A brief history of the fatwa

The role of fatwas provides a dark insight into the relationship between Iranian religion and politics over the past century.
salman rushdie fatwa
Author Salman Rushdie was attacked on the 12 August. Orjan Ellingvag / Alamy Stock Photo
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The horrific assault on Salman Rushdie on 12 August has reminded us of the continuing threat posed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s ‘fatwa’ against the author issued over thirty years ago in February 1989. Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses’ was the cause of immense controversy throughout the Muslim world, not least among certain Muslim communities in Britain. It had not by contrast generated much interest in Iran where Rushdie was generally held in high esteem in literary circles. Khomeini’s abrupt edict, seen as an attempt to seize the leadership of the protests, changed all that, gave Iran ownership of a problem it had hitherto not paid much attention to, and marked a significant escalation to the crisis.

Within Shia Islam, a ’fatwa’ is a legal ruling delivered by a senior religious jurist, these days holding the rank of Ayatollah or higher. They are an integral aspect of Shia jurisprudence which operates on the basis of the continuous interpretation of scripture. They are normally framed as an answer to a particular question in which the faithful approach the jurist to adjudicate on a point of scripture, most of which are very mundane points. How one frames the question influences the nature of the answer. 

Given the proliferation of Ayatollahs in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a hierarchy has been established with the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Khamenei, ostensibly taking precedence, because not all Shias, even within Iran accept his religious supremacy. Moreover, it is generally accepted that the rulings of living Jurists take precedence over those who are deceased, with convention dictating that fatwas of deceased jurists, lapse.

The template against which all subsequent fatwas are measured is the fatwa issued by Mirza Hasan Shirazi prohibiting the smoking of tobacco in 1891. This was issued in protest at the granting of a concession of the sale of tobacco throughout Iran to a British entrepreneur. The fatwa was rescinded once the concession was revoked but a procedure had been established. A question, consideration, written ruling, with the obvious possibility that the issuer might rescind it.

There has been considerable debate about whether a fatwa had to be written or if oral transmission was sufficient. In the days before high literacy, hearing a fatwa was considered sufficient, it would have been impractical to be otherwise. But it is also true that some written document would be necessary as an authoritative point of reference, not that many documents were much more than a stated opinion.

This was very much the form Khomeini’s fatwa took, a ruling in little more than two sentences stating that Rushdie had to be killed for insulting Islam and the Prophet. It was nonetheless unclear if procedure had been followed and whether Khomeini had seen the book let alone read it. At that time, there were no Persian translations of the Satanic Verses in Iran. It was presented as an edict (hokm), because Khomeini intended for it to apply to all Muslims, not simply his own Shia followers. Meanwhile an Iranian ‘charity’ put up a bounty to encourage the ‘faithful’, and to compensate any non-Muslim who might deliver on the fatwa, a move which some considered undermined the religious ‘integrity’ of the entire exercise and betrayed its political motives.

Dying four months after issuing the fatwa Khomeini left his successors with a quandary. His successor, Khamenei, who as President had been rebuked for suggesting that Rushdie might simply apologise, could in theory issue his own fatwa which would supersede that of Khomeini’s. But politically this was impossible, not least because it would challenge Khomeini’s pre-eminence as the founding father of the revolution. For the same reason the traditional view that the fatwa might lapse on Khomeini’s death, was not going to hold.

The fatwa dominated Iran’s international relations much to the consternation of Iran’s diplomats who simply could not understand why the West took the matter so seriously, or indeed that the West might have principles of their own. With the election of Reformist President Khatami in 1998 a decision was made to find a political solution to the problem by defining the fatwa as a religious injunction out-with the responsibility of the government. They promised not to pursue it. 

By accident or design the Iranian government had – de facto – accepted the separation of religion and politics, a significant if under-appreciated development at the time. De Jure, nothing had changed, but the belief was that the fatwa would die a natural death. With the Reform Movement in the ascendancy many were questioning the validity of such rulings and the relevance of terms such as  apostasy.

There was vocal criticism of the way in which the Islamic authorities used fatwas to authorise the murder of dissidents, (Ministers of Intelligence and the Heads of the Judiciary are usually posts held by senior clerics who can issue fatwas just for this purpose – in a very real sense ‘a licence to kill’), with a number of clerics opposing its use in this way.

With the demise of the Reform Movement in 2005 however, a fierce reaction set in and many of the hard-line positions were redeployed with greater intensity during the protests known as the Green Movement. Dissidents were labelled ‘heretics’ and subject to the full force of religious repression. As for the fatwa, supporters doubled down, the bounty was raised, and Khamenei repeatedly endorsed it. 

By now the crisis dominating Iran’s international skyline was its nuclear programme. There was a new fatwa to consider and contrary to the Rushdie fatwa this one – Khamenei’s ban on weapons of mass destruction – was immutable and irrevocable. This of course was a theological and procedural nonsense: interpretations and judgements alter according to time and situation. Be that as it may, part of the settlement of the nuclear dispute revolved around an acceptance of this ‘fatwa’ as having legal force on the basis that religion and politics are – contrary to the view in 1998 – indivisible. That Western interlocutors should have endorsed such a view – that Khamenei’s word was in fact law – will have been dispiriting to those seeking political change in Iran, to say nothing of those seeking the revocation of the Rushdie Fatwa. It was a good example of tunnel vision in policy making.

Today, the prospect of the Rushdie fatwa disappearing seems slight. The Iranian government has disowned but not condemned the attack, while the Iranian press has been competing in its effusiveness to praise the attacker against a deserving ‘apostate’. The language is shocking. Most Iranians would disavow it. But we should never forget that the fatwa against Rushdie is the tip of an enormous iceberg that afflicts and forms the reality of life for Iranians today.

Ali Ansari

Ali Ansari is professor of Iranian History and director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews; Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute; and Honorary Vice President of the British Institute for Persian Studies.

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