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Egypt's grand mufti issues fatwa: no sculpture

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"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.

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