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The Debunker: What's a Fatwa

by Ken Jennings

September 2018 marks the 45th anniversary of the 1973 coup in which the CIA helped remove the democratically elected (but leftist!) president of Chile, and replaced him with the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. We're celebrating the anniversary by having Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings school us all month on real-life dictators of all kind. Autocratic leaders always have a dim view of actual facts, from ancient Rome up to, well, today, but that's no excuse for us to believe all kinds of silly fake news about them.

The Debunker: What's a Fatwa?

Salman Rushdie was already one of the world's most acclaimed authors in 1988 when he published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. The book was immediately controversial among Muslims for various blasphemous elements—including the title, which referred to a disputed tradition that a few verses of the Qur'an had been retracted by Muhammad once he realized they had been inspired by the devil, not divine revelation at all. The same month that the book was published in the United States, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic theocracy, issued a "fatwa" in which he decreed that Rushdie, "along with all the editors and publishers aware of [the book's] contents, are condemned to death." Muslims were called upon to execute these killings "without delay."

The Debunker

Most people in the West had never heard the word fatwa before it was pushed onto their nightly newscasts in 1988—and associated with an authoritarian firebrand who often called America "the Great Satan." As a result, the word is still widely understood to refer to some kind of death sentence, essentially an Islamic bounty on someone's head. That's not remotely true.

Fatwa is an Arabic word meaning "opinion," and in Islam, it's used for any ruling on Islamic law issued by a religious leader. Today, with Muslims divided into competing sects not governed by any single judicial authority, fatwas are not binding like a court decision would be; in fact, it's common for clerics to issue contradictory fatwas on thorny doctrinal issues. A fatwa might be an opinion on whether Muslims can take medication that contains gelatin (since some gelatin is rendered from pigs) or dress or wear their hair in a certain way. But with a few big glaring exceptions, fatwas are not calls to violence against individuals. In fact, a conference of seventy Muslim scholars in Indonesia this year issued a joint fatwa condemning all violence and terrorism as contrary to the principles of Islam.

Quick Quiz: In 2001, a fatwa was issued in the United Arab Emirates against what popular children's game, because, they said, it promotes violence as well as the "Jewish-Darwinist theory" of evolution?

Ken Jennings is the author of twelve books, most recently Planet Funny and co-hosts the most important podcast in human history, Omnibus. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings