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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 November 2007, 10:23 GMT
Egypt's mufti rejects criticism
Sheikh Ali Gomaa
Government appoints the mufti but he says he is independent
Egypt's top Muslim scholar has defended himself against criticism for a series of controversial fatwas he has issued.

With tears in his eyes, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa told reporters his religious edicts were never influenced by pressure from the authorities.

Fierce criticism followed his recent ruling that speeding drivers cannot be condemned for killing people who deliberately stand in their way.

It became public days after just such a case involving a police car.

The mufti also offended many by saying that 26 Egyptian illegal migrants who drowned trying to reach Europe were the victims of their own greed rather than martyrs.

What did you want me to say? I did not ignore the humanitarian dimension of the problem
Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa
Sheikh Gomaa represents the Dar al-Ifta which is the official interpreter of Islamic law in Egypt based on the Koran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

"It has never happened that when issuing a fatwa, we have come under any political or government pressure," the mufti said.

'Abhorrent' ruling

Sheikh Gomaa insisted the drivers' fatwa dated back to a case in July, long before a police car killed a woman trying to prevent officers from arresting a female relative.

A committee of scholars at al-Azhar university, Sunni Islam's most prestigious institution, called the ruling "abhorrent" and something "even the devil himself hadn't thought of".

Egyptians identify bodies of drowning victims
The drowning ruling was a harsh blow grieving relatives of the victims

Many commentators in the media have asked the mufti to step down.

But Sheikh Gomaa urged the media not to turn Dar al-Ifta's rulings - which must be given to all questions it receives - into issues of national debate.

In the past, Egyptian religious scholars, including Sheikh Gomaa, have ruled that all accident victims are martyrs who are assured paradise, but after the boat tragedy his ruling that victims were not martyrs caused similar outrage.

"What did you want me to say? I did not ignore the humanitarian dimension of the problem," the mufti said.

"Those who died because they were ambitious or greedy... are not martyrs."

Some correspondents linked the deaths not to greed but to Egypt's economic woes and corruption in the employment system.

There was particular criticism as the ruling was issued as grieving relatives waited for the repatriation of the victims at Cairo airport.

The nationwide debate about fatwas was sparked in the May when an al-Azhar professor ruled that male and female work colleagues can only be left alone together if she has breastfed him at least five times.

The fatwa was later retracted.

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