A fatwā (plural fatāwā) is a considered opinion in Islam made by a mufti, a scholar capable of issuing judgments on Sharia (Islamic law). Usually a fatwa is issued at the request of an individual or a judge to settle a question where fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is unclear.
In the early days of Islam, fatawa were pronounced by distinguished scholars to provide guidance to other scholars, judges and citizens on how subtle points of Islamic law should be understood, interpreted or applied. There were strict rules on who is eligible to issue a valid fatwa and who could not, as well as on the conditions the fatwa must satisfy to be valid. Today many Muslim countries (such as Egypt and Tunisia) have an official mufti position; a distinguished expert in the Sharia is named by the civil authorities of the country.
In nations where Islamic law is the basis of civil law, but has not been codified, as is the case of some Arab countries in the Middle East, fatawa by the national religious leadership are debated prior to being issued. In theory, such fatwa should rarely be contradictory. If two fatawa are potentially contradictory, the ruling bodies (combined civil and religious law) would attempt to define a compromise interpretation that will eliminate the resulting ambiguity. In these cases, the national theocracies expect fatawa to be settled law. In the majority of Arab countries, however, Islamic law has been codified in each country according to its own rules, and is interpreted by the judicial system according to the national jurisprudence. Fatawa have no direct place in the system, except to clarify very unusual or subtle points of law for experts (not covered by the provisions of modern civil law), or to give moral authority to a given interpretation of a rule. In nations where Islamic law is not the basis of law (as is the case in various Asian and African countries), different mujtahids can issue contradictory fatawa. In such cases, Muslims would typically honour the fatwa deriving from the leadership of their religious tradition. For example, Sunni Muslims would favor a Sunni fatwa whereas Shiite would follow a Shi'a one. There exists no international Islamic authority to settle fiqh issues today, in a legislative sense. The closest such organism is the Islamic Fiqh Academy, (a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)), which has 43 member States. But it can only render fatawa that are not binding on anyone.
Fatawa are expected to deal with religious issues, subtle points of interpretation of the fiqh, as well as various mundane matter. In exceptional cases, religious issues and political ones seem to be inextricably intertwined, as exemplified by the following fatawa:
Ayatollah Khomeini, the political leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, pronounced in 1989 a death sentence on Salman Rushdie, a British-Indian novelist and essayist, author of The Satanic Verses.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Muslim scholar and preacher best known for his popular al Jazeera program released a fatwa on April 14 2004, stating that the boycott of American and Israeli products was an obligation for all who are able.