“Egypt is on the cusp of becoming a great nation. Let us not turn questions of jurisprudence into social issues, rather, let us work together to form the mind of a new generation.
With these words, Dr. Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, concluded his segment of the March 28th episode of the Egyptian talk show Al-Bayt Baytak. Recently, Gomaa has come under attack by some of Egypt’s intellectuals for a fatwa he issued concerning the legal status of statues in Islam.
Critics interpreted the fatwa as being a call to extremism which would, if left unchecked, open the door to the mass destruction of Egypt’s cultural heritage. This fear, however, is based on their own extrapolations and not a clear understanding of the fatwa itself.
The Mufti has stated that according to the majority of scholars the only kind of statue that is forbidden is the representation of a full figure. Furthermore, their assumption that the impermissibility of statue making and display equals a call for their destruction is an application of exactly the kind of extremist thought the critics fear. There are many things which Muslim jurists have declared forbidden, but they have not called for their destruction; it is only the mentality of extremism that would allow such a thing. Far from being an isolated case, the incident of the statues is indicative of the tension that has developed between the religious establishment and the liberal press over the past few decades. The religious establishment is often seen as a puppet of the government and is accused of issuing rulings at its behest. More often than not, this type of accusation is used by the opposition to undermine the government.
For example, during the recent presidential elections, it was rumored that the Mufti had ruled that demonstrations were forbidden in Islam. There is now a section on the official website of Dar Al-Ifta dedicated to refuting this and other false accusations made in the press. In this way the liberal press has become the pawn of religious extremism: when the religious establishment is undermined, calls to extremism are legitimized.
Historically, such calls were viewed as the mark of a fringe sect, not a viable method of interpretation. One fears that the skewed view of the establishment that is being promoted in the press only serves to increase the popularity of extremist interpretations of Islam which, in the absence of a respected and trusted institution, would represent, to many, the only authoritative voice. It is this extremism that Gomaa has tirelessly endeavored to eradicate by keeping alive the time honored principles of Islamic jurisprudence which respect differences of opinion and seek the preservation of all that is in the interest of society’s development. In January, Gomaa was part of an Egyptian Muslim-Christian delegation that was invited to Ireland to serve as an example of healthy coexistence. If his call for cooperation is taken seriously, Egypt may preserve its legacy as a haven for tolerance and progress.