In saluting author Salman Rushdie and expressing solidarity with his plight, I would like to put on the table the question of whether the notorious “fatwa” issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Rushdie is really a fatwa in the first place. This is neither an academic exercise nor a purely theoretical investigation, but a matter of great practical relevance to any strategy (and tactics) for helping Rushdie the prisoner, writer and human being transcend the debilitating impasse in which he finds himself.

From the very start Ayatollah Khomeini’s celebrated “fatwa” did not read to me like a fatwa; it did not have the form, texture and feel of what Muslims — both Sunni and Shi‘i — would commonly recognize as a fatwa. A fatwa normally takes the form of a response, a dispensation, a practical solution, a way out, addressed to the problems, paradoxes, anomalies and puzzles that life throws up constantly in the face of the faithful. Thus a fatwa’s most common function is the circumvention of the application of the letter of the law to avoid unnecessary injury to life, limb, property, family or community. This is why a good mufti is invariably a bad Muslim. This is why also the routine of issuing fatwas is associated in common Arabic parlance with such not quite honorable practices as hairsplitting, verbal quibbling, vulgar casuistry, the drawing of Jesuitical distinctions, the torturing of texts, the unprincipled bending of principles and servility to the powers that be.

The above considerations are important for the frequent question of whether the so-called fatwa is rescindable, retractable and/or circumventable. In fact, it would have been in Rushdie’s favor had Khomeini’s “fatwa” been a proper fatwa, because the procedural rules and conventions for dealing with such dispensations are well established and well observed by all concerned. Furthermore, a fatwa can be counteracted, diluted, moderated or invalidated by another fatwa issued by an equally competent ‘alim, sheikh, mufti, faqih or jurisconsult. In principle, any person who regards himself as versed in Muslim law and doctrine and finds others willing to follow and listen is entitled to produce fatwas on this or that matter of life’s affairs, large and small. His fatwas are not binding except to those who accept his opinions as a jurisconsult. For example, the assassins of President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt sought and obtained a fatwa from a trusted sheikh of their own that allowed them to proceed with their plan to kill the apostate president. In the end, the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini’s “fatwa” became so potent is an affair of state, power politics and revolution, not an affair of faith, Muslim theology and shari‘a.

In essence, Khomeini’s supposed “fatwa” is really a judgment, a call and a death sentence, which the Imam, the Grand Mufti, the Faqih and so on, authorizes himself to issue in moments of grave danger to Islam and for the defense of the integrity of the faith and the sanctity of the umma (Islamic community). Under such extraordinary circumstances the jurist (faqih) may also call upon and permit any Muslim to carry out the sentence without further ado. Now because such a sentence is not a fatwa, it is neither revokable nor counteractable. Only the disappearance of the peril to Islam that brought it about in the first place would invalidate it, by rendering it obsolete and immaterial. Since it is not handed down by a properly constituted court — Islamic or otherwise — it is not appealable. In other words, it is purely political, discretionary and, in this case, of charismatic origin to boot.

What does this mean for Rushdie and for those trying to help him? It means the following: We should stop trying to make the clerical hierarchy in Iran admit that they made a mistake by insisting that they withdraw the “fatwa.” The only practical course of action is to desist from raising the issue any further, to let the dust settle, to consign it to benign neglect, to look to the future and proceed forward after absorbing the so-called “fatwa.” In other words, the best policy is to allow the “fatwa” to be aufgehoben in Hegel’s literal sense of the term (that is, to allow it quietly to lapse). All efforts — personal, public, private, official and political — should be directed at pressuring clerical Iran in that direction.

We should not forget that it was only in November 1992 that the Catholic Church’s clerical hierarchy formally admitted having wronged Galileo! The mills of the gods grind exceedingly slowly on both sides of the East-West divide. Defenders of Rushdie should take a lesson from the Catholic Church: Never admit to a major error, but always proceed forward to aufheben that error after assimilating it. Last but not least, we should not expect the Western powers to put any of their vital interests in Iran in jeopardy for the sake of a mere individual novelist — “an author on a book tour,” in the words of George Bush’s spokesperson during Rushdie’s 1992 visit to the United States.

How to cite this article:

Sadiq al-Azm "Is the “Fatwa” a Fatwa?," Middle East Report 183 (July/August 1993).

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