The word “fatwa” comes from the Arabic root “fata,” meaning newness, clarification or explanation. It refers to a scholarly opinion or ruling on matters of Islamic law, known as Sharia. The scholar who issues the fatwa, known as a “mufti,” draws on his own wisdom and knowledge of Islamic sources to interpret Sharia and address questions not specifically addressed in the law. These may include any aspect of individual life, social norms, financial affairs, moral decisions, politics, etc. Unfortunately in the west the term has become identified with a few highly publicized condemnations, but the vast majority of the millions of fatwas that have been issued in the history of Islam are non-controversial. A fatwa is not in itself a condemnation or a declaration of punishment.
Because Islam does not have one centralized hierarchical structure, the force of a fatwa depends on the circumstances and the reputation of the scholar who issues it. Sunni Muslims consider fatwas non-binding; Shiites consider them binding depending on one’s relationship to the religious authority who issues them. The role of these religious rulings in civil affairs in a given country depends on the relationship between Sharia and civil law in that country.