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'Fatwa' not an automatic death sentence

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(CNN) -- A "fatwa," or legal ruling under Islamic law, might offer an opinion on dietary guidelines or on a style of worship. In rarer cases, however, a fatwa may call for death.

Such is the case with the fatwa issued by Zamfara state in northern Nigeria calling for the death of a journalist whose writing about the Miss World pageant was followed by deadly riots.

The state's deputy governor pronounced the fatwa, saying in part: "Any true Muslim would make sure that this woman's blood is spilled wherever she is."

Although the wording does not seem to equivocate, the fatwa is not necessarily a blanket death sentence, said Gordon D. Newby, a professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University.

Newby, author of "A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam," distinguished between a legal and a popular definition of fatwa.

Of all the fatwas issued daily, he said, one that calls for death is "very uncommon."

Under Islamic law, Newby said, a fatwa is issued by someone who has been trained in law and custom and rules on a question about, for example, diet -- "Could you eat such-and-such food in such-and-such place?"

Getting a fatwa "would be like going to someone who was a combined lawyer-priest and getting an opinion," he said. Because a fatwa is an opinion, he said, different scholars in different places who studied in different schools of Islamic law might rule differently on the same question.

But on a more informal level, he said, a fatwa can be used as a decree against someone or something.

Although the pronouncement against the journalist might seem designed to incite her death, he said, killing her without a court giving her a chance to recant would not be legal under Islamic law.

"Islamic law requires procedures and all the things we would expect in Jewish law, Christian law and secular law," Newby said.

Of course, a fatwa calling for death could incite someone to act regardless of what Islamic legal theory might say.

A fatwa can be canceled and is not a binding ruling that absolves someone of any guilt, Newby said. In Islamic theology, on judgment day, "Each individual is morally responsible for his own acts," he said.

The journalist's article in the Nigerian newspaper ThisDay implied that the prophet Mohammed would have wanted to marry a Miss World contestant. More than 200 people were killed in subsequent riots.

It was not the first time a writer has been condemned over speculation about Mohammed.

In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- Iran's spiritual leader at the time -- issued a fatwa calling for the death of British author Salman Rushdie, whose novel "The Satanic Verses" was considered blasphemous by some Muslims because of its fictional treatment of Mohammed.

The edict and an Iranian group's offer of a multimillion-dollar reward for carrying it out led Rushdie to spend much of the next decade in hiding or under close protection, and prompted Britain to sever diplomatic ties with Iran.

The two countries resumed relations in 1998 after Iran backed off its stance, and Rushdie came out of seclusion.

While the fatwa was in effect, though, several people associated with publishing the novel were killed or wounded in Italy, Turkey and Japan.

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