The religious leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, has been quoted in various speeches as saying that a nuclear bomb is un-Islamic. A number of politicians, academics and journalists have subsequently concluded that this amounts to a fatwa on the nuclear bomb in Iran and that the danger of Iran building a weapon is therefore unlikely.
The problem with this optimistic assumption is that it is based on shaky ground.
To understand what a fatwa is, an eye should be cast to Ayatollah Khomeini’s book, „Tosih ul-Masael“ (Explanation of Questions). Having read the passages concerning fatwa it becomes clear that Khamenei’s followers are in fact not obliged to adhere to his statement since it was not a fatwa; it was not an Islamic ruling.
In the answer to question 5 of Khomeini’s book, it is stated that a fatwa must be issued by a mujtahid, i.e. an Islamic scholar. Even if someone hears a declaration directly from the mujtahid or from a reliable third person, this does not automatically mean it is a religious verdict, that is, a real fatwa. The caveat here is that for a declaration to be considered a fatwa, it must be explicitly written as such in a religious text or in the cleric’s list of fatwas.
A list of Ali Khamenei’s fatwas is available on his official website, but there is nothing on the issue of the nuclear bomb. He has also never personally stated that anything he has said on the issue of nuclear weaponisation was a fatwa.
This wouldn’t be the first time in the history of Islam that a cleric has made a declaration that his followers are unsure how to interpret, not to mention how the rest of the world should interpret it.
With this is mind, Ayatollah Khomeini stated, when answering question 6 of his book, that if there is some uncertainty that a declaration is a religious ruling, Muslims should only follow those laid down in the religious texts. Moreover, Khomeini stated that even if a fatwa is written in a religious text, Muslims must be sure that the Ayatollah has not modified it. According to Khomeini, if there is even the possibility of a fatwa having been changed, it is not necessary to look further into the matter as it should not be considered valid.
The ayatollahs know that much of what clerics say is not binding. This is why Ayatollah Khomeini has clarified the matter in the manner he has.
Therefore, as long as the declaration against the nuclear bomb is not explicitly stated in a written form as a fatwa, there is no religious requirement that would prohibit the construction of a nuclear weapon. Neither Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor any other cleric has ever dealt with the atomic bomb in a fatwa.
That said, it is not unreasonable to question the ethics of the Islamic dictatorship in the first place. Before Khomeini came to power, he spoke of an Islamic democracy; of freedom and of a just society. The Iranian government refers to Islamic terrorism as a valid tactic in the struggle for liberation. Is terrorism therefore ethically legitimate? In 1982 Iran could have ended the war against Iraq after it recaptured the southern Iranian city of Khoramshahr but the Iranian leadership had to continue the war for ideological reasons as they wanted to „liberate“ Jerusalem. This decision certainly had nothing to do with ethics.
The statement by Ayatollah Khamenei that the atomic bomb is un-Islamic recalls the empty slogans of the socialist dictatorships of old concerning world peace, freedom and socialism.
The questions at heart remain open – if and when Iran will build a nuclear bomb?
Wahied Wahdat-Hagh is a Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) in Brussels