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."
Such disputes are common in Islam, which has no centralized religious authority - no equivalent to, say, the Vatican. The weight and influence of a fatwa has always depended on the stature of the cleric who issued it, and cleric often rule differently on the same matter.
Many Westerners first heard the word fatwa when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini called on Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses."
But most fatwas are simply the opinions of respected Muslim scholars, often on everyday matters. Hundreds, if not thousands, of fatwas are issued in Muslim countries every day, covering topics that range from the mundane to the deadly serious. They can address questions such as "Is it a religious obligation to see in-laws with whom you don't get along?" as well as "Is it a Muslim obligation to fight foreign invaders?"
"In the early days of Islam," explains Islamic scholar Kamal Abul Magd, "[and] up til very recently, anyone who had a specialization in Islamic law was entitled to express his opinion. People need advice all the time, particularly because Islam has a legal system."
The Egyptian government tried to centralize and control fatwas by creating the position of the grand mufti. In theory, only the mufti and a group of certified religious scholars have the right to issue religious rulings.
But in recent years there's been an explosion of fatwa-giving, with many Muslims getting answers to their religious quandaries from phone-in TV shows, 800 numbers, and websites.
The proliferation of opinions causes confusion, says Mr. Abul Magd. Fatwas are "getting out of hand," he adds. "People are feeling unnecessarily guilty and raising more and more trivial questions."
Gomaa's ruling is just the latest fatwa to stir controversy. Some fatwas have caused contention by weighing in on political affairs - forbidding Muslims to deal with Iraq's Governing Council, for example, or legitimizing attacks on US troops in Iraq. Other fatwas have also drawn attention for their strangeness - such as the ones forbidding women to wear pants and soccer players to show their legs.
In practice, unpopular or impractical fatwas are often not observed. Egyptian authorities disregarded a fatwa issued by Gomaa's predecessor, Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel, that forbade beauty pageants.
If that's any indication, it's unlikely that the myriad tourist shops in downtown Cairo will stop selling reproductions of Pharaonic busts and statues.
Egypt is dotted with millennia worth of Pharaonic antiquities. Mohsen Said, of the country's Supreme Council for Antiquities, says, "We display statues so they can be studied and so people can get to know their heritage. This is Egypt's national heritage. We don't display them for worship."
But while artists and intellectuals called the Gomaa's ruling against sculptures "ridiculous" and "a return to the dark ages," several prominent sheikhs supported the mufti.
The influential Sheikh Youssef Al Qaradawi agreed that "Islam prohibits statues and three-dimensional figures of living creatures" and concluded that "the statues of ancient Egyptians are prohibited."
Artists say the ruling stems from a literal reading of religious texts, and worry that it may lead zealots to deface Egyptian's national monuments - much like the followers of the Taliban, who in 2001 infamously dynamited to dust two gigantic statues of the Buddha dating back to the 3rd and 5th centuries AD.
Ayman Semary, a sculptor and art professor, questions why Islamic leaders are only now banning such relics.
"I laughed when I read the paper" and saw the news of the fatwa, says Mr. Semary. "When Islam came to Egypt, [the Muslim invaders] never damaged any Pharaonic statues. How can Ali Gomaa now say that statues are forbidden?"
But in downtown Cairo, tourist shop owner Fathi Ibrahim says, "It's not my role to disagree with the mufti. Anything he says, we must obey."
However, Mr. Ibrahim contends that the mufti's fatwa may have been misunderstood, finding it hard to believe that his merchandise is "un-Islamic." After all, he says, "We're not selling statues for people to worship. They're just souvenirs."
As for Semary, he says he'll continue working as usual.
"I believe in God very much, maybe more than him [the mufti]," says the sculptor. "When I do statues, I'm very close to God. I will continue. I believe in what I do."
• July 6, 1959: Sunni clerics at Al-Azhar University issue a fatwa legitimizing Shiite Islamic beliefs: "The Jafari fiqh of the Shiite is a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship as are other Sunni schools of thought."
• Feb. 14, 1989: Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issues a fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie for blaspheming against Islam in his novel "The Satanic Verses."
• Feb. 23, 1998: Osama bin Laden issues a joint fatwa with Ayman al-Zawahiri declaring it the duty of all Muslims to kill "the Americans and their allies."
• Sept. 12, 2002: Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari, the spokesman of Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khameini, issues a fatwa calling for the death of Jerry Falwell for his statements against Islam.
• March 11, 2005: The Islamic Council of Spain issues a fatwa on the first anniversary of the Madrid train bombings accusing Osama bin Laden of apostasy. The Spanish clerics called it the first fatwa against Mr. bin Laden.
• Aug. 9, 2005: Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issues a fatwa against the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons. The fatwa is published in a press release from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
• Feb. 17, 2006: Pakistani cleric Mohammed Yousaf Qureshi announces a fatwa offering $250,000 to anyone who kills one of the cartoonists who first published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad in a Dutch newspaper in Sept. 2005.
Sources: Islamfortoday.com, aljazeera.com, christianitytoday.com, BBC, CNN, New York Times, AP