Despite strong objections from Al-Azhar, on 19 July parliament provisionally approved a law regulating religious fatwas. Drafted by Osama Al-Abd, the head of parliament’s Religious Endowments Committee, and other MPs, the law regulates the selection and performance of the grand mufti and his aides. “It also seeks to grant Dar Al-Iftaa, the Egyptian House of Fatwa, financial, technical and administrative independence,” said Al-Abd.
Al-Abd explained that the law will stem the tide of bizarre fatwas. “Many people who like to describe themselves as religious scholars and clerics issue fatwas on controversial and sensitive issues that might spark sectarian strife or cause social unrest,” said Al-Abd.
Egypt’s grand mufti, Shawki Allam, told MPs that “we have seen a kind of fatwa chaos recently, with people without any religious academic experience issuing fatwas through TV channels or via social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.”
“As religious scholars and MPs, we decided that there should be a law that ends this chaos by entrusting Dar Al-Iftaa with the exclusive prerogative to issue fatwas,” he said.
“The law states that a Mufti Preparation Centre be set up to provide muftis with scientific training and qualifications. At the end of the preparation period, each mufti will be granted a diploma and licence to issue fatwas on specified religious issues. No religious scholars will be allowed to issue fatwas without the diploma.”
Mohamed Abu Hamed, a member of the Religious Affairs and Endowments Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the fatwa law was carefully prepared and discussed.
“Many MPs are shocked by the avalanche of bizarre fatwas issued by radical Salafist clerics who do not have any experience and are not graduates of any renowned religious university,” said Abu Hamed. “We have had Salafist fatwas that say it is haram [religiously forbidden] for Muslims to congratulate Christians on Christmas or Easter, or that Female Genital Mutilation is halal [allowed by Islam].”
Ismail Nasreddin, a committee member who participated in drafting the law, said “bizarre fatwas are no longer confined to Salafist and radical Islamist clerics.
“We were surprised that some Al-Azhar clerics have issued bizarre fatwas. One said kissing is halal, even if it is between a man and a woman who are not married, because kissing is not one of the great seven sins in Islam. Another said that a belly dancer can be considered a martyr if she is killed while on her way to perform dancing in a cabaret.
“Another bizarre fatwa was issued by a Syrian cleric who said Muslims living in America or Western European countries can perform the Friday prayers on Sunday because Sunday is the weekly holiday in the West.”
Abu Hamed believes that one of the most poisonous fatwas which led MPs to draft the law was issued by radical Salafist cleric Morgan Al-Gohari.
“In this fatwa, Al-Gohary said the three Pyramids and the Sphinx should be demolished because they are idols, just like the ones which were destroyed by Prophet Mohamed in Mecca.”
Another controversial fatwa which caused tension between Al-Azhar and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi concerned verbal divorce. President Al-Sisi publicly asked that “verbal divorce” be prohibited as it is unjust to married women. Al-Azhar, however, objected, insisting that “verbal divorce” is part and parcel of Islam.
Another contentious fatwa, issued by Salafist cleric Mustafa Rashed, held that due to the high cost of pilgrimage Egyptian Muslims can go to Sinai instead of Mecca and Medina.
The new fatwa law has been heavily criticised by Al-Azhar. In a letter sent to Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal on 18 July, Al-Azhar and its grand clerics said they believe that the new fatwa law violates Article 7 of the constitution which states that “Al-Azhar is an independent Islamic scientific institution, with exclusive exercise over its own affairs, and is the main reference for religious sciences and Islamic affairs.”
According to Al-Azhar, the new fatwa law creates a “parallel institution” that will perform some of Al-Azhar’s most important roles and duties — including issuing fatwas. It sees the creation of a Mufti Preparation Centre as an attempt to undermine Al-Azhar’s own diploma courses.
In response, Al-Abd insisted that the Egyptian Fatwa House was created 700 years ago, separate from Al-Azhar. “There is no aggression against Al-Azhar. In fact the opposite is true. The law aims to help Al-Azhar fight bizarre fatwas. The mufti and his aides are Al-Azhar clerics themselves.”
MP Mohamed Abu Hamed said the Egyptian Fatwa House will be affiliated with the Ministry of Justice, not with Al-Azhar.
“One of the reasons why MPs drafted the law to state that the Egyptian Fatwa House will be independent and exclusively entrusted with issuing fatwas is the simple fact that Al-Azhar has not done enough to fight bizarre fatwas.”
The draft law states that a fatwa committee will be set up by the Egyptian Fatwa House to receive questions on religious issues, and to refer them to the Mufti and his aides to give answers (or fatwas).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly