Academic journal article Islamic Studies

The Significance of Istifta' in the Fatwa Discourse*

Academic journal article Islamic Studies

The Significance of Istifta' in the Fatwa Discourse*

Article excerpt


I propose to analyze six important manuals of fatwa with a view to know how they define fatwa and how they see its significance in the process of fatwa-writing. According to them, a fatwa must confine itself to the contents of istifta'. These manuals also provide instructions about istifta' and mustafti, that is, the person who poses the question. An analysis of these instructions, structures and discussions about the mustafti reveals a very significant aspect of the process. An istifta' contains phrases about the obligation and the role of the mufti, the nature of the query and the value of the expected reply. I suggest that fatwa should be reckoned as a discourse on religious authority within the context of madhhab, taqlid and ijtihad. This essay will refer to the above manuals for the light they shed on the instructions about istifta', as well as about its form, structure and significance. In order to explore istifta' as a discourse on religious authority, the essay includes actual examples from the fatwa literature.


Istifta means to inquire, but in the Islamic legal usage it has come to stand for submitting a petition or a request for a fatwa, a considered opinion in religious and legal matters. The inquirer or the person making istifta is known as mustafti and the expert who gives this fatwa is called mufti. Even though istifta is an integral part of a fatwa it has attracted very little attention in the studies of fatawa. From its simple origins as a question and query, istifta came to be closely associated with fatwa, which developed into a formal institution by the fifth/Eleventh century. As a result, Muslim jurists expounded rules and instructions about the composition and submission of istifta. This helped reinforce the doctrines of taqlid (religious authority) and madhhab (the school of Islamic law concerned). Eventually, as we have explained later,2 istifta became an instrument of the religious authority of the jurists, who otherwise had no institutional existence.

The institution of fatwa has gained probably more significance in the modern period, but it has also caused certain changes in the form of istifta and its perceived role. This essay explores the significance of istifta both in the traditional and modern practice. For this purpose I will look into the manuals of instruction for fatwa-writing and also refer to some fatwas.

Origins, Meaning and Definition

It is important to note that in the fatwa discourse the mustafti (the inquirer) also acquired a special meaning and was defined inversely with relation to the mufti.

Islamic legal literature claims the origin of fatwa and istifta in the Quran, particularly in the verses 4: 127, and 4: 176. They ask you (yastaft"naka) concerning women. Say: Allah answers (yuftikum) about them (4: 127). The verse 127 gives detailed rules about the orphaned women, their property, marriage, divorce and just treatment, and the verse 4: 176 answers the question about inheritance.

In the above two verses, istifta' generates a question-answer context (yastaftunaka - yuftikum, "They ask you." - "He replies to you"). People pose questions to the Prophet MuVammad (peace be on him) and God answers the questions. God's answer is described as ifta' (yuftikum). The Qur'an does not always use the word istifta' together with ifta'. Rather, it uses the word (yas'alunaka) more often than yastaftunaka in question-answer contexts. Similarly, it uses the word istifta' more often in the sense of simple inquiry rather than in the context of question and answer. For instance, "Ask them (fastaftihim): are they more difficult to create ¡?" (37: 11), and "Ask them (fastaftihim), is it that thy Lord has daughters and they have sons?" (37: 149) These verses are often translated as, "Ask their opinion," but the context does not allow this meaning.

Evidently, in the Qur'anic usage, istifta' has the simple meaning of "inquiring" and was often interchangeable with su'al (question). …

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