provide an answer to a legal question in Islam”. The opinion or fatwa that arises in response to the legal question — such as whether Muslims can consume certain foods or follow certain practices - may or may not be followed by all Muslims, even though some states or individuals may deem it necessary to follow the fatwa. 

Fatwas have been issues since the early Islamic period in the 7th century and were used to direct followers on a number of issues including matters/questions of religion, ethics, prayer rituals or habits, questions and dilemmas regarding marriage and relationships and more. 

Is fatwa the same as a death sentence?

The “fatwa” against Rushdie gained international attention and brought the word into Western vocabulary, where it was seen as equal to a “death sentence”. However, the true meaning of a fatwa is not necessarily a death sentence. 

Experts and historians find that there is no historical basis for fatwas being used as calls to assassinate those who insulted Islam or did not follow rules of Islamic law, Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie and the events that have followed since, as well as similar orders or assasination attempts at other dissidents of Islam, have added to the perception of fatwa as a death sentence, especially in the West which further propagated the idea in other non-Islamic nations. 

However, fatwas have been known to have led to decrees for capital punishment I’m previous eras. In 1515, for instance, Shaykh al-Islam of the ulema (learned scholars) issued a fatwa that printing was haram (forbidden). This resulted in a decree of death penalty against those found guilty of using a printing press. Incidentally, a fatwa was used again in the 1800s to allow printing of non-religious books. The 1504 Oran Fatwa, for instance, was issued to allow Muslims several religious relaxations in order to survive when Islam was forbidden in Castille, leading many Muslims to convert to Christianity forcibly. Muslim bodies have over the years also filed several fatwas against imperial domination of the West, Western colonialism, and Zionism. 

Who can issue a fatwa?

Fatwas can be issued by Muftis. In modern Islamic nations, Muftis are appointed by the government. However, religious organizations or movements including militant groups can elect their own muftis (since most of these movements originate from an anti-state/government perspective) who can then issue fatwas. The fatwa against Rushdie was issued by Khomeini who had superior religious authority in Iran as per Shiite Islam. 

Muslim clerics also file Fatwas within Islam. For instance, ISIS has issued several fatwas regarding rules and regulations to be followed by Muslims that it enforces in areas where it’s in control. However, ISIS itself faces fatwa by other Muslim clerics who deem ISIS’s interpretations of Islam as incorrect. 

Fatwas in India

Fatwas are common in India, which has a sizeable Muslim population. Some of the famous fatwas include ones against actors like Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. Salman faces a 2008 fatwa against him for allowing Madame Tussaud’s to create a wax replica of the actor. The actor has another fatwa against him issued by Darul Ifta Manzar-e-Islam for attending a Ganesh puja at Mumbai’s Lalbaugcha Raja Mandal, where singer Sonu Nigam had performed aarti.

A fatwa was issued In 2013 against Shah Rukh Khan for giving birth to a child through surrogacy for determining the sex of the child before birth.  

Badminton star Sania Mirza also faces a fatwa which was issued against her by a noted Islamic cleric in 2005 for wearing “indecent clothes” while playing matches.

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