Role of the Fatwa in Modern Islam

Robert Siegel talks with Reza Aslan, author of No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Aslan talks about the significance of the fatwa against terrorist attacks on civilians by the Fiqh Council of North America. He explains what a fatwa is, and who can issue one.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on the idea of a fatwa being issued. Reza Aslan is the author of "No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future or Islam." He joins us from New York.

Reza Aslan, what is the actual full meaning of the word `fatwa'?

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Author): A fatwa is basically a legal pronouncement. It is the opinion of someone called a mufti; that is an Islamic legal scholar who is capable of pronouncing his judgments, his opinions on any kind of legal issue with regard to Islam.

SIEGEL: And how formalized is the process of being recognized as a mufti who is capable of issuing a fatwa?

Mr. ASLAN: Well, it's simultaneously very formalized and somewhat fluid, particularly in Sunni Islam. In Shia Islam there is a very distinct clerical hierarchy with very well-established levels that one reaches depending on how much learning one has. In Sunni Islam one has to be, first of all, connected with one of a number of set schools of law. One has to undergo a very long and very rigorous education process, training process that first gives one the ability to even be considered a cleric. And then even then one needs to have had a certain amount of years, a certain amount of training in the clerical sciences and most importantly to have a certain amount of followers, disciples, which then allows you to issue your own legal judgments, which themselves are technically not enforceable except to anyone but your own followers.

SIEGEL: And there is no hierarchy at work, so you're not getting your fatwa approved by someone else or having it reconciled with another mufti's fatwa?

Mr. ASLAN: No. In fact, fatwas can very easily contradict each other. There is a hierarchy, however, and it's sort of an unformal--informal hierarchy in that any cleric or any scholar with more training and with greater numbers of followers is essentially placed at a higher level. And so, therefore, his fatwa has more meaning, it has more influence than, say, a fatwa from a lower-level cleric.

SIEGEL: Well, how important and how influential do you think this fatwa issued today is likely to be?

Mr. ASLAN: Well, it's enormously influential in that it is not targeted to the suicide bombers. This is--I mean, it's not going to make really any difference to those who are willing to, against Islamic law--against 14 centuries of Islamic law--strap bombs to their bodies and kill non-combatants and civilians. But the important thing about this is that it is targeted to those Muslims who feel some sort of empathy or some sort of relationship to these people. I think it's the language of the fatwa itself that targeting civilians is haram, forbidden, in the most religious sense of the term. And the idea that suicide bombers are criminals and not martyrs and it is forbidden to emulate them is an indication that these clerics are using their moral authority to reach the greater Muslim community and to make a very fine distinction that this is a criminal act and that it cannot be supported either physically or religiously or emotionally in any way.

SIEGEL: But given the great variety of movements within Islam, isn't there something circular about any fatwa; that is, it will be followed by those Muslims who respect the particular religious authorities who issue it but not by people who might honor either more conservative or more radical religious authorities?

Mr. ASLAN: You're absolutely right. I mean, there is no central authority in Islam. There is no Muslim Vatican or Muslim pope. A fatwa is not a papal bull. It has no sort of divine ordination to it. That said, I think what we are seeing now--and this is not new, this fatwa, in the United States. Similar statements have been issued, of course, in Britain. Similar issues--statements were issued by the grand ayatollah of Germany. And I think what it indicates more than anything else is that Muslims, particularly Muslim leaders, are starting to realize that there is a civil war taking place within their faith to define the very future, the very meaning and substance of this wonderful and magnificent and yet misunderstood religion. And that awareness is far more important, I think, than this discussion about how far-reaching fatwas like this are going to be.

SIEGEL: Reza Aslan, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. ASLAN: It was my pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Reza Aslan spoke to us from New York. He is the author of "No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and the Future of Islam."

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): And you can find the text of the fatwa against terrorism issued today. Go to our Web site, npr.org.

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