CAIRO – More than 1,300 years after the Muslim conquest swept through Egypt, one of the country’s highest religious authorities has declared that its ancient sculptures are forbidden by Islam.
In his fatwa – or religious ruling – issued earlier this month, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa quoted a saying of the prophet Muhammad that sculptors will be among those receiving the harshest punishment on Judgment Day.
Artists and intellectuals here say the edict, whose ban on producing and displaying sculptures overturns a century-old fatwa, runs counter to Islam. They also worry that extremists may use the ruling as a pretense for destroying Egypt’s ancient relics, which form a pillar of the country’s multibillion-dollar tourist industry.
“I was shocked,” says art critic Ashraf Ibrahim. “Islam is not against art.”
Though Mr. Ibrahim acknowledges that in the early days of Islam, the prophet Muhammad destroyed statues and criticized sculptors in a bid to end idolatry, he says that’s no longer necessary.
“No one for sure is going to worship a statue now,” says Ibrahim. “The reason to forbid statues is finished.”
The problem Ibrahim has is that with Muhammad exalted as uswa hasana, an “excellent model of conduct” (Qur’an 33:21), and with the Qur’an telling Muslims repeatedly to obey Muhammad (3:32; 3:132; 4:13; 4:59; 4:69; 4:80; 5:92; 8:1; 8:20; 8:46; 9:71; 24:47; 24:51; 24:52; 24:54; 24:56; 33:33; 47:33; 49:14; 58:13; 64:12), it is extraordinarily difficult for Muslims to stake out positions that deviate from his example.