In the West and in the general press, the concept of fatwa is commonly but mistakenly narrowed to more bellicose purposes, such as Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's fatwa, in 1989, ordering the murder of novelist Salman Rushdie following the publication of Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, which Khomeini declared offensive to Islam. The concept of fatwa is far more complex and benign than injudicious clerics' perversion of the term implies.
The concept of fatwa itself developed early in Islam as a means of interpreting difficult questions about Islam, specifically regarding questions not addressed by prevailing law. The word itself is derived from the root fata, or fatah, which means youth, newness, clarification, explanation. (The Palestinian organization Fatah derives its name from the same root.)
In effect, fatwas were no different or no less authoritative than opinions of Roman jurisconsults or the responsa of Jewish scholars. The more modern usage of fatwas has included a regulatory role: what's permitted and what's not in everyday modern life, though the force of a fatwa may depend entirely on the reputation of the mufti issuing it. The political connotation of fatwas is a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning with a Moroccan Fatwa in 1904 demanding the dismissal of French state employees, an 1891 fatwa in Iran boycotting British tobacco products, and a 1933 fatwa in Iraq ordering the boycott of Zionist products.