In Islam, a fatwa is a legal decree which is made by someone who has extensive knowledge of Islamic law. Westerners have come to be confused about the precise meaning of a fatwa, thanks to the politicization of fataawa (the plural of fatwa) by extremist activists and organizations. Fataawa can in fact govern everything from whether or not it is appropriate for women to wear make-up to the best way to resolve a land dispute, and they are not considered to be legally binding, which is very important.
Islamic jurisprudence is extremely complex, much like other systems of jurisprudence based on religious values. The Qu'ran is considered to be one authority for jurisprudence, along with the sharia, or Islamic law, and the hadith, the records of the words and deeds of the prophet. Historically, Islamic jurisprudence has also included the ijma, or consensus of the Islamic community, along with qiyas, reasonings by analogy which are used by Islamic scholars. In addition, periodic fatwas may be issued to address the changing world.
Traditionally, a fatwa can only be issued by someone who is extremely knowledgeable about Islamic law, and ideally a fatwa comes from a place of sincerity and genuine concern. In order to be considered a valid fatwa in many regions, the fatwa must also not be personal or political in nature, and it should be appropriate for the modern world. Many Muslim countries have appointed a mufti to issue fataawa, acting as a religious authority.
When a fatwa is issued, the issuer must provide backup and support. It is not enough to say that something should be done in a certain way; the issuer should be able to find a precedent in the very large body of Islamic jurisprudence, and a fatwa is often supported with quotes from other sources so that people can understand the reasoning behind the fatwa. It is also possible to see contradictory fataawa from different religious authorities, and in some cases these authorities may meet to discuss the issue and release a new fatwa which reflects the outcome of the discussion.
Fataawa are not legally binding. Muslims who request a fatwa about an issue of concern may seek out a second opinion or even ignore the fatwa, especially if they feel that it contradicts with the spirit of Muslim law and life. Fataawa generally rely on the support of scholars to gain popular ground, and if a fatwa is also used in an Islamic court of law, it may gain additional weight with the Muslim community.
One infamous fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, ordering the death of author Salmon Rushdie, and some Westerners are under the erroneous impression that all fataawan take the form of execution orders. This is not, in fact, the case; one counterexample from scholars at Al-Azhar University, recommends interfaith study between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, illustrating the incredible diversity of fataawa.