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The History of Fatwa in Islam

Fatwa is  the authoritative ruling of a religious scholar on questions of Islamic jurisprudence that are either dubious or obscure in nature or which have newly arisen without known precedent.

Fatwa (or in some early sources fotyā; pl. fatāwā or fatāwī), the authoritative ruling of a religious scholar on questions (masāʾel) of Islamic jurisprudence that are either dubious or obscure in nature (shobohāt) or which have newly arisen without known precedent (mostaḥdaṯāt). It is in connection with the latter category that the word fatwā has been regarded as cognate with fatā, “young man” (Eṣfahānī, p. 373). The query eliciting a fatwā may, however, relate to an existing ordinance (ḥokm) of Islamic law, unknown to the questioner, or to its application to a specific case or occurrence; the fatwā then functions simply as a clarification of the relevant ordinance (tabyīn-e ḥokm). The process of requesting a fatwā is termed esteftāʾ; the one who requests it, mostaftī; its delivery, eftāʾ; and the one who delivers it, moftī. It may be requested and delivered orally, although in most cases both question and answer are put in writing. Fatwās generally address a specific and actual problem, although rulings have often been sought on a set of interrelated questions or on hypothetical problems the occurrence of which is anticipated. Although the fatwā is typically concerned with legal matters, doctrinal considerations are necessarily involved whenever a fatwā results in takfīr, the condemnation of individuals or groups as unbelievers. In addition, Shiʿite collections of fatwās are sometimes prefaced with a summary of essential doctrines, intended to make of these works concise handbooks for the common believer of both theology and law (for a recent example, see Ṣadr, pp. 11-74). The ruling provided in a fatwā is not intrinsically obligatory, for it is essentially an expression of learned opinion. In Shiʿism, however, the authority to deliver a fatwā is generally restricted to the mojtahed, the jurist equipped to deduce the specific ordinances of the law (forūʿ) from its sources (oṣūl), and obedience to the mojtahed of their choice—designated as marjaʿ-e taqlīd—is incumbent on all who lack the same learned qualifications; to follow the ruling given in the fatwā of a mojtahed is therefore obligatory for those who solicit it.

The practice of seeking and delivering fatwās is to some degree grounded in the Koran. Numerous verses record the Prophet to have been asked for rulings on different issues: the verb commonly used in these verses is yasʾalūnaka, “they ask you,” but in 4:127 and 4:176 the verb yastaftūnaka, “they ask you for a ruling,” is encountered. The Prophet is not himself, however, the source of the rulings, for in both verses he is instructed to say, “God provides you with a ruling” (qol: Allāho yoftīkom). More pertinent to the issuing of fatwās by the learned of the community is the injunction contained in 16:43: “Ask the People of Remembrance [i.e., those learned in the Koran] if you do not know” (see Ṭabāṭabāʾī, XII, pp. 275, 304). The reliance upon the authority of the scholar this verse recommends makes it unnecessary for the moftī to cite textual or other evidence in support of his opinion; a fatwā is therefore typically laconic, consisting of only a sentence or two or even a single word, written on the same sheet of paper as the question that has prompted it.


Shiʿite fatwās

The origins of the Shiʿite fatwā can be traced to the practice of the Twelve Imams. The first of them, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb, instructed Qoṯam b. ʿAbbās, his governor of Mecca, to “sit with the people at the time of dawn and sunset prayers and give rulings to those who request them” ( faʾftiʾl-mostaftīn; Nahj al-balāḡa, p. 555). Zayn-al-ʿĀbedīn, the fourth Imam, authorized six jurists, the most prominent of whom was Saʿīd b. Mosayyeb, to deliver fatwās at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina (“Tārīḵ-e taṭawwor-e ejtehād,” pp. 125-26), and a similar function was given to Abbān b. Taḡleb by Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, the sixth Imam (Najāshī, pp. 7-8). Since both these Imams, as well as the one intermediate between them, Moḥammad al-Bāqer, lived in Medina, their nomination of moftīs for the Prophet’s Mosque may be taken as one indication among others that the Imams saw their own duty as limited to explaining general rules and principles, the inferring of details and specific rulings being left to their learned followers (Modaressi Tabātabāʾi, p. 24). The appointment of moftīs for locations other than Medina was additionally intended to serve the needs of devotees who were not always able to present their questions directly to the Imam and to provide them with a means of shunning the caliphal courts by establishing a specifically Shiʿite judicial system; the moftī seems often to have functioned as judge (qāżī), although the two functions are technically distinct from each other (see Ḥorr ʿĀmelī, XVIII, pp. 98-111 for traditions in which Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq appoints various individuals as both moftī and qāżī). A further indication that the giving of fatwās was not a separate specialization but one function among others devolving on the learned is to be found in the instructions conveyed by the Twelfth Imam to the Shiʿite community during his lesser occultation by means of his first named representative, Moḥammad b. ʿOṯmān: “In the case of newly occurring problems (mostaḥdaṯāt), turn for guidance to those who relate our traditions” (cited in Moussavi, p. 59). This command suggests an identity in person and a close correlation in function between the moftī and the rāwī, the narrator of Imamite traditions.

More importantly, in the development of Shiʿite jurisprudence that unfolded after the onset of the greater occultation in 329/941 (see ḠAYBA), the function of the moftī became subsumed in that of the mojtahed. It has even been argued that those designated as moftī by the Twelve Imams must already have been mojtaheds, even if they were not designated as such, for they could not have given correct rulings on specific matters without having a sound systematic approach to the law as a whole (Ḵomeynī, 1965, pp. 125-28). Ebn Moṭahhar Ḥellī, known as ʿAllāma Ḥellī (d. 726/1325), to whom is owed an authoritative clarification of the functions of the Shiʿite mojtahed, explicitly restricts the giving of fatwās to the mojtahed (Nahj al-mostarshedīn, pp. 65-67). His contemporary, Moḥammad b. Makkī ʿĀmelī, “al-SHahīd al-Awwal” (d. 734/1333), accordingly defined the fatwā as “the view (naẓar) and opinion (raʾy) of the jurist, deduced by him from the sources of the law; it is the promulgation of an ordinance with respect to specific occurrences and cases” (al-Qawāʿed wa’l-fawāʾed, p. 179). The distinction between mostaftī and moftī became subordinate to that between moqalled (imitator) and mojtahed.

Despite the close relationship of certain Shiʿite jurists with the Safavid state, the Safavid rulers do not appear to have sought fatwās in legitimation of their policies unlike, for example, their Ottoman counterparts. This explains, no doubt, the absence of any Shiʿite analogue to the great compendia of Ḥanafite fatwās that were drawn up under Ottoman auspices such as Fetâvâ-yı Ebüssuûd Efendi, Behcetü’l-fetâvâ, and el-Fetâvâ al-Hâmidiyye (Atar, p. 495). There are, however, collections of fatwās given by individual scholars of the Safavid period, such as Shaikh ʿAlī Karakī (d. 940/1533), Bahāʾ-al-Dīn ʿĀmelī (d. 1030/1622), and Moḥammad Bāqer Majlesī (d. 1110/1699). As yet unpublished, these collections remain to be analyzed and assessed (for details of the manuscripts, see Modarressi Tabātabāʾi, pp. 104-8).

The emergence of the fatwā as an effective instrument of guidance for the Shiʿites of Persia in socio-political matters was due in large part to the definitive triumph of the Oṣūlī position within Shiʿite jurisprudence, a position that laid heavy stress on the prerogatives and authority of the mojtahed. This development, associated above all with the efforts of Āqā Moḥammad Bāqer Behbahānī (q.v.; d. 1208/1803), was approximately contemporaneous with the rise of the Qajar dynasty, which, unlike its Safavid predecessor, could not claim the nimbus of venerability bestowed by alleged descent from the Imams. The result was the issuance, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of a series of fatwās on a variety of social and political as well as devotional issues in which the increasingly self-assertive class of mojtaheds sought to exercise a directive role, often at the expense of the Qajar rulers.


Takfīr fatwās

One category of these fatwās related to the takfīr of persons whose teachings and practices were seen to be at variance with Shiʿite Islam. A ruling of this type, delivered by Mollā ʿAbd-Allāh Mojtahed, preceded the execution in Kermān in 1206/1792 of Moshtāq-ʿAlīshāh, a Sufi of the Neʿmat-Allāhī order (Algar, 1969, p. 38). His master, Maʿṣūm-ʿAlīshāh, was put to death in Kermānshāh in 1212/1797 in accordance with fatwās given by Moḥammad-ʿAlī Behbahānī (d. 1206/1801), son of Āqā Moḥammad Bāqer; Sayyed Mahdī Baḥr-al-ʿOlūm Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1260/1844); Moḥammad-Mahdī Shahrestānī; and other mojtaheds resident in the shrine cities of Iraq.

The grounds for takfīr were allegations of antinomianism and immorality (Algar, 1969, p. 39; Amanat, pp. 43, 77). Similarly fatal in its effect was a fatwā delivered in 1233/1818 by Shaikh Mūsā Najafī and other mojtaheds in condemnation of Mīrzā Moḥammad-Amīn Aḵbārī, an adherent of the Aḵbārī (q.v.) tendency in Shiʿite jurisprudence that rejected the authority of the mojtaheds and who was a constant critic of many individuals among them; soon after its issuance he was killed by a mob in Karbalāʾ (Amanat, p. 46) Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī (q.v.; d. 1241/1826), founder of the Shayḵī movement, was denounced as an unbeliever in a fatwā delivered in Qazvīn by Mollā Moḥammad-Taqī Borḡānī (d. 1264/1848) because of his apparent denial of the bodily nature of resurrection (Corbin, p. 225). Aḥsāʾī’s successor, Sayyed Kāẓem Rashtī (d. 1259/1843), together with the whole body of Shayḵīs, was the target of a similar fatwā delivered in Karbalāʾ in 1246/1830 jointly by Sayyed Ebrāhīm Qazvīnī, Baḥr-al-ʿOlūm Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Shaikh Moḥammad- Ḥasan Najafī (d. 1266/1849), and others (Moussavi, pp. 138-39; Amanat, pp. 67, 159-61). For a variety of reasons, none of the anti-Shayḵī fatwās resulted in bloodshed, and after Rashtī the leadership of the movement passed to Moḥammad-Karīm Khan Kermānī (d. 1288/1870), who himself issued fatwās for the regulation of marital and property disputes among his followers (Manoukian). More definitive in their effects were the several fatwās issued in denunciation of Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad the Bāb (q.v.; d. 1266/1850), the originator of Babism (q.v.), and his followers. The first of these fatwās resulted from the trial in Baghdad in 1261/1845 of Mollā ʿAlī Besṭāmī, accused of apostasy because of his propagation in Iraq of Qayyūmal-asmāʾ, a composition of the Bāb written in imitation of the Koran while claiming to supersede it. The fatwā condemning him was signed by nineteen Sunni scholars, of whom the most prominent was SHehāb-al-Dīn Alūsī (d. 1270/1853), the Hanafite moftī of Baghdad, and ten Shiʿite mojtaheds including Shaikh Ḥasan Kāshef al-Ḡeṭāʾ and Sayyed Ebrāhīm Qazvīnī. This may well have been the first joint Sunni-Shiʿite fatwā ever issued; it was, however, only the Sunni signatories who pronounced Besṭāmī deserving of death, the mojtaheds taking at face value his assertion that he was ignorant of the contents of Qayyūm al-asmāʾ (Momen; Amanat, pp. 220-32). The first fatwā to call for the execution of the Bāb himself was issued in 1263/1846 by the mojtaheds of Isfahan, but its implementation was prevented when Sayyed Moḥammad Ḵātūnābādī, the emām-e jomʿa (q.v.) of the city, declared the Bāb to be of unsound mind (Amanat, pp. 257-58). A similar finding made by Dr. Cormick, a British physician well disposed to the Bāb, saved him from execution in Tabrīz later the same year when ʿAlī-Aṣḡar SHayḵ-al-Eslām and his nephew, Abuʾl-Qāsem, delivered a fatwā declaring him worthy of death if found to be sane (Browne, 1918, p. 259). The fatwās that, together with certain political factors, finally encompassed his execution in 1266/1850, were delivered by Mollā Moḥammad Mamaqānī, Mollā Mortażā Harandī, and Mollā Moḥammad-Bāqer, the emām-e jomʿa of Tabrīz; they found him guilty of apostasy, and this time determined he was sane (Amanat, pp. 399-400).

A quite different case from that of the Bāb and others found guilty of doctrinal infractions was the takfīr of Mīrzā Ḥasan Roshdīya, condemned because of his foundation of a primary school of modern type in Tabrīz in 1305/1888 (Algar, 1969, p. 224). By contrast, when two schools offering secular as well as religious instruction were established in Najaf in 1327/1909, Āḵūnd Moḥammad-Kāẓem Ḵorāsānī (d. 1329/1911) delivered a fatwā authorizing the initiative (Nakash, p. 52).

Another fatwā of takfīr to be noted from the Qajar period is the alleged denunciation of the statesman Mīrzā ʿAlī-Aṣḡar Amīn-al-Solṭān Atābak (d. 1325/1907; q.v.) by the mojtaheds of Najaf in 1321/1903; the authenticity of this fatwā, which first appeared in the newspaper Ḥabl al-matīn, is uncertain (Algar, 1969, pp. 234-35). A better established example of a fatwā of takfīr against a politician is that issued against Sayyed Ḥasan Taqīzāda after the assassination in Tehran of Ayatollah Sayyed ʿAbd-Allāh Behbahānī (q.v.), leader of the “moderate” wing of the Majles, on 8 Rajab 1328/16 July 1910 by elements associated with the Anjoman-e Āḏarbāījān, a group headed by Taqīzāda. The fatwā took the form of a letter sent by Āḵūnd Ḵorāsānī (q.v.) and ʿAbd-Allāh Māzandarānī (d. 1330/1919) to members of the Majles and various governmental dignitaries: It denounced the political positions (maslak) of Taqīzāda as contrary to the Islamic identity of the country (eslāmīyat-e mamlakat) and the laws of the sharīʿa, and it demanded the lifting of his parliamentary immunity, his expulsion from the Majles, and his immediate banishment from Persia (text in Afshār, pp. 207-8). Despite the categorical tone of this letter, it has been suggested, on the basis of subsequent clarifications by Māzandarānī, that it was intended only as a critique of Taqīzāda’s political stance, not as an instrument of takfīr (Hairi, 1977, p. 115, n. 31).

Jehād fatwās

 A second category of fatwās issued during the Qajar relate to the proclamation of defensive jehād, the only type permitted during the occultation of the Imam. The organization of the defense of Najaf during the Wahhābī siege of 1220/1805 was preceded by a fatwā in which Shaikh Jaʿfar Najafī Kāshef al-Ḡeṭāʾ (d. 1228/1813) identified the struggle against the Wahhābīs as jehād (Sachedina, p. 22). Fatwās of jehād were more typically directed against European powers. During the first Perso-Russian war, Mīrzā Bozorg Farāhānī Qāʾem-maqām, vizier to the crown prince ʿAbbās Mīrzā, sent emissaries to Isfahan and the shrine cities of Iraq to procure rulings that the war already underway constituted jehād; among those who responded with the relevant fatwās, in either 1223/1808 or 1224/1809, were Kāshef al-Ḡeṭāʾ, Āqā Sayyed ʿAlī Eṣfahānī, and Mollā Aḥmad Narāqī. Their rulings were assembled into a book entitled Resāla-ye jehādīya (Algar, 1969, pp. 79-80; Lambton). In the second Perso-Russian war, it was the mojtaheds themselves who took the initiative, pushing a reluctant government to open hostilities against Russia because of the mistreatment of Muslims in territories lost in the preceding war. The agitation culminated in a fatwā delivered by Āqā Sayyed Moḥammad Eṣfahānī, a mojtahed resident in Karbalāʾ, that declared all those opposed to jehād against Russia to be unbelievers (Algar, 1969, pp. 88-89). This second confrontation with Russia, like the first, resulted in defeat, and the arrival in Tehran of a high-handed Russian envoy, the poet and dramatist A. S. Griboedov (q.v.), determined to emphasize Russia’s superior power. His activities were cut short when in 1244/1829 Ḥājī Mīrzā Masīḥ, a Tehran mojtahed, delivered a fatwā authorizing an assault on the Russian embassy in order to liberate Muslim women allegedly being held there; Griboedov died in the ensuing mêlée (Algar, 1969, p. 97). A number of mojtaheds issued fatwās during the brief Anglo-Persian war (q.v.) of 1273/1856-57, but the effect was minimal (Gobineau, pp. 46-47).

It was not until the early decades of the twentieth century that significant fatwās calling for jehād were once again issued. Late in 1328/1910, leading mojtaheds in the shrine cities, including Aḵūnd Ḵorāsānī, SHayḵ-al-SHarīʿa Eṣfahānī (d. 1339/1920), and ʿAbd-Allāh Māzandarānī (d. 1330/1912), delivered a joint fatwā calling for the defense of both Persia and the Ottoman lands against European aggression; this fatwā, they proclaimed, represented Sunni as well as Shiʿite sentiment, although it was not signed by any Sunni authorities (Nakash, pp. 57-8; Algar in Camb. Hist. Iran VII, p. 736). The following year, Italy invaded Libya and Britain and Russia occupied parts of Persia. The response was another fatwā from the same mojtaheds, joined on this occasion by Sayyed Moḥammad-Kāẓem Yazdī (d. 1337/1919), despite his disagreement with his colleagues on the question of constitutional government; it called for jehād against Italy, Russia, and Britain (Hairi, 1980; Nakash, pp. 59-60). Nor was it a question of mere verbal exhortation; Māzandarānī organized a volunteer force to fight in Persia, which, however, soon disbanded after the receipt of a reassuring message from the Persian government. Fatwās of more sustained practical effect were issued during the First World War. Sayyed Moḥammad-Kāẓem Yazdī, SHayḵ-al-SHarīʿa Eṣfahānī and Mīrzā Moḥammad-Taqī SHīrāzī (d. 1338/1920) all issued fatwās calling for jehād against the British who were in the process of wresting control from Iraq from the Ottomans. A number of mojtaheds, including Eṣfahānī, SHīrāzī, and Sayyed Moṣṭafā Kāshānī themselves participated in the fighting (Algar in Camb. Hist. Iran VII, p. 736). Within Persia itself, fatwās were issued by Shaikh Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Borāzjānī, Sayyed ʿAbd-Allāh Belādī Behbahānī, Shaikh Jaʿfar Maḥallātī and Sayyed ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Lārī in support of several jehād movements directed against the British military presence in Fārs and on the Persian Gulf coast (Algar in Camb. Hist. Iran VII, p. 737).

Other fatwās aimed at combating foreign domination concerned themselves with the concessions and other economic advantages foreign subjects were acquiring in Persia. The concession granted in 1289/1872 to Baron Julius von Reuter for the construction of railways in Persia, as well as for the exploitation of all minerals and forests in the country, led Mollā ʿAlī Kanī (d. 1306/1889) to deliver a fatwā calling for the dismissal of the minister responsible, Mīrzā Ḥosayn Khan Sepahsālār (Algar, 1969, p. 177). More celebrated and significant as a demonstration of the effect a fatwā might have was the ruling that in 1309/1891 decreed a boycott of tobacco as long as its marketing was in the hands of a British monopoly. In early December 1891, a fatwā began circulating in Tehran proclaiming that “from this day forward, the use of tonbākū (tobacco for water pipes) and tūtūn (pipe tobacco), in whatever form it may be, is tantamount to war against the Imam of the Age [i.e., the occulted Twelfth Imam], may God hasten his reappearance!” The ruling bore the signature of Mīrzā Ḥasan SHīrāzī (d. 1312/1914), a mojtahed resident at Sāmarrāʾ in Iraq judged to be the most learned jurist of his time and who commanded near universal obedience, and tobacco immediately became subject to an almost complete boycott in both the capital and the provinces. Doubt has been cast on the attribution of the fatwā to SHīrāzī, but it is known that about one month earlier Āqā Najafī (d. 1333/1914), the leading religious scholar of Isfahan had asked him to issue such a ruling, and the foremost propagator of the fatwā in Tehran, Mīrzā Ḥasan Āshtīānī (q.v.; d. 1319/1901), was in communication with SHīrāzī. In any event, SHīrāzī never denied the attribution to him of the fatwā, and the ruling that permitted a resumption of smoking after the rescinding of the concession to the British monopoly in February 1892 was indubitably his (Tārīḵ-e bīdārī, ed. Saʿīdī Sīrjānī, I, pp. 19-60; Teymūrī; Algar, 1969, pp. 211-15). The successful campaign against the tobacco monopoly is generally viewed as the first instance of mass politics in Persia, and therefore as the precursor of the Constitutional Revolution of 1323-29/1905-11 (q.v.), a movement which was marked by the issuance of numerous fatwās by both its supporters and opponents among the religious scholars.

Fatwās and the Constitution

The doctrinal arguments advanced by the two groups were of too complex a nature to be encapsulated in fatwās, and it is to sermons, declarations, and occasional treatises that reference must be made in examining their views. The issuance of fatwās was generally reserved for times of great crisis. Particularly important were the rulings delivered by a trio of constitutionalist mojtaheds in Najaf—Ḵorāsānī, Māzandarānī, and Mīrzā Ḥosayn Ḵalīlī Tehrānī (d. 1326/1908). When asked for their general opinion concerning “an assembly composed of the respectable and intelligent people of the country and having the aim of uprooting or diminishing oppression,” they replied that it was “a divine duty” to establish such an assembly (Najafī-Qūčānī, p. 459). After the Majles had been established in 1324/1907, Ḵorāsānī was asked for confirmation that it was the type of body he had approved in the earlier joint ruling; whether opposition to it was tantamount to war against the Imam of the Age; and finally whether novel measures such as military drills, the foundation of modern schools, and the establishment of a national bank were permissible. He responded with a relatively lengthy fatwā, assuring his questioners that the Majles was indeed deserving of support and classifying the three innovations mentioned as wājeb-e kefāʾī (an obligation falling on the whole community that may adequately be discharged by certain individuals on behalf of the rest; Kefāʾī, pp. 216-17). Once Moḥammad-ʿAlī Shah moved in 1326/1908 to suppress the Constitution, the three mojtaheds of Najaf issued a fatwā prohibiting any action against the Constitution as equivalent to war against the Twelfth Imam (Kasrawī, Mashrūṭa, p. 645). Later fatwās from Najaf denounced obedience to the shah as identical to obeying Yazīd, the caliph responsible for the killing of Imam Ḥosayn, and prohibited the payment of taxes to the Persian government (Kasrawī, Mashrūṭa, pp. 729-30). Despite their general support for the constitutionalist cause, Ḵorāsānī and Māzandarānī also found it necessary to issue fatwās warning against what they perceived as irreligious tendencies in the Majles (Torkamān, II, p. 112). A fatwā of Ḵorāsānī prohibiting the mistreatment of Zoroastrians and other non-Muslim minorities is also of interest as exemplifying the spirit that animated the constitutionalist mojtaheds (translation in Browne, Persian Revolution, pp. 42-44; for the fatwās of Ḵorāsānī on miscellaneous problems of jurisprudence, see Kefāʾī, pp. 354-67).

The foremost clerical opponent of the constitutionalist cause was one who had initially supported it, Shaikh Fażl-Allāh Nūrī (d. 1327/1909). When asked for the reasons that had led him to change his position, Nūrī responded with an extremely lengthy fatwā that might equally count as a brief treatise. He denounced as unacceptable and contrary to religion the assumption by the Majles of legislative powers; the subversion of the provision that all measures taken by it should be subject to approval by a committee of mojtaheds; the presence in the Majles of persons deemed heretical and irreligious; the equality of all persons before the law, irrespective of religious affiliation; unfettered freedom of the press; and the notion—repeatedly proclaimed by the constitutionalist mojtaheds of Najaf—that support of the Constitution was religiously incumbent (text in Malekzāda, IV, pp. 209-20; tr. in Hairi, 1977a, pp. 329-38).


Fatwās under the Pahlavis

The execution of Nūrī because of his opposition to the Constitution and his collaboration with Moḥammad-ʿAlī Shah in suppressing it contributed to a growing disillusionment with the constitutionalist cause on the part of even those religious scholars who had supported it, which in turn became one of the reasons for their acquiescence in the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in the person of Reżā Shah. Also influential in this respect was the expulsion from Iraq of a number of mojtaheds who had issued a series of fatwās denouncing the imposition of the Hashimite monarchy on Iraq by the British in the aftermath of World War I (Nakash, pp. 71, 79-81); two of them, Shaikh Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Nāʾīnī (d. 1355/1936) and Sayyed Abu’l-Ḥasan Eṣfahānī (d. 1365/1946), came to Persia, where they were respectfully received by the future Reżā Shah. In October 1924, a fatwā declaring obedience to him a religious duty, with the signatures of Nāʾīnī and Eṣfahānī attached, began to circulate in Persia. The authenticity of the fatwā has been questioned, not least because it contained the misquotation of a koranic verse, but it was never repudiated by either of the mojtaheds in question, who in any event consented to receive Reżā Shah when he visited Najaf after their return to Iraq (Hairi, 1977, p. 146). Eṣfahānī, deemed the most learned mojtahed of his time, was effectively the sole marjaʿ-e taqlīd of the Shiʿite world until his death, and he was therefore called upon to deliver a vast number of fatwās. Since he became resolutely apolitical, the socio-political content of these fatwās, collected in a volume entitled Wasīlat al-najāt, is minimal; worthy of note, however, is his controversial fatwā denouncing the self-flagellation and mutilation traditionally practiced during Moḥarram (Ende, pp. 26, 33-34).

A similar policy of abstention from political comment was followed by Shaikh ʿAbd-al-Karīm Ḥāʾerī (d. 1355/1937), whose revival of Qom as a center of religious teaching and guidance came at almost the same time as the foundation of the Pahlavi dynasty. He was only once moved to protest against one of the measures taken by Reżā Shah deemed contrary to religion, the Uniform Dress Law promulgated in December 1928, and the medium he chose for the purpose was a politely worded telegram to the ruler, not a fatwā (Rāzī, I, p. 51). The more vigorous contestation of Pahlavi policies mounted by other religious leaders of the time also does not appear to have involved the issuing of fatwās.

In Moḥarram 1364/December 1944, Ayatollah Ḥosayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī Borūjerdī (q.v.; d. 1381/1962) took up residence in Qum, succeeding Ḥāʾerī as steward of the religious institution in that city, and when Abu’l-Ḥasan Eṣfahānī died two years later, he additionally fell heir to his position as supreme marjaʿ-e taqlīd. Despite the great influence he thus wielded, he remained silent on the major political issues of the day, and when he chose to criticize various government initiatives such as proposed changes in the Constitution, the enfranchisement of women, and the limitation of agrarian holdings, he did this by way of private letters and meetings, eschewing the public and inevitably confrontational method of issuing a fatwā. Directly and visibly engaged in the political sphere was, by contrast, Ayatollah Abu’l-Qāsem Kāshānī (d. 1381/1962), a firm adversary of British influence in Persia and, for a while, an ally of Dr. Moḥammad Moṣaddeq in the campaign to nationalize the Persian oil industry. He chose to exercise his influence, however, by means of speeches, letters, and messages, rather than fatwās; there is, however, a fatwā extant from Kāshānī authorizing the employment of male teachers in girls’ schools if they are aged and of proven piety (Dehnovī, IV, p. 78). Sayyed Moḥammad-Taqī Ḵᵛānsārī (d. 1371/1952), another mojtahed of the period, did make political use of the fatwā: he issued rulings enjoining participation in elections for the Seventeenth Majles, held in 1952, and designating support for the nationalization of the oil industry as religiously obligatory (Hairi in EI2 IV, p. 1028).


Fatwās of the Ḵomeynī Era

 It was soon after the death of Borūjerdī that the rise to public prominence of Ayatollah (later Imam) Rūḥ-Allāh Ḵomeynī (d.1409/1989) began, not only as one of the mojtaheds to whom the followers of Borūjerdī now turned for guidance but also as a vigorous and unbending opponent of the Pahlavi monarchy. The key documents and pronouncements of the struggle he led, culminating in the Revolution of 1978-79, were declarations (eʿlāmīya-hā) and directives (rahnemūdhā) rather than fatwās, the rhetorical and emotive force of which is necessarily limited. Nonetheless, Ḵomeynī did issue numerous fatwās, both before and, more significantly, after the triumph of the Revolution, as did several of the mojtaheds who allied themselves with him.

Thus on 1 Ḵordād 1344 SH./22 May 1965, fifty-two instructors and students from the religious institution in Qom asked Ayatollah Sayyed ʿAbd-Allāh SHīrāzī for a ruling on the legality of sentences handed down by a closed court on thirteen people involved in the assassination of Ḥasan-ʿAlī Manṣūr, the prime minister during whose tenure Ḵomeynī had been exiled to the Turkish city of Bursa in October 1964. SHīrāzī responded with a fatwā in which he condemned not only the sentences in question but also the exiling of Ḵomeynī as the acts of a corrupt and tyrannical government (Davānī, V, pp. 132-35). Another mojtahed from whom guidance was sought during Ḵomeynī’s exile was Ayatollah Moḥammad-Reżā Golpāyagānī (d. 1371 SH./1993): to a question dated 10 Tīr 1350 SH./1 July 1971, concerning the legality of a law permitting the sale of agrarian lands belonging to public endowments (mawqūfāt-e ʿāmm), he replied with a fatwā condemning such sale as ḥarām (Davānī, VI, pp. 29-50).

Of greater significance and effect were the fatwās issued by Ḵomeynī himself after he was permitted in October 1965, as a result of popular pressure on the Persian government, to leave Bursa for Najaf, a location from which the transmission to Persia of his rulings and proclamations was considerably easier, although not without difficulty. In a fatwā dated 28 Ramażān 1391/17 November 1971, he authorized the use of various religious monies (wojūh-e sharʿī) to help provide for the families of political prisoners in Persia (Ḵomeynī, Ṣaḥīfa-ye nūr I, pp. 179-80). Indicative of his broader Islamic concerns transcending the destinies of Persia alone, was a fatwā issued on 6 SHahrīvar 1347 SH./27 August 1968, authorizing use of the same monies to support the nascent activities of ʿĀṣefa, the armed wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (Ṣaḥīfa-ye nūr I, pp. 144-45); this was confirmed by a similar and more detailed ruling issued after a meeting on 3 Ramażān 1393/30 September 1973 with a representative of the PLO (Davānī, VI, pp. 122-23). On 13 Esfand 1353 SH./3 March 1975, Ḵomeynī issued a fatwā permitting the discretionary third of individual bequests to be earmarked for supporting the surge in religious publishing activity then underway in Persia (Ḵomeynī, 1981b, I, p. 221). More squarely aimed against the Pahlavi regime was a fatwā issued in Farvardīn 1354 SH./March-April 1975 prohibiting membership in the Resurrection party (Ḥezb-e rastāḵīz), which was intended to monopolize all legal party political activity in Persia (Ḵomeynī, 1981b, I, p. 222). In a similar vein he delivered a ruling on 13 Rabīʿ I 1398/21 February 1978, soon after the confrontations leading to the revolution had begun, declaring invalid the oaths of loyalty to the crown sworn on the Koran by members of the armed forces (Ḵomeynī, 1981b, II, p. 67; the same fatwā is dated 12 Rabīʿ I 1399/10 February 1979 in Davānī, X, p. 67, possibly a more accurate date, given the impending collapse of the army at precisely that time).

Undated fatwās of socio-political content from Ḵomeynī’s years of exile are to be found grouped together under headings such as “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil” (amr ba maʿrūf wa naḥy az monkar), “defense” (defāʿ), or simply “miscellaneous questions” (masāʾel-e motafarreqa) as a supplement to Tawżīḥ al-masāʾel, the systematic collection of rulings on the major topics of jurisprudence he first published in the early 1960s (none of the numerous reprints of this work bear any date, with the exception of the edition published in 1359 SH./1980 by Ayatollah Reżwānī under the title Resāla-ye aḥkām). Among the more significant of these fatwās are rulings that denounce as invalid in their totality all laws approved by the Majles “on the orders of agents of the foreigners”; reject as incompatible with Islam the Family Protection Law (Qānūn-e ḥemāyat-e ḵānavāda) of 1346 SH./1967 and classify as adulteresses women who remarry after obtaining a divorce under its provisions; forbid the employment of Muslims in Jewish-owned businesses known to be supporting Israel; and proscribe property dealings with Bahais (Ḵomeynī, 1980, p. 328; idem, Tawżīḥ al-masāʾel, pp. 503-5; Ḵomeynī, tr. 1981a, pp. 437-42).

Ḵomeynī’s directive role in the Revolution of 1978-79 was exercised through messages and declarations which effectively counted as fatwās for his increasing following while being couched in a different and more emotive format. It was after the triumph of the revolution in Bahman 1357 SH./February 1978 that he began issuing a great number of fatwās traditional in form, responding to a flood of requests for guidance on the most diverse matters; the collection Esteftāʾāt published in Qom in two volumes in 1366 SH./1987 and 1372 SH./1993, incomplete according to its anonymous compilers, contains approximately 2500 fatwās. Together with the questions that elicited them, these rulings provide a valuable source of information on the state and temper of Persian society in the aftermath of the revolution. Many of the fatwās address the predicament of persons newly committed to the serious fulfillment of their religious duties and uncertain how to proceed, particularly with respect to the mechanics of taqlīd (imitation), or wishing to divide their taqlīd between Ḵomeynī and another mojtahed (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, pp. 7-21). Other queries answered by Ḵomeynī reflect divided opinions within the same household on political and religious matters: One questioner was informed that it was not incumbent on a wife to follow her husband’s choice of mojtahed to “imitate” (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, p. 13), and another who inquired about the advisability of refusing to eat the food cooked by his wife until she adopted a positive attitude to the revolution was advised to try more rational methods of persuasion (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, p. 487). A family problem of a different nature confronted a man whose son and daughter-in-law were so obsessed with maintaining ritual purity that they refused to attend congregational prayer, for fear of unwittingly contracting some form of pollution; “since they do not listen to anyone else, advise them,” appealed the questioner, and Ḵomeynī accordingly condemned their obsession as subtly satanic (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, pp. 110-11).

A problem of more general concern was that arising from the printing of koranic verses in newspaper reports of speeches and sermons and the use in government documents of the emblem of the Islamic Republic, a stylized form of the first half of the Islamic confession of faith; to those seeking guidance on how to dispose of unneeded papers bearing sacred words and formulae Ḵomeynī responded that discarding them as garbage should at all costs be avoided (Esteftāʾāt, I, pp. 114-15).

The question of the permissibility of music assumed new significance after the triumph of the revolution, given the fact that radio and television were now subject to religious dictate. Queries were therefore directed to Ḵomeynī concerning popular songs broadcast on the radio that had already been current before the revolution, folk music, classical or mystical (ʿerfānī) music, and revolutionary songs. Without commenting on each of these categories, he consistently responded that “frivolous music” (mūsˊīqī-e moṭreb) is forbidden but that “sounds of questionable nature” (ṣadāhā-ye mashkūk) are not (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt II, pp. 11-18). When asked for a clarification of what constitutes frivolous music, he replied that its determination is a matter of prevailing convention (ʿorf; Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt II, p. 41). All of these responses were fully traditional. Innovative, by contrast, was a fatwā permitting the singing in chorus by women of revolutionary songs in the presence of men (ibid., II, p. 18); this permission was extended by Ḵāmenaʾī (1995, p. 40) to cover the recitation of poetry by women to musical accompaniment.

Another frequently recurring topic addressed in Ḵomeynī’s post-revolutionary fatwās was the status of imported foodstuffs, such as white cheese from Bulgaria, which being packed in water might be thought to have been contaminated by the ritual impurity (najāsa) of the non-Muslim packers (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, p. 102, II, p. 508), canned meat (ibid., I, p. 500), and the frozen chicken imported by Saudi Arabia during the ḥajj season (ibid, II, p. 502). Ḵomeynī’s answers to all these alimentary queries tend for the most part to allay the questioners’ doubts concerning permissibility; however, in response to a question from Muslim students in America concerning the status of kosher meat, he reaffirms the traditional restriction to grains, especially wheat, of the koranic license to eat the food (ṭaʾām) of the People of the Book (Koran 5:4; Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt II, 501).

Problems of medical ethics, also addressed in fatwās of the pre-revolutionary period (see Ḵomeynī, 1980, pp. 334-36), arose more frequently and urgently after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. When the importation of cadavers from India to be dissected for purposes of medical instruction was temporarily interrupted, a professor of medicine inquired about the permissibility of dissecting Muslim cadavers. The fatwā given in response forbade it; however, another fatwā made it permissible for a Muslim to will his body for future dissection given that the training of surgeons tended to the general welfare of the Muslim community (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt II, p. 42). Forensic autopsies were forbidden, unless an overriding interest of society made it advisable in a specific case (ibid., I, p. 42). Artificial insemination with sperm derived from a man other than a woman’s husband and masturbation in order to produce a sperm sample for medical analysis were both pronounced categorically ḥarām (ibid., I, p. 51, II, p. 44).

Other fatwās reflected more directly the circumstances prevailing in the early years of the Islamic Republic. One such fatwā forbade the burial in Muslim cemeteries of persons executed for counter-revolutionary activity (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, pp. 89, 104-5); another rejects the assumption on the part of a questioner that former Marxists who have begun praying while in prison are acting tactically and are therefore still to be regarded as unbelievers and impure (ibid., I, p. 104).

Particularly numerous are the fatwās that address problems arising from the war with Iraq that lasted from 1359 SH./1980 to 1367 SH./1988. Some of them concern the difficulties faced by amputees and other war-wounded in making their ablutions (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, pp. 29, 30, 33, 91, 94), while others limit burial without washing and enshroudment to those victims of the war who have died as a result of direct engagement with the enemy: civilians killed by aerial bombardment of Persian cities; soldiers or civilian volunteers killed while on their way to the front; persons killed while providing logistical support behind the front lines; and fighters who succumb in hospital to wounds suffered at the front all count as martyrs (shohadāʾ), but their bodies must be washed and enshrouded in accordance with normal practice (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, pp. 78-83).

Of particular interest are those fatwās which represent radical departures from the rulings of earlier Shiʿite jurists. On 7 Ābān 1358 SH./29 October 1980, Ḵomeynī delivered a fatwā to the effect that women might transfer to themselves the right to unilateral dissolution of marriage, otherwise held by the husband, or guard themselves against the possibility of a husband taking a second wife, by inserting appropriate conditions in the marriage contract (Ḵomeynī, Ṣaḥīfa-ye nūr, X, p. 78). Indicative of Ḵomeynī’s concern for a rapprochement between Shiʿites and Sunnis, particularly marked after the triumph of the revolution, are his fatwās permitting Shiʿites to pray behind Sunni prayer leaders. Thus a group of Persians resident in Europe were instructed to continue their practice of performing their Friday prayers behind a Sunni prayer leader, and others who prayed regularly behind a Sunni in one of the predominantly Sunni regions of Persia were assured of the correctness and validity of their prayers (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, pp. 269, 279). Such practices had been permitted by earlier authorities only as a measure of taqīya (prudential dissimulation), especially during the ḥajj, when Shiʿites would be a small minority amidst a vast concourse of Sunnis, and one questioner therefore asked whether following a Sunni prayer leader under circumstances other than the ḥajj was permissible; he received an affirmative answer (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, p. 279).

The fatwā of Ḵomeynī which had the greatest global impact was, of course, that issued on 25 Bahman 1367 SH./14 February 1989 calling for the execution of Salman Rushdie, author of a novel, The Satanic Verses, widely regarded by Muslims as obscenely blasphemous, as well as those responsible for the publication and dissemination of the work (text in Kayhān-e hawāʾī 817, 3 Esfand 1367 SH./22 February 1989, p. 1). In strictly juristic terms, the fatwā was not particularly remarkable or innovative; even its call for the summary execution of Rushdie without any judicial process was firmly grounded in the existing provisions of Shiʿite (as well as Sunni) jurisprudence. What lent the fatwā particular prominence and impact was its issuance by Ḵomeynī, who was a head of state as well as a marjaʿ, and the context of increasing antagonism between the Islamic and western worlds that surrounded it.

The position of Ḵomeynī as supreme leader (rahbar) of the Islamic Republic, in accordance with the doctrine of welāyat-e faqīh (“governance of the jurist”), also raised with particular acuity the problem posed by the clashing fatwās of different mojtaheds. The question had already been addressed in much earlier times, as, for example, by Ebn Moṭahhar Ḥellī, who declared that in cases of disagreement among the jurists the fatwā of the most learned among them was to be preferred (Nahj al-mostarshedīn, p. 67). In Qajar times, moreover, a doctrine known as motābaʿat was evolved, according to which the fatwā of a given mojtahed might overrule that of other mojtaheds in specific cases, with the effective result that they, together with their respective followings, all engaged in taqlīd of the mojtahed who issued the binding fatwā (Moussavi, pp. 135, 199-92). This elevation to overriding authority of a single mojtahed was naturally reinforced and generalized by the institutionalization of welāyat-e faqīh, and Ḵomeynī issued a fatwā clarifying that the commands of the walīy-e faqīh (governing jurist) take precedence over any divergent fatwās of other mojtaheds (Ḵomeynī, Esteftāʾāt I, p. 19; Wilayah and Marjaiyah Today, p. 247; for a similar ruling by Ayatollah ʿAlī Ḵāmenaʾī, see his Esteftāʾāt, p. 9).

Certain mojtaheds nonetheless issued fatwās condemnatory of government policies in the early years of the Islamic Republic, especially as they touched on socio-economic concerns. Thus in late 1359 SH./early 1980 Ayatollahs Bahāʾ-al-Dīn Maḥallātī of Shiraz and ʿAbd-Allāh SHīrāzī of Mashhad issued strongly worded fatwās that condemned as contrary to Islam the Law for the Reassignment and Revival of Land (Qānūn-e vāgozārī wa eḥyā-ye zamīn) that had just been ratified by the Revolutionary Council (Algar, 1986, p. 43). Given the closeness to Ḵomeynī of the persons responsible for drafting the law and his general emphasis on the discretionary powers of the Islamic state for attaining its proclaimed social goals, it may be presumed that he favored the provisions contained in the law for redistributing agrarian land. For pragmatic reasons, however, he chose not to invoke his overriding authority as walīy-e faqīh and suspended the implementation of the law in the fall of 1359 SH./1980.

One of the modifications to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic that were approved in a referendum conducted jointly with the presidential elections of 6 Mordād 1368 SH./28 July 1989 seemed to point to a disjunction of the authority to issue fatwās from the function of marjaʿ and even from the position of mojtahed. Article 109 of the Constitution approved on 11-12 Āḏar 1358 SH./2-3 December 1979 had listed as first among the qualifications of the rahbar (leader) suitability with respect to learning and piety as required for the functions of moftī and marjaʿ (lāzem barā-ye eftāʾ wa marjaʿīyat); it was now amended to read “suitability with respect to learning as required for the function of moftī in the different areas of jurisprudence” (lāzem barā-ye eftāʾ dar abwāb-e moḵtalef-e feqh), piety being specified as a separate qualification (Qānūn-e asāsī, pp. 54-55). The apparent disjunction was relatively short-lived, for Ayatollah ʿAlī Ḵāmenaʾī, who had succeeded to Ḵomeynī’s position as rahbar the day after his death on 13 Ḵordād 1368 SH./3 June 1989, began establishing his authority as a marjaʿ some five years later, after the demise of Ayatollah Moḥammad-ʿAlī Arākī, the last of the senior marājeʿ to outlive Ḵomeynī, on 8 Āḏar 1373 SH./29 November 1994 (see the proclamations and communiqués declaring Ḵāmenaʾī’s suitability as marjaʿ in Wilayah and Marjaiyah Today, pp. 101-43).


Fatwās in the post-Ḵomeynī period

A potentially more significant development of the post-Ḵomeynī period has been the establishment of a Fatwā Council (Shūrā-ye eftāʾ) to function under the auspices of the rahbar. The idea of a collective body for the issuance of fatwās had first been put forward after the death of Ayatollah Borūjerdī, partly because of the lack at that time of any figure capable of inheriting his mantle of sole leadership and partly because of the belief that questions requiring authoritative answers were too varied and specialized adequately to be handled by a single individual. In arguing for the establishment of such a body, Ayatollah Sayyed Maḥmūd Ṭālaqānī (d. 1358 SH./1979) also pointed to Koranic verses such as 4:13 and 9:123 from which the desirability of collective or “decentralized” religious direction might be deduced (Ṭālaqānī, pp. 201-11). Another scholar, Sayyed Mortażā Jazāyerī, maintained that restricting the authority to issue fatwās to a single mojtahed regarded as “more learned” (aʿlam) than all his colleagues was a relatively recent development in Shiʿite jurisprudence and that the “well-known (mashhūr) opinion of a majority of scholars” had been regarded as authoritative in earlier times (Jazāyerī, pp. 215-30). Nothing came of this proposal for collective eftāʾ, largely because of the turbulent events that began to unfold in the religio-political sphere almost immediately after it was put forward.

The body proposed by Ṭālaqānī and Jazāyerī was intended to supplant the authority of the single mojtahed; that established by Ḵāmenaʾī functions as an adjunct of the rahbar’s office. Matters brought before him for a fatwā are sometimes referred to the Fatwā Council, which in turn assigns the necessary research to one of its members; once he has completed his findings, he presents them to a plenary meeting of the council over which Ḵāmenaʾī presides. The judicial, legislative, and executive branches of the government may also consult the council, without necessarily being bound to accept its recommendations. Among the topics that the council has addressed are the permissibility of postmortems; the mechanical slaughtering of animals; the period of waiting before remarriage to be observed by a divorced or widowed woman who has undergone hysterectomy; the recitation of the Koran by women in the presence of men as, for example, during Koran recital competitions; and the limits to be observed by the walīy-e faqīh in granting amnesty to thieves (“Leader’s Council of Iftā’,” pp. 201-6).



 Finally, there is a special usage of the word fatwā to be noted. In the formula moṭābeq bā fatwā-ye (“in accordance with the fatwā of”) that is found on the title page of the comprehensive handbooks known generically as Tawżīḥ al-masāʾel, fatwā does not imply that the topics addressed are newly occurring or problematical or that they have been the subject of queries; rulings of such type are, in fact, typically included only as appendices to the main text. In this context, the word means simply that the contents of the book reflect the jurisprudential opinions of its compiler. Both this use of the word and its application to the comprehensive handbooks reflect the view, standard since the time of Sayyed Moḥammad-Kāẓem Yazdī (d. 1337/1919), that all religiously mandated acts, including even prayer and fasting, are void unless performed according to the detailed and explicit instructions of a mojtahed. It goes without saying that instructions with respect to basic acts of devotion exhibit little variance from one mojtahed to another; it is this that accounts for the near identity of wording in many of the handbooks.

Bibliography (for cited works not given in detail, see “Short References”):

Aḥkam-e pezeshkān wa mashāḡel-e marbūṭ ba pezeshkī, Qom, 1374 SH./1996; tr. H. Mavani as A Guide to Islamic Medical Ethics Based on Authoritative Contemporary Sources, Montreal, 1998 (a collection of rulings on medical matters by Ḵomeynī, Arākī, and Golpāyagānī).

Ī. Afshār, Awrāq-e tāzayāb-e mashrūṭīyat, Tehran, 1359 SH./1981.

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Idem, Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1969.

Idem, “Social Justice in the Ideology and Legislation of the Islamic Revolution of Iran,” in L. Michalak, ed., Social Legislation in the Contemporary Middle East, Berkeley, 1986, pp. 17-60.

ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb, Nahj al-balāḡa, ed. M. ʿAbdoh, Beirut, 1403/1983.

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Ḥorr ʿĀmelī, Wasāʾel al-shīʿa, 20 vols., Beirut, 1381/1971.

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Sayyed Mortażā Jazāyerī, “Taqlīd-e aʿlam yā shūrā-ye fatwā,” in Baḥṯ-ī dar bāra-ye marjaʿīyat wa rūḥānīyat, 2nd ed., Tehran, n.d., pp. 215-30.

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This article was written by Hamid Algar and published in Iranica.


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