for National Geographic News
Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the country's top Muslim religious authority, last month issued a religious ruling, or fatwa, condemning the display of statues in Egypt.
Gomaa said he based the edict on texts in the Hadith, a record of the sayings or customs of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The hadith declare the exhibition of statues in homes to be un-Islamic.
The fatwa did not specifically mention statues in museums or public places. But many academics and art lovers were outraged.
Critics say the ruling could encourage militant Muslims to attack Egypt's thousands of ancient statues, which are a mainstay of the country's tourist industry. (Download wallpapers of Egyptian monuments.)
Others point out that the religious edict has no legal authority, as far as the Egyptian government is concerned.
Jamal Elias, a religion professor at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, says there's no universal Muslim position on statues and paintings and their display.
"Historically speaking, the sensitivity has been over avoiding any possibility of idolatry"the worship of a physical object as a god"not over the existence of representational images as such," Elias said.
But many Islamic scholars believe that erecting statues for any purpose is haraam (forbidden by Islam), whether they are memorials to kings or symbols of wisdom and courage, like the Sphinx at Giza, Egypt (map of Egypt).
"Islamic societies have traditionally been less tolerant of sculpture than painting," Elias said.
"I would speculate [that it's because] three-dimensional representations are more threateningly a likeness of something that is 'in the flesh,' and therefore there is a greater danger of mistakenly and inappropriately showing reverence to the object."
Gomaa, the Egyptian mufti, reportedly pointed to a passage from the hadith that stated, "Sculptors would be tormented most on Judgment Day."
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