Click here to skip to content
Image of angel

Shi'ite fatwas

This elegantly decorated manuscript from Persia shows how much expertise and care could be lavished on religious legal documents: it is a collection of case law, compiled for the benefit of jurors.

Enlarged image Zoomable high-resolution image
Shi'ite fatwas

Shi‘ite fatwas, Persia, late 17th century
BL Or. MS 13890, ff. 2v–3
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is this book and who made it?

A fatwa is simply 'a ruling' or 'a decision' made under Islamic law. It usually results in a situation where fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is unclear: an individual or judge will ask for a fatwa from a scholar, called a mufti, who is capable of making a decision on the case. Usually, Sunni Muslims will go to a Sunni mufti, and Shia Muslims to a Shia mufti. The Arabic plural of 'fatwa' is 'fatawa'.

This book, the Kitab Tadhkirat al-Fuqaha' (Memorandum for Jurists), is a compendium of fatwas: a collection of formal opinions and decisions on legal cases according to the Shi'ite school of law. It was compiled by al-Hasan ibn Yusuf, called al-Mutahhar al-Hilli (d. 1325). This volume deals with legal definitions, and gives examples regarding transactions of sales, loans and pledges.

This manuscript was copied by the scribe Qasim ibn Husayn Shirazi. The opening double page has an illuminated floral headpiece in the style of the Safavid period in Iran (1501-1732), with colours predominantly in gold, blue and pink. The wide margins are illuminated with bold floral and arabesque decorations in gold and blue, and the text is within gold cloud bands.

What is the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam?

Islam's principal division is between Sunnis and Shias. The English adjective describing Shia Islam or an adherent is Shi'ite. Their differences relate to the attitudes towards leadership of the Muslim community, not to disagreements over matters of faith or worship.

The division arose in the very earliest days, immediately on the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. He had not named a successor, and the majority (Sunnis) believed that whoever was best able to protect the faith should be the leader (Caliph). They elected Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet's closest companions, to the role, which was seen as political rather than spiritual.

The minority (Shias) believed that the leadership should stay within Muhammad's family and favoured Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law. For Shias the leader had not only a political role but was held to be divinely inspired: an imam. The Sunni-Shia divide was exacerbated when first Ali and later also his son Husayn, the Prophet's grandson, were murdered by other Muslims.

Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam, crosses the Sunni-Shia divide.

How is Islamic law decided?

Islamic customs and conventions are referred to as the sunnah. These derive mainly from the hadith: contemporary accounts of the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad.

Sunni and Shia attitudes to the hadith differ. Shias believe that a living scholar may re-interpret divine law.

The Qur'an - the holy book, believed by Muslims to be the direct word of God dictated through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad in the seventh century - also contains instructions on compulsory, permitted and forbidden behaviour.

Together, the Qur'an and sunnah shape sharia (Islamic law). This deals with all aspects of life, business, crime and punishment, international affairs and so on. Most Islamic countries operate a dual system of secular courts and religious courts. Those involved in a dispute may agree to settle it in a religious court as an alternative to the civil route. Saudi Arabia and Iran, however, base their civil law on the sharia.