Fatwas are the deduced legal opinions made by a mufti or scholar who observes both people’s changing realities and God’s rulings in order to be able to issue a fatwa. It is important to note that the history of fatwa (history of legislation), consists of five different stages. The first is the revelation stage. The second is the early jurists' stage, or independent legal reasoning stage (ijtihad). The third is the stage of great scholars. The fourth is the stage of imitation (following past juristic opinions as a guide). The last stage is the stage of institutionalism.
The first stage, or the revelation stage, started at the time of the Prophet [PBUH]. The Prophet [PBUH] is considered the first mufti in history and it was he who established the practice of iftaa [issuing religious verdicts] based on what had been revealed to him (Quran). The prophet issued many fatwas in response to events and incidents that transpired during his lifetime. He also taught his companions the craft of issuing fatwas by correcting and approving fatwas issued by them. The death of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) marked the end of this stage.
After the prophet’s death, the second stage emerged. The stage of early jurists and independent legal reasoning (ijtihad). In this stage, the structure of issuing a fatwa has evolved. The companions and their predecessors who issued fatwas used the Quran and Sunnah as evidence to come up with their own independent legal rulings, and that helped them set up rules for issuing a fatwa. The process of ijtihad continued to develop for a long time after that, until the third stage.
The third stage, is the stage of great scholars (Imams). It marks a new generation of scholars who undertook fatwa and iftaa. There were about ninety diligent scholars. Imam Al-Shafi’i, was one of these scholars, and his rise marked a major point in the process of ijtihad. Imam al-Sahfi’i is the author of the famous book "Rules of Ijtihad on the Principles of Jurisprudence (Usul Al-Fiqh)" which is still used today and is a significant reference in the history of iftaa and legislation. Out of the ninety scholars, eight juristic schools still live on in the Islamic world today.
After that, the imitation stage started and continued for a while until our modern age (institutional stage) began. The imitation stage began when reality was slowly changing, implying that no major changes were happening in people’s lives. For instance, people who wanted to perform pilgrimage in the year 1100 hijri traveled the same way as Umar Ibn al-Khattab did in the year 20 hijri. This means that there were no unprecedented issues that required the issuing of new fatwas. As a result, scholars would take their references from previous fatwas.
When the last stage began (institutional stage), people’s realities were shifting at a higher rate than in the previous ages. Societies have started to develop economic and social systems. The age of our modern society contributed to institutionalism, which also represents the new age of fatwa. This stage marks the beginning of fatwa institutions specializing in fatwa research and issuing fatwa. The first fatwa institution in the entire world is Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta. The grand mufti (a mufti is someone who performs iftaa) comes at the top of the fatwa institutions and administers a comprehensive system for issuing fatwas and other fatwa related services for the Islamic world.