First Published: 2006-04-03

Fatwa against statues triggers uproar in Egypt

Grand mufti declares exhibition of statues in homes un-Islamic, art-lovers say fatwa will return Muslims to dark ages.


Middle East Online

By Riad Abu Awad - CAIRO

Gomaa's edict might push some fundamentalists to blow up historic statues

A fatwa issued by Egypt's top religious authority which forbids the display of statues has art-lovers fearing it could be used by Islamic extremists as an excuse to destroy Egypt's historical heritage.

Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the country's top Islamic jurist, issued the religious edict which declared as un-Islamic the exhibition of statues in homes, basing the decision on texts in the hadith (sayings of the prophet).

Intellectuals and artists argue that the decree represents a setback for art - a mainstay of the multi-billion-dollar tourist industry - and would deal a blow to the country's fledgling sculpture business.

The fatwa did not specifically mention statues in museums or public places, but it condemned sculptors and their work.

Still, many fear the edict could prod Islamic fundamentalists to attack Egypt's thousands of ancient and pharaonic statues on show at tourist sites across the country.

"We don't rule out that someone will enter the Karnak temple in Luxor or any other pharaonic temple and blow it up on the basis of the fatwa," Gamal al-Ghitani, editor of the literary Akhbar al-Adab magazine, said.

Gomaa had pointed to a passage from the hadith that stated: "Sculptors would be tormented most on Judgment Day," saying the text left no doubt that sculpting was "sinful" and using statues for decorating homes forbidden.

Gomaa's ruling overturned a fatwa issued more than 100 years ago by then moderate and highly respected mufti Mohammed Abdu, permitting the private display of statues after the practice had been condemned as a pagan custom.

Abdu's fatwa had "closed the issue, as it ruled that statues and pictures are not haram (forbidden under Islam) except idols used for worship," Ghitani pointed out.

Novelist Ezzat al-Qamhawi said Gomaa's ruling would "return Muslims to the dark ages."

Movie director Daud Abdul Sayed said the fatwa "simply ignored the spiritual evolvement of Muslims since the arrival of Islam... Clearly, it was natural that they forbid statues under early Islam because people worshipped them.

"But are there Muslims worshipping statues nearly 15 centuries later?" he asked.

The notion sounds "ridiculous," Yussef Zidan, director of the manuscript museum at the prestigious Bibliotheca Alexandrina, said.

"Why would anyone even bring up the issue (of the statues) in a country where there are more than 10 state-owned institutions that teach sculpting and more than 20 others that teach the history of art?"

Ghitani added: "It's time for those placing impediments between Islam and innovation to get out of our lives."

The wave of criticisms against the fatwa has put clerics on a collision course with intellectuals and artists, who say that such edicts only reinforce claims - particularly in the West - that Islam is against progress.

Some, including Sayed, compared Gomaa's edict to a similar one issued by the former fundamentalist rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban, that led to the destruction of statues of the Buddha despite an international outcry.

Mainstream Islamic scholars, including Egypt's then mufti, Nasr Farid Wasel, and the controversial Qatar-based Islamic scholar, Yussef al-Qaradawi, all condemned the Taliban's actions in March 2001.

But Qaradawi joined Gomaa in declaring that statues used for decoration are "haram" or un-Islamic.

"Islam proscribed statues, as long as they symbolise living entities such as human beings and animals," Qaradawi said on an Islamic website.

"Islam proscribed all that leads to paganism or smells of it, statues of ancient Egyptians included," he added.

The only exception, he said, was "children's toys."

Gomaa was appointed as grand mufti by President Hosni Mubarak. The mufti's fatwas carry much weight and generally represent the official line.

His legitimacy is often challenged by other Muslims over his affiliation to the government and his edicts are not always followed.

The government can choose to enforce or ignore the ruling and its reaction in the past often depended on public opinion.

The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's main political opposition force, dismissed the fatwa.

"The people are more concerned with corruption. What they would like to see is a fatwa banning the presence of the same people at the helm of the country for 25 years and not against statues," the movement's spokesman Issam al-Aryan said.

Gomaa has already put out a few contentious decrees and appears set to break his predecessor mufti Wasel's record on notorious fatwas.

Wasel stirred a controversy in July 2001 for issuing a fatwa against a popular television show, the Arab version of "Who wants to be a millionaire?" that was airing on Egyptian television, saying it was forbidden by Islam.

"These contests are a modern form of betting," Wasel had said.

The show was eventually cancelled, although it was not clear if the move was related to the fatwa.

In another fatwa in May 2001, Wasel ruled that beauty pageants in which women appear half-naked in front of panels of male judges are haram. The authorities played deaf and Egypt continues to host them.

Wasel slapped a fatwa on watching solar eclipses and another on bullfights, but refused to support rights activists in their campaign to outlaw female genital mutilation.


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