The word fatwa (plural fatawa) came to prominence in the West through Ayatolla Khomeini’s infamous response to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. For this reason the word has negative connotations for many people unfamiliar with Islamic tradition, which is highly unfortunate given the widespread and varied uses of the term.
As the late Dr Zaki Badawi, one of the founders of the Muslim College in London, explains, "a fatwa is a religious opinion: it is not necessarily an edict to kill somebody." It is a judgement made about a particular issue by an Islamic legal expert, or mufti. Fatawa can be issued about any topic, and, as one might imagine, the importance and authoritativeness of the fatwa tends to rely upon who gave the judgement.
For Muslims in Britain – and, in fact, for Muslims the world over – this has important ramifications. In today’s society the issue of who to look to for guidance in religious matters is not always simple. Badawi himself was involved in setting up an authoritative legal voice relevant to the British situation. In fact, he gave a good explanation of the issue himself:
"[T]he Muslim community here at one time used to refer to Al-Azhar in Egypt, the most important centre of Sunni Islam in the world, and sometimes to the scholars in their own countries….
"But on the whole the Sunni Muslims, particularly the rising generation, have begun to refer to us here at the Muslim College. We are able to speak to them directly and to understand and analyse their problems, and we have the classical, traditional knowledge, since all our members are graduates of Al-Azhar, and so they trust what we tell them.
"We issued a fatwa concerning organ transplants … and this is now circulated to all the mosques and communities. So, we are working towards having a central authority here."
 Dr Zaki Badawi speaking in an interview with Peter Riddell, Third Way, April 1996, available on-line.