After Rushdie, 20 years of fatwas

February 15th, 2009 - 2:04 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Feb 15 (IANS) Twenty years on from global protests over the publication of “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie, the storm itself has ended — but the world has had to strike an uneasy truce with a new word added to its lexicon: the fatwa.

Once an object of curiosity among fastidious editors and journalists, the word today is no longer girded by quote marks or written in italics. Most papers don’t even bother to capitalise the ‘f’ these days.

It wasn’t always the case. On Feb 14, 1989, when the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against Rushdie, calling his book ‘blasphemous’, many had no idea what a fatwa was.

Was it an order or an edict? Did it mean a death sentence? Did it have legal sanction? Who could issue it, and who would enforce it? Was it written down or pronounced?

Even the spelling was disputed (some spelt it fatwah).

The 1988 reprint of the Concise Oxford Dictionary’s seventh edition - a book many journalists would have had on their shelves in Feb 1989 - does not even mention the word fatwa.

After fatty, entries beginning with the letters f-a-t stop at fatuous.

Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines fatwa as “an authoritative ruling on a point of Islamic law”.

If the definition looks water-tight, it hasn’t stopped fatwas from flying around on every imaginable issue - clerics pass fatwas seemingly as routinely as diplomats fire off aide memoirs and demarches (both French words).

But their frequency, variety of subjects and array of issuers may have devalued what was once a rarely-invoked tool in the hands of senior Islamic clerics.

Just four days after a fatwa went out against practicing yoga in Indonesia Jan 28, local media reports said students continued to fill the classrooms of a yoga studio in the capital Jakarta.

“Issuing a fatwa is not the way to settle a controversy - if there really is one,” said Sita Resmi, a Jakarta yoga student and observant Muslim. “If something endangers the public, then I understand, but this doesn’t, so it doesn’t make much sense to me.”

The fatwa was issued by the influential Indonesian Ulemas Council, which claimed yoga was un-Islamic.

But things can get deadly serious, as when a fatwa against a journalist in Nigeria in 2002 led to rioting in which more than 200 people died.

More controversially, Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa that sent Rushdie into hiding for more than a decade appears to have influenced militant followers of other religions.

“It is the preferred modus operandi of right-wing groups among Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Jews,” said Pervez Alam, an India-born playwright living in London.

“Fatwas used to be issued mainly on important political issues. Now, in India at least, anyone can issue a fatwa on anything - whether it is the length of (tennis player) Sania Mirza’s skirt, or (film star) Shabana Azmi pecking someone on the cheek.”

“The Talibanisation of Islam over the last 20 years or so has influenced all other religions,” Alam said.

For many Indians, the age of fatwas arrived with the Punjab militants of the early 1980s, when the word tankhaiya (penalised) made its appearance - and stayed on, along with hukamnama (edict).

As the nation quickly came to learn, a tankhaiya can seek forgiveness by performing something called tankah - a public act of penance such as cleaning the shoes of visitors at a gurdwara.

In contrast, the fatwa against Rushdie appears to have no get-out clause, and his apologies remain spurned by Iranian clerics.

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