Canadian Imams issue a fatwa against ISIS

The complainant, Valerie Fayer, objected to an interview about a fatwa issued against ISIS by a group of Canadian Imams. She thought that a fatwa was a death sentence and CBC had no business broadcasting it. She misunderstood what a fatwa is. The interview was sound.


You were concerned about an interview with Yusuf Badat, an Imam and director of religious affairs of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto and vice-president of the Canadian Council of Imams, on the Kitchener-Waterloo morning show. The host, Craig Norris, was talking to him in the light of a decision of 37 Imams, under the umbrella of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, to issue a fatwa condemning ISIS.

You thought it wrong for CBC to broadcast this information because it promoted hatred:

The use of Canadian airwaves to broadcast a totalitarian sect’s ideology and estimation of who should live, and who should die at any moment in time, is abhorrent to decent sensibilities (no matter whether such fatwas appear to be allied with governmental interests presently or not).


The Executive Producer in Kitchener-Waterloo, Pras Rajagopalan replied to your concerns. He said it was likely you misunderstood what the interview actually said. He explained it is “inaccurate to describe a fatwa, as you did, as an ‘Islamic death warrant.’” He pointed out that Mr. Badat spoke against violence and explained why Canadian imams were opposed to ISIS, and that he had condemned violence. He also told you that while most people associate the issuing of a fatwa with a death sentence because of the famous case of the one issued against author Salman Rushdie, that was not the case here. He added that in doing the interview, the program provided a service to Canadians by explaining what a fatwa is:

Concepts such as a “fatwa” are not well understood by a large portion of our audience. Shedding more light on the subject seems to me a strong expression of our mandate as journalists and as the public broadcaster. I want to assure you that we make every effort to ensure that the guests we select – including controversial ones – are responsible and do not promote hatred or violence. Our Journalistic Standards and Practices demand us to show respect and an absence of prejudice. I believe we did precisely that.


Mr. Rajagopalan’s explanation to you was complete and accurate. The interview was the legitimate exploration of a news event, that a group of Muslim clerics had condemned a violent group. Further, it lived up to the values of CBC’s Journalistic policies because it contributed to “the understanding of issues of public interest.”

In the course of the interview, Mr. Norris put the question that might have been on many listeners’ minds, since most of us do associate the term fatwa with the case of the death sentence pronounced against Salman Rushdie in the 1980s. Norris referenced the Rushdie case and then asked:

Remind us what exactly is a fatwa?

Yusuf Badat: A fatwa is a non-binding verdict issued by a religious personality. And the idea is either to educate or try promote or motivate a certain action. And in general this is usually issued by a religious authority or personality.

A quick search of the internet turns up this explanation from the Islamic Supreme Council of America:

In recent years, the term “fatwā” has been widely used throughout the media, usually to indicate that a death sentence has been dealt to someone or some group of people. The limited use of this term has resulted in a limited understanding of its meaning. ISCA therefore offers the following statement to elucidate the true significance of the term “fatwā.”

Most importantly, a fatwā is not by definition a pronouncement of death or a declaration of war. A fatwā is an Islamic legal pronouncement, issued by an expert in religious law (mufti), pertaining to a specific issue, usually at the request of an individual or judge to resolve an issue where Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), is unclear. Typically, such uncertainty arises as Muslim society works to address new issues – issues that develop as technology and society advance. “Can a Muslim be involved in cloning?” for instance.

We might compare a fatwā to the legal ruling of a high court or the Supreme Court, depending on the authority of the mufti behind it. However, a fatwā is not binding as is the verdict of the secular courts; while correct and applicable to all members of the Muslim faith, the fatwā is optional for the individual to respect or not.

In your correspondence with me, you espouse a particular view of Islam. Your characterization of it as a “totalitarian sect” is offensive. It is your opinion, but it does not oblige CBC News to acknowledge or share it.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman