In 2001 the Muslim Taliban regime in Afghanistan destroyed two giant Buddhas despite widespread international condemnation. The Taliban said the statues represented idol worship and were an offense to Islam.
The public attitude toward statues and pictures in Egypt has traditionally been far more relaxed.
More than a century ago a moderate Egyptian mufti named Mohammed Abdu issued a fatwa declaring that Islam does not forbid statues and pictures, as long as they are not worshipped.
There are thousands of ancient statues in museums and temples in Egypt as well as plenty of modern works in public squares in big cities.
"In the [last two centuries] many Muslim societies have wholeheartedly embraced the nationalistic representation of people through public sculpture," Elias said.
"There is no substantive tradition of representing religious personages [such as Muhammad] in statuary that I know of. But other figures, Muslim and otherwise, have been widely carved and forged [of metal]."
Some critics, however, say the latest ruling reflects rising religious fundamentalism in Egyptian society. They worry that Muslim extremists may be emboldened to attack monuments.
"We don't rule out that someone will enter the Karnak temple in Luxor or any other pharaonic temple and blow it up on the basis of the fatwa," Gamal al-Ghitani, editor of the Akhbar al-Adab literary magazine in Egypt, told the AFP news agency.
Other experts say there is no immediate danger of monuments like the Sphinx being destroyed by zealots.
"I do not feel that the Egyptian monuments are threatened by fundamentalism," said Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. "The Egyptians love their heritage, and there has never been an incident of the destruction of monuments by" militant Islamists.
Gerhard Bowering is a professor of Islamic studies at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
"The first time I went to Egypt, I saw the picture of [then President] Nasser on the walls, the second time [then President] Sadat's, and the third time [current President] Mubarak's," Bowering said. "The latter hangs there today."
"Fatwas aim at today's target," he said, referring to President Hosni Mubarak, whose administration is at odds with fundamentalist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Such fatwas "have little to do with the Sphinx. That creature will continue to grin at you," Bowering said.
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