Fatwa Rules to Live By
Shmuel Bar is a veteran of the Israeli intelligence community and is now director of studies at the Institute for Policy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel. In this he book he discusses fatwas, which, though initially nonbinding opinions about matters of Islamic law, can serve as legal edicts on whether a given act under Islam is obligatory, permitted, or forbidden. Fatwas also are a major means for religious leaders to impel believers to engage in acts of jihad.
In regard to jihad, fatwas address such questions as: Who must participate in it? All Muslims? Women, children? There are ongoing debates about whether certain fatwas constitute mere opinions or legal edicts. Fatwas are not the only vehicle to transmit radical Islamist ideology about jihad. But when fatwas acquire legal status, they are no longer "nonbinding" but a duty that cannot be ignored, similar, for instance, to the duty of prayer and fasting during the month of Ramadan.
Fatwas as Policy Tools
Historically, fatwas were pronounced by distinguished scholars to provide guidance to other scholars, judges, and citizens on how points of Islamic law should be understood or implemented. There were rigorous criteria for who could issue a valid fatwa, as well as conditions the fatwa had to satisfy to be considered legitimate. The process of issuing fatwas began as a clandestine activity, especially when it was linked to jihad. The aim was to maintain the upper hand when using jihad as a tool of war.
With time, however, governments took an increasingly active role and lately have to come to dominate the process. Islam now lacks a formal apparatus by which a scholar acquires the right to issue fatwas; instead, spontaneous respect tends to accrue to certain individuals and their decisions-for example, Osama bin Laden. Rather than mechanisms for legal interpretation, fatwas have become policy tools for competing governments and nonstate actors alike.
Today in the post-9/11 era, more and more of what Bar calls "operational fatwas" are being issued by Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda, Hamas, and others. These are frequently directed against individuals and declare them apostates, which has become equivalent to a death sentence. For example, in 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses on the ground that it was "against Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran." Although Rushdie went into hiding for years and remains alive, at least one of his translators was murdered, and the impact on free speech is still being felt.
Islamic scholars use the religious authority of fatwas to validate the concept of jihad, regulate its scope and constraints, and provide fundamental motivation to its foot soldiers. Furthermore, jihad has a futuristic element in that it ends "normal time" and initiates a "messianic time." Foot soldiers have shown themselves more than eager to embrace this transition. But as a matter of policy and leadership, managing martyrdom and murder though fatwas, while retaining the veneer of Islamic legitimacy, is a challenge to a religion that advocates peaceful goals.
Restoring Peaceful Values
As has been seen around the world, "martyrdom operations" have their own ghoulish logic and momentum, and one-upmanship has been frequent. A fatwa does not guarantee a "successful" operation, and apocalyptic rhetoric for motivating followers can be a tool to promote radical political plans. But once begun, the process seems difficult to curtail.
Bar illuminates the role of fatwas as a basic tool for many jihadists. He points out that as religious decrees that legitimize terrorism, fatwas pose a challenge to those who wish to whitewash the religious dimensions of global jihad. As an answer, Bar recommends competition: "for every fatwa that promises Paradise to those who engage in jihad, a counter fatwa should threaten hellfire" (117).
In practical terms, a possible implication of Bar's research is the need for a shift or, rather, return to the Meccan Islam practiced during Mohammed's time in Mecca, a peace-seeking approach influenced by the Christian world where the use of violence, even for self-defense, was carefully delimited. In this early Islam, jihad did not yet exist as an aggressive concept. This Islam formed the basis for the Sufi movement, orthodox yet mystical and inward-looking.
Al-Afif al-Akhdar, the Tunisian intellectual and veteran fighter for secularism and democracy in the Arab world, noted that: "when Mohammed was forced to move from Mecca to Medina, a second Islam-jihadist Islam-was born. And it is this Islam that the contemporary terrorists have adopted. To justify the passage from the ‘conciliatory' peace of Mecca to the militant peace of Medina, Mohammed told the Muslims that jihad is permissible only for self-defense." The concept of self-defense, however, has been notoriously flexible.
Bar's book is an important contribution to the search for ways to win the war against Islamism. It highlights the need to defeat the legalized Muslim system that validates acts of terrorism as "jihad" with another, equally valid system.
 Quoted in Ehud Ein-Gil, "The Roots of Jihad," Haaretz, 12 February 2006.
Asaf Romirowsky is an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum and manager of Israel and Middle East affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.