The leader of a global Muslim movement Tuesday issued a rare religious edict condemning terrorism and denouncing suicide bombers as "heroes of hellfire" in an effort to help prevent the radicalization of young British Muslims.
The State Department welcomed the 600-page document known as a fatwa, which was released in London with the British government's support, as a "very important step" in "taking back Islam" from al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a former Pakistani lawmaker and a leading scholar of Islam, has issued similar, shorter decrees in the past. But the new fatwa makes the most detailed and comprehensive case against Islamic extremism by a Muslim, diplomats and analysts said.
"Terrorism is terrorism, violence is violence, and it has no place in Islamic teaching, and no justification can be provided for it, or any kind of excuses or ifs or buts," Mr. Tahir-ul-Qadri said at a news conference in London. "Good intentions cannot convert a wrong into good; they cannot convert an evil into good."
It was not clear how much influence the fatwa will have in the broad Muslim world or even outside the South Asian community whose members are Mr. Tahir-ul-Qadri's most dedicated followers.
Timothy R. Furnish, a historian of Islam, said the fatwa may not carry significant weight for many Muslims because Mr. Tahir-ul-Qadri is a Sufi Muslim, and not a Koranic literalist, as are such Sunni groups as the Wahhabis and the Salafis, who form the core of groups such as al Qaeda.
"It would seem to be simply another example of this centuries-long Sufi/Wahhabi-Salafi spat over how to interpret the authoritative texts of Islam," said Mr. Furnish, who noted that he has not read Tuesday's fatwa. "For every such legal pronunciamento, there is an antithetical one from the literalist camp …, which justifies such attacks with clear Koranic and Hadith [Traditions] citations."
In recent years, Britain has coped with growing radicalization among its Muslim youths — a development that also has attracted young Muslims from other countries to study at British schools. One of them is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who later received training from al Qaeda and is charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in December.
Mr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, founder of the Minhaj-ul-Quran worldwide movement promoting a tolerant Islam, and his followers hope that his fatwa will show those youths an alternative to extremism, said Ghaffar Hussein, a spokesman for the Quilliam Foundation, a British government-funded think tank.
The foundation's backing and promotion of Tuesday's event drew much more media and public attention than it would have received otherwise, according to British press reports.
"This fatwa has the potential to be a highly significant step towards eradicating Islamist terrorism," Mr. Hussein said. "Terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda, continue to justify their mass killings with self-serving readings of religious scripture. Fatwas that demolish and expose such theological innovations will consign Islamist terrorism to the dustbin of history."
In a display of official support for Mr. Tahir-ul-Qadri's teachings, his news conference was attended by members of Parliament and representatives of London's Metropolitan Police. He spoke in both English and Arabic, and an English translation of the fatwa is expected in the coming weeks, said people who attended the event.
Mr. Tahir-ul-Qadri said that terrorism should never be "considered jihad," or holy war.
"They can't claim that their suicide bombings are martyrdom operations, and that they become the heroes of the Muslim Umma," he said in reference to the wider Muslim community. "No, they become heroes of hellfire, and they are leading towards hellfire."
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley welcomed the fatwa, saying it is important that "Muslims themselves make their own judgment about the vision that al Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden have propagated."
"At the heart of this, it's about a very small group of people that have tried to hijack a religion. And we certainly value the debate that is currently under way within Muslim-majority communities around the world about the nature of their religion, the implication and definition of the word 'jihad,' and to kind of take back the good name of Islam," Mr. Crowley said.
"Britain has had a very significant, detailed, extensive counter-radicalization strategy over the last few years," he added. "It has done extensive outreach with Muslim communities."
Mr. Tahir-ul-Qadri's fatwa echoed efforts by anti-extremist Muslims to use their religion to counter terrorists.
In October, a senior Muslim cleric, grand mufti Ali Gomaa of Egypt, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times that one strategy has been to try to declare terrorists "un-Islamic." But he also warned that going too far could prompt greater divisions rather than persuade radicals to change.
Juan Zarate, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former counterterrorism official at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush White House, said the new fatwa is important because it "adds to the growing list of rejections of al Qaeda's ideology" and is a "public recognition" of the group's "declining popularity and legitimacy."
Rob Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the fatwa undoubtedly will have "a useful, positive impact among Pakistanis and other South Asians," who form the base of Minhaj-ul-Quran's membership of hundreds of thousands.
However, globally, "any one particular fatwa, especially by an imam known predominantly in a single ethnic and linguistic group, is probably not too consequential," Mr. Satloff said.
"It's all very positive and very welcome, but there remain loud and influential voices arguing the opposite view — that 'invaders,' 'Crusaders' and 'Zionists' are all legitimate targets, some wherever they may be found," he added. "It is important to amplify the voices of moderation and marginalize the voices of radicalism."
• Bill Gertz contributed to this report.