What is fatwa?

Egypt's Dar Al-Ifta

Fatwa (legal edict): is the clarification of Islamic law (legal rulings of God). A fatwa is usually made by a mufti based on evidence (God’s ruling) and in response to a question made by a person (an inquirer) on issues of personal or general concern. A fatwa encompasses every aspect of life, such as creed, acts of worship, transactions, the economy, family, politics, governance, arbitration, etc.

Rules that cannot be broken:

  1. A fatwa should be brief and clear.
  2. A fatwa should meet the needs of the inquirer.
  3. A fatwa should be free of ambivalence and have a clear, defined meaning.
  4. A fatwa should not assert that the ruling is from God, except if the ruling is based on definitive textual evidence.

What kinds of Fatwas that are subject to change?

  • Fatwas issued based on independent reasoning (ijtihad), analogy (qiyas), public interest (masaleh mursalah), and juristic preference (istihsan).
  • Rulings based on customs and traditions. (If customs remain constant over centuries, legal rulings must also remain constant and cannot be changed).

What kinds of fatwas are not subject to change?

Invariable rulings, fundamental rulings related to belief, commands, and prohibitions. These include obligatory acts such as statement of faith (shahadah), prayers (salat), fasting (sawm), alms (zakat), pilgrimage (hajj), etc.

There are countless interrelated ways for fatwas to manifest themselves. Here are some of these manifestations.

1. Fatwas related to commands and prohibitions.

  • Fatwas related to belief: These include rulings related to the belief in God, Angels, God’s revealed books, God’s prophets, and Judgment Day.
  • Fatwas related to acts of worship: This category of fatwas includes all rules of the obligatory, prohibited, recommended, disliked, and permissible fatwas. These include praying (salat), fasting (sawm), alms (zakat), pilgrimage (hajj), etc.

2. Fatwas related to an individual or community as a whole.

  • Fatwas affecting the community as a whole: These concern the Muslim community as well as the entire society. They deal with public afflictions, tribulations, general concerns, and issues related to society.
  • Fatwas related to individuals and specific incidents: These concern individual inquirers, and the verdicts depend on their specific questions. The rulings for these fatwas may change depending on the four elements that factor in issuing a fatwa (time, place, people, and changing conditions). Since necessity is measured by its extent, a fatwa tailored to an inquirer's question may be based on necessity and may lack all the aspects of a fatwa. A necessity is an exceptional case that ends with the termination of the circumstances surrounding its cause.

3. Fatwas on issues with or without legal precedent

  • These include issuing verdicts on traditional issues that already have legal precedent, arrived at by referring to the sources of jurisprudence.
  • Fatwas on current crises and unprecedented incidents that have emerged in modern times and which have not previously been tackled by jurists. These issues need to be scrutinized, researched, and applied to the provisions of Islamic law.

4. Fatwas based on composition

  • Brief Fatwas: These fatwas are restricted to clarifying the preponderant ruling with or without mentioning proof. Brief fatwas may comprise juristic opinions on a particular issue, stated in brief, and depend on the inquirer's purpose and circumstances.
  • Long Fatwas: These fatwas are research-based. They clarify the ruling and cite the opinions of different scholars and evidence on which they base their opinions. The fatwas then mention the preponderant ruling from among the different rulings cited along with proof. Rulings are based on the inquirer's purpose and circumstances.

Elements of Fatwa

There are four elements that factor into changing a fatwa: time, place, people, and prevailing conditions. Any change in these four elements necessitates a change in rulings while abiding by the objectives of Islamic law. A scholar, who takes these elements into account, follows the laws of religion and at the same time considers the results of the rulings. Reality consists of people, objects, events, thoughts, systems, and the complex relations between them. Therefore, it is necessary to take them all into account when issuing a fatwa.

  • Time: This means a change in traditions, customs, and conditions from one age to another, necessitating changing rulings based on the customs and traditions of people and rulings based on ijtihad (independent reasoning).
  • Place: Rulings change from one place to another depending on the country, whether it is Muslim or not, etc.
  • People: Dealings in the general sense and transactions in particular are not established except between people who meet the required qualifications to fulfill rights and obligations. This cannot occur unless each person is a legal entity.
  • Changing Conditions: This means taking new situations, circumstances, mental health, state of mind, etc. into account, which may change rulings. This could result in delaying the implementation of a ruling or in waiving consequences if they are definitive rulings.

Stages of Making Fatwa

Visualization of the problem (Taswir)

The first stage, imagination, consists of fully understanding the inquirer’s question to be able to issue a valid fatwa that is compatible with reality. The inquirer must formulate a question, while the mufti must question the inquirer, considering the four elements of fatwa: time, place, people, and prevailing conditions. The mufti must also insure that the answer is addressed to an individual or the entire community, since both require different answers.

Adaptation (Takyif)

The second stage, designation, is the act of linking the concept of the question to the appropriate category of jurisprudence. This stage involves classifying the question under the relevant area of jurisprudence and its sub-divisions. This process paves the way towards issuing a legal ruling on the matter in question. It is the mufti's duty to undertake this classification and carefully study it.

The Legal Ruling (Hokm Shara’i)

The third stage, elucidation of the ruling, is the act of deriving the ruling from the Quran, the Sunna, or consensus of scholars. The ruling may also be composed through judicial analogy (qiyas) and interference. The legal ruling is the message of God with respect to the actions of the person.

Issuing a Legal Verdict (Ifta)

The final stage generates the fatwa when the mufti applies his formulated ruling to the reality that has been perceived. The mufti must ensure that the fatwa does not go against the goals (maqasid) of Islamic law, or contravene one of its definitive texts, an agreed upon consensus, or an established legal maxim. If the ruling violates any of the above, the mufti must revise the ruling.

Ifta: verb: is the act of issuing fatwas to demonstrate God's rulings and their application to people's actions.
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