Fatwas are nonbinding advisory opinions on matters of Islamic law; they serve in the development of the Shari`a roughly as does precedent in Anglo-American law, helping to adapt the law to ever-new circumstances. The process of giving fatwas began as a private activity but with time governments have increasingly dominated the process. Islam lacks a formal mechanism by which a scholar acquires the right to issue fatwas; rather, spontaneous respect tends to build behind certain individuals and their decisions. (The whole process resembles the responsa in Judaism).
Long neglected, perhaps due to their complexity, fatwas are the focus of an exemplary volume of twenty-eight tightly written essays ranging in time from the medieval period to the present and in subject matter from the legitimacy of postmortem examinations to the Kuwait war. Innovative chapters of note include: Powers showing how Muslims avoided Qur'anic restrictions on inheritance, and how the jurists winked at this practice; Harald Motzki on child marriage in seventeenth-century Palestine, probing an alien world in which nine-year-old girls are considered sexually mature and men seek to become guardians for attractive girls in the hopes of profiting from the brideprice to be received for them; and Shahla Haeri on the opposing fatwas of two Iranian leaders (Ayatollah Khomeini and President Rafsanjani) dealing with the delicate issue of temporary marriage -- and the startling consequences of Rafsanjani's deeming such liaisons legal.