- The highest religious authority among Egyptian Muslims, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, has issued a fatwa banning the display of statues. Although the fatwa focuses on statues in private homes, it has raised fears that it mat be misused by Islamists wanting to harm Egypt's wealth of pre-Islamic art on historic sites and in museums. Sculptors and their work are generally condemned.
Grand Mufti Gomaa is the most important spiritual leader in Egypt and is listened to among Sunni Muslims far beyond national borders. The authority of his office is especially strong in assessing Islamic law and its practical application, according to Islam's sacred writings. His conclusions are published as occasional fatwas, which he expects faithful Muslims to abide to.
His newest fatwa however has caused shock and outrage among most intellectual Egyptians. Mr Gomaa referred to a passage from the Hadith - a collection of quotes from Prophet Mohammed - saying that sculptors would be treated harshly on Judgement Day. The Hadith thus clearly had declared the production and exposure of sculpture as sinful, the Grand Mufti deducted.
His fatwa therefore forbids Muslims from producing sculptures and from exhibiting them in their homes. The possessing of sculptures was declared as "un-Islamic". Sculptors and vendors should give up their trade.
While the fatwa not directly addresses sculptures in museums and at historic sites - Egypt has one of the world's highest densities of historic sculptures seen as a world heritage - it has caused fears that fundamentalists may take the fatwa to its extremes and attack historic sculptures. Similar events took place in Afghanistan a few years ago, when the Taliban regime destroyed the ancient Buddha sculptures at Bamyan, a protected World Heritage site.
Egyptian authorities however are not likely to take the Grand Mufta's fatwa seriously or include it in national legislation. Several fatwas of the Muslim scholar and his predecessors have been ignored as erroneous by the widely secular government. Egypt's historic sculptures and modern artwork contribute greatly to the national economy due to tourism and historic sites and museums count on armed state security.
To modern-times sculptors, the fatwa however may cause a problem. Most come from poor communities and their artwork provides them with a modest livelihood, selling handicraft and copies of ancient statues to tourists. These sculptors - who have now been declared un-Islamic by the Grand Mufti - are much more exposed to attacks from Islamists.
The fatwa has not been well received by most Egyptian intellectuals and has also been criticised by many clerics. The cited Prophet quoted in the Hadith had their origin in the "pagan" worship of statues, which was very widespread on the Arabian Peninsula in pre-Islamic times. The Prophet, Mr Gomaa's critics say, had only tried to prevent the un-Islamic worshipping of sculptures by condemning those making them.
Indeed, Mr Gomaa's predecessor, Grand Mufti Mohammed Abdu, about hundred years ago issued a fatwa that permitted the production and exhibition of sculptures, also in private homes, as long as they were not for worshipping. The late Grand Mufti had concluded that among modern Muslims, the worshipping of statues was not an issue anymore, thus saying "yes" to art and culture.
The present Grand Mufti however overturned his predecessor's fatwa, without explaining the new need to protect Muslims against sculptures. It is however expected that his ruling is connected to this year's row over Danish cartoons of the Prophet, which hurt most Muslims' religious feelings. During the row, also the legal basis for banning the depicting of Prophet Mohammed was questioned. With a general ban on sculptures, the limits of art are closer defined by the Grand Mufti.
Egyptian art lovers however hold that Mr Gomaa has exaggerated. Egyptian novelist Ezzat al-Qamhawi today told the national press that the fatwa would "return Muslims to the dark ages." Other prominent Egyptian artists and cultural workers just urged the public to ignore the "ridiculous" fatwa.
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