Egypt Monuments Endangered by Muslim Ruling?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 12, 2006
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.

Giant Buddhas

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."

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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