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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 07:02 GMT 08:02 UK
Egyptian row over statue fatwa
By Heba Saleh
BBC News, Cairo

Egyptian statue and obelisk
Sculptures are part and parcel of Egypt's ancient heritage
A religious ruling condemning the display of statues has angered Egyptian liberals and intellectuals who fear it could encourage religious zealots to attack the country's pharaonic heritage.

The ruling was issued by the Mufti, the most senior religious scholar in Egypt.

Islam has always been wary of representations of the human figure.

Anything which could even remotely suggest idolatry is frowned upon.

But sculpture in Egypt is as old as the pharaohs.

There are thousands of statues in museums and temples, not to mention the modern works standing in major squares in the big cities.

The fatwa raised an outcry, with many critics saying they are surprised the issue has been raised at all.

But these days Egyptians are increasingly seeking religious rulings on all aspects of life.

Islam Online

Fatwas are proliferating in the newspapers, on the internet and on satellite channels.

Islam Online is a phenomenally successful website which aims to present a comprehensive view of Islam to the world.

There's been really a big retreat to the distant past
Dr Mohamed Al Sayed Said
Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies
It runs a very popular fatwa section.

"We have a section called 'Ask a scholar' where you can find different fatwas on issues from laser surgery to correct eyesight down to April Fools Day," said Sayed Mohamed Amin, an editor on Islam Online.

"[A fatwa] is when the layman goes to a scholar or the Mufti to seek Islam's stance regarding a certain issue.

"Mostly these are religious-based issues. If, for example, there's a dispute between somebody and his wife - he goes and asks the Mufti."

Increasing gulf

Egyptian society is witnessing a huge explosion in demand for fatwas.

It was a member of the public who asked the Mufti about Islam's position on statues.

"This reflects the rising religiosity in Egyptian society," said Mohamed al-Sayed Said of the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

He says the European models of progress which guided Egyptian society in the 19th and 20th Centuries have now been eclipsed by the rise of religion.

"There's been really a big retreat to the distant past," he said.

"What we are having at this point is an increasing gulf between secular and religious cultures."

While modern life continues to present Muslims with new dilemmas for which they require religious guidance, modern technology has made it easy for fatwas to reach huge numbers of people.

"The expansion of different means of communication, such as the internet, has really triggered the ordinary man to ask about different aspects of his religion," said Mr Amin.

Rising brotherhood

In this religiously charged atmosphere, it is not surprising that an Islamist group is the only political power on the ascendant in Egypt.

Despite being an illegal group, the Muslim Brotherhood now control almost a fifth of the seats in parliament, which puts it far ahead of other opposition groups.

We still have a chance to evade the prospects of an Islamist takeover
Mohamed al-Sayed Said
Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies
Analysts argue that many factors, other than religiosity, have contributed to the rise of the Brotherhood.

These include political repression, the dismal economic performance of successive governments and general unease about the alliance with the United States.

They say that the severe restrictions on political activity in the last 50 years have left the mosques and religiously inspired charity work as the only areas where grassroots opposition to the regime could develop.

"Egypt's future will not be determined by religious or cultural factors. But if the country continues to fail economically and politically, political Islam will become the prevalent ideology," said Mr Said.

"But I'm inclined to think that we still have a chance to evade the prospects of an Islamist takeover if we achieve better in the economy and certainly in relation to political and civic liberties."

But no matter what happens politically, it is clear that in the short term at least religion will continue to be the main arbiter of an increasing range of issues in the lives of Egyptians.

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