Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas

Publication Year



Edited by Brinkley Messick, M.A. 1974, and David S. Powers, Ph.D. 1979

For more than a millennium, fatwas have guided and shaped Muslim understandings of Islamic law. The whole world knows of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa in the Salman Rushdie case, yet this key institution in Muslim society has not been the subject of a major examination until now.

Ranging in import from the routine to the revolutionary, and in form from one-line answers to short treatises, fatwas have served to reaffirm received wisdom, caution against error, and chart novel responses to changing circumstances. The interpreters, the muftis of Islam, have included the greatest independent scholars of the ages, heads of large state bureaucracies, and unassuming jurists in local districts. Their vital task, which continues today in published collections as well as on radio and television, is to strive to interpret God's design for the Muslim community.

Islamic Legal Interpretation uses an approach unique in Islamic studies, a casebook of expert analyses of fatwas from a wide range of times and places. The editors' first chapter sets forth the origins, classical diversity, and modern development of the fatwa, while the following chapters illustrate particular opinions and their contexts. The approach throughout is interdisciplinary, as historians, lawyers, language specialists, and social scientists address fatwas as fundamental sources on both Islamic legal thought and Islamic social history.


“In an age when the West is struggling to cope with its own distant, archaic and over-priced legal system, this book is a fascinating insight into how the Islamic world has sought to make its justice accessible both to the rich and poor, educated and illiterate.” (Nicolas Pelham International Affairs)

“This book is the product of a huge collective effort by scholars from all over the world to study Islamic Fatawa, or legal opinions of the Shariah, issued by those qualified to do so, the Muftis. The book ranges over the whole history of Islam, and covers topics as diverse as child marriage and the Gulf War, Hajj and Islamic banking, leadership in Salat and the use of the radio in modern Yemen to give broadcast Fatwas ... [S]tudy of [this book] is extremely worthwhile.” (Dr. Muhammad Haroon Islamic Times)

“This book will be welcomed as a broad study of an important legal institution. It is the first study ever on the fatwa and the mufti.” (Jeanette Wakin Columbia University)


Series Title
Harvard Studies in Islamic Law
Harvard University Press
Cambridge, MA