are causing concern but it is even worse when the scholars are misquoted, writes Nashwa Abdel-Tawab
Sheikh Ali Gomaa
"I believe in what the mufti says on various issues more than any religious scholar," said Ahmed El-Sherif, a 64-year-old driver. "He is trustworthy, but I don't believe his latest fatwa on the migrants who drowned as not being martyrs. I feel it's more with the views of the government than the people. I might not trust these local newspapers again. They have torn us apart. I don't know who to believe."
Such an opinion is not El-Sherif's alone. The misunderstanding and misquoting of recent fatwas, or religious edicts, is the talk of the town.
The controversy surrounds Egypt's two biggest religious scholars, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi and Grand Mufti of Egypt Sheikh Ali Gomaa, both of whom have issued fatwas of late that have aroused passions among writers, scholars and the mass public.
The fatwas, which have been published in the print media, have not been met with a consensus among religious scholars, something which has led to near chaos and mistrust with the public. Observers fear that the state of uncertainty will only help extremist sheikhs whose fundamental understanding of Islam is in doubt.
Sheikh Tantawi's latest fatwas -- the 80 lashes for journalists who slander, and succession by inheritance, in reference to Gamal Mubarak succeeding his father, stirred much heated debate, and Sheikh Gomaa's latest fatwas published in the independent daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Yom caused more uproar. At a press conference at Dar Al-Iftaa on Tuesday, Sheikh Gomaa sought to make clear he was misquoted and that the situation needed to be investigated but that it should not become a full-blown public inquest.
In Al-Masry Al-Yom, Sheikh Gomaa was quoted as saying that drivers cannot be blamed for killing people who stand deliberately in front of their vehicles without wanting to move. The fatwa was claimed to have been made just days after a police van ran over a woman who tried to stop it, killing her.
But in Sheikh Gomaa's opinion, that was not what happened; he had not issued such a fatwa before. "The statement appeared to be a summary of a fatwa issued by the Dar and not me," he said in response to a question posed in June and just posted on the organisation's website by coincidence last week.
Opponents said the statement could have been issued to defuse criticism of the government which is being linked to Sunday's death.
Human rights groups reported that in northeast Cairo last week a police minibus ran over Reda Shehata when the driver tried to dislodge her from the front of the vehicle.
She was clinging to the minibus to plead for the release of her sister-in-law, who had just been detained, they said. Police officials said the woman threw herself in front of the vehicle.
"Murder resulting from the intention of the victim to commit suicide [by] standing in front of cars so that the driver cannot avoid him is not manslaughter," Dar Al-Iftaa said in the statement posted on its website following the incident.
According to Hafez Abu Seada, secretary- general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), "this is a very dangerous fatwa. I have strong doubts about certain fatwas that have political motivations."
The EOHR said that although Shehata was clinging to the front of the vehicle, a police officer ordered it to drive off. After about 100 metres, Shehata fell under the wheels but the minibus sped up, killing her.
Adding fuel to the fire, Sheikh Gomaa raised another issue -- his announcement in a lecture last week at a university that the 26 migrants who drowned near Italy in search of job opportunities were not martyrs, "as they might be acting out of greed by going to Italy".
In the press conference, which also tackled the importance of Dar Al-Iftaa, its role and its development, Sheikh Gomaa said he was misquoted and issued to journalists a transcript of the university lecture he delivered.
"I didn't issue a fatwa then. It was just an answer to a question in a lecture at a university where I was talking to the youth." He added that the Dar will always be Egypt's highest authority on Islamic law. He said it issues around 1,000 fatwas a day, denying that its rulings are influenced by politics and that they never raise issues but instead answer questions. "There is no basis for what is called politicising fatwas. We have other fatwas against the government torturing prisoners. However, journalists choose to publish only what they want. So, let's concentrate on solving issues instead of making the small cases big issues, in order to get our country in better shape for our children and grandchildren."
The statement by Sheikh Gomaa, who is state- appointed, came as weeping relatives waited at Cairo Airport to receive the bodies of five migrants among the 184 Egyptians whose boats sank off Italy last week. Sheikh Gomaa said that those who died were not martyrs assured of a direct route to paradise "because they put themselves in danger and the aim of their journey was not made in the service of Allah. If we look at the motives that pushed them to travel in a categorical way, since we are in a university, we see that they might be after money or ambition or employment because each of them paid LE25,000 [$4,500] to leave Egypt, which means they might not be poor or it means that they can solve their problems," Sheikh Gomaa said. "They could have stayed at home and invested this amount of money in a commercial project instead of leaving."
Egyptian religious authorities, including Sheikh Gomaa, have previously said that those who die in accidents are martyrs and therefore go straight to paradise in accordance with Muslim beliefs. But Sheikh Gomaa had also said in one of his fatwas that those who die during illegal immigration are not martyrs "because they are breaking the laws of society and are harming neighbouring countries with their illegal actions". He said that the welfare of the people and the country is what he targets. "My heart goes out to their families and my prayers are to the youths who died but I cannot say they are martyrs and legitimise the illegal migration of manpower. At the same time I ask the government to solve the problems of unemployment."
Sheikh Gomaa's Italy statement rocked Al-Azhar, the highest Cairo-based religious authority of Sunni Islam. Sheikh Abdel-Hamid El-Atrash, head of the Fatwa Committee, said the immigrants "were martyrs because Allah told us to travel the world in search of a living and anyone who dies doing this is a martyr."
Souad Saleh, a professor of comparative religion at Al-Azhar University, instead called on the mufti to "oppose corruption and corrupt people who, by their practices, forced these young people to leave their country and sell everything they own to cover the costs of the journey."
Sheikh Gomaa said he respects other viewpoints on his fatwas. "Whether I am right in my fatwas or wrong, I respect other opinions. I don't see this as instability but a movement towards building future stability in every field in Egypt. I hope we understand each other. Despite the current situation, I'm optimistic."