Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 September 2003
Issue No. 654
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A confusing fatwa

A senior Al-Azhar cleric is in hot water for issuing a fatwa against the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Mona El-Nahhas investigates

A senior Al-Azhar cleric's issuance of a fatwa -- on 19 August -- calling on Muslim and Arab states to avoid dealing with the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), on the grounds that it has "no religious legitimacy", has put in motion a rapid-fire series of events that are still reverberating, and mired in confusion, today.

According to Sheikh Nabawi Mohamed El-Esh's fatwa, the new Iraqi council was "imposed upon the Iraqi people by the occupation forces, to act as an ally to God's enemies". As such, the fatwa continued, any Arab or Muslim country that either lent its support to, or merely dealt with, the IGC, should be boycotted "until it comes to its senses".

The fatwa bore the official seal of Al- Azhar, and was published by most Egyptian newspapers the next day.

Ten days later -- on 29 August -- the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, told reporters that, "no Egyptian cleric has the right to pass verdicts on the affairs of another country." Tantawi said the fatwa did not have Al-Azhar's approval, and that it only represented "the personal opinion of El-Esh."

Tantawi said it was not his right to "overstep Iraqi scholars and deliver fatwas on matters that concern only them. Iraqi scholars have to pronounce their opinions on this matter as they are more familiar with their own affairs".

The comments came a day after the Al- Azhar Grand Imam met with US Ambassador David Welch. That fact added fuel to the fire that was unleashed by Tantawi's strong rejection of El-Esh's fatwa.

For one thing, observers said, Tantawi had downgraded Al-Azhar's status with his comments. The institution had traditionally been considered the world's foremost Sunni Muslim body, looked upon for guidance by the entire Muslim world. Now, Tantawi seemed to be saying, Al-Azhar's reach went only as far as Egypt's borders.

Meanwhile, following last Friday's noon prayers, demonstrators gathered at Al-Azhar Mosque to voice their support for the Iraqi resistance, and condemnation of the IGC. Tantawi did not deliver Al-Azhar's Friday sermon that day because he was out of town.

At the same time, El-Esh's fatwa was also gaining support among Muslim scholars like Ahmed Taha Rayyan, a professor of comparative jurisprudence, who said it was a "sin to deal with the IGC, which was formed against the will of the Iraqi people". Rayyan told the Weekly that the Arab world was "waiting for a legitimate Iraqi government elected by Iraqis to take power. Until this happens, any dealings with the governing council are forbidden".

Another prominent thinker -- Abdel- Sabour Marzouq -- called all the members of the Iraqi Governing Council "CIA and Mossad agents". Marzouq said the IGC was there to "implement the US's goals in Iraq and lend the occupation legitimacy. Accordingly, all Muslim and Arab states should boycott this council", he said.

Despite these kinds of supportive comments, El-Esh faced an internal Al-Azhar investigation on 28 August and was dismissed that very same day, according to a member of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee, who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity. The source said El-Esh was "used as a scapegoat", after Sheikh Sayed Aggour, the secretary-general of the Islamic Research Academy, met with members of the fatwa committee to order them not to issue any more political fatwas.

The source refused to go into further details regarding the case, urging the Weekly to direct its inquiries to Aggour himself -- "who knows everything about El-Esh's dismissal".

For his part, Sheikh Aggour denied that El-Esh was treated unfairly or fired. "These are mere lies," he told the Weekly. "El-Esh was not dismissed or even investigated." According to Aggour, El-Esh was not even "a permanent member of the fatwa committee; he was merely sitting in on the committee for one week. Once the week was over, it was only natural for him to leave".

The Weekly was unable to reach El-Esh, and no one else at Al-Azhar was willing to make further comments.

It was not the first time that Tantawi had distanced himself from fatwas passed in Al- Azhar's name. A month before the start of the US-led war on Iraq, Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy issued a statement calling on Muslims to wage jihad against the foreign invaders. Aggour, the academy's secretary-general, signed that fatwa after securing Tantawi's approval. The Grand Imam, however, declined to attach his own signature to it.

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