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RELIGION-EGYPT: Fatwa On Smoking Triggers Debate

Hossam Hassan

CAIRO, Oct 5 2000 (IPS) - A fatwa, or religious ruling, issued by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel, has raised quite a few eyebrows, and pitted the mufti against Islam’s other top religious authority among the majority Sunni Muslims, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar.

The controversial fatwa considers smoking, as much as alcohol drinking and drug taking, to be among al-Kaba’er, or major sins, prohibited by Islam.

As such, the Mufti has ruled that a spouse’s smoking is sufficient grounds for divorce. The husband’s right to divorce is unrestrained under Islamic law, which makes women the real potential beneficiaries of the fatwa.

According to Dr. Wassel, who issued the fatwa recently at the request of an anti-smoking group, there is no doubt that “a person who is addicted to alcohol, drugs or smoking harms his wife and children and squanders money by buying these religiously forbidden substances, and it should be taken into consideration that divorce will not cause greater or even equal harm,” said Wassel.

For his part, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, believes smoking cigarettes or water-pipes is a choice that should be made by the two spouses. He said it is up to the judge to decide whether a husband’s smoking habit is a valid reason for the wife to gain a divorce.

And while a Muslim man has the right to divorce his wife without giving reason, “he would bear the religious responsibility before God and moral responsibility before his family and society. Divorce is not a game”, Tantawi said.

The anti-smoking edict is the latest of Wassel’s controversial fatwas. Earlier, he was quoted by newspapers as saying that smoking is more haram (sinful) than alcohol, presumably because it harms other people.

Islam forbids alcohol drinking, considering it a major sin, but there is no mention in the Qur’an (Muslim’s holy book) of smoking or drug use – tobacco and drugs being unknown at the advent of Islam.

The fatwa committee of Al-Azhar issued its first anti-smoking fatwa in 1977, “having established with all certainty the harm that smoking causes to health, such as lung and throat cancer, in addition to its financial harm; therefore, smoking is harmful”.

Islamic scholars who hold that smoking and drug use are also forbidden in Islam subscribe to the belief that the religion bans alcohol because of its equally negative effects on the mind and general health.

Sheikh Tantawi thinks otherwise. “I do not agree. No sensible man would ever say that smoking is more harmful than alcohol, which is one of the major sins in Islam,” Tantawi said.

Last year, Wassel won an award from the World Health Organisation (WHO) for his anti-smoking fatwas and efforts. Despite campaigns by anti-smoking groups and the Health Ministry, 13 million Egyptians smoke 85 billion cigarettes annually, burning up LE2 billion (about 300 million dollars ).

According to Health Ministry statistics, the ranks of smokers swell by nine percent each year. Official figures show that 40 percent of Egyptian men and eight percent of women smoke. The Egyptian family spends five percent of its income on smoking, two percent on medical care and 1.2 percent on entertainment.

“I got a message lately from a wife who said that she cannot bare her husband and that she hates sharing the same bed with him because the bad smell of his mouth as a heavy smoker. I think that women have the right to ask for such a simple thing from their husbands,” said prominent columnist Salah Mountassir.

However, some people think “it is insane to consider smoking a sin, since there is a large number of smokers in the country, including doctors and religious scholars,” commented Aly Ragab, a high school teacher.

Wassel and Tantawi disagree on more than one issue. Last year, the Mufti stated that a woman who was a rape victim is entitled to undergo surgery “to regain her virginity.”

Although there are only 200 rapes reported annually in Egypt, research by the National Centre for Sociological and Criminal Studies says the figure is higher because some 98 percent of rape victims do not go to the police for a number of reasons. Shame at what happened, and in the countryside, women not speaking with people outside their immediate family are cited as reasons for the paucity of reports.

Wassel told the semi-official weekly Rose Al-Youssef, “a woman who has been raped has been injured both physically and mentally. Society should help give her back that which has been taken from her in the form of hymen repair”.

Wassel also offers the avenue of abortion if the victim should become pregnant; as long as it is during the first 120 days of pregnancy. Most sheikhs at Al-Azhar University agree with Wassel’s position.

Reverend Dr. Ekram Lamie, president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo agrees with the Islamic religious establishment ideas on the subject. But, he said, the solution offered may also cause problems.

“On the one hand the women will begin a new life and have the opportunity to try and forget the past. On the other hand, we may consider it deceitful not to tell the person what has happened to their wife, but this is only because in Egypt virginity is an emblem of dignity and chastity,” he explained.

The Sheikh of Al-Azhar says hymen repair would be cheating. “Islam forbids deception, especially against husbands. When it comes to such a sensitive matter, it is better to tell the truth and there will be no need to undergo a surgery to deceive the husband.”

Female circumcision is another thorny issue on which the two men do not see eye-to-eye. Tantawi stood against female circumcision, saying that it harms the woman’s health and sexual life, while Wassel supports female circumcision saying it is ordered by Islam.

Wassel was appointed Grand Mufti in 1996, replacing Tantawi who had served in the post for 10 years. Dar El-Iftaa (the Mufti’s headquarters) was established in 1895 and has issued around 5 million fatwas since. Both the Grand Mufti and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar have the right to issue fatwas and religious opinions concerning the life and manners of Muslims who make up about 94 percent of the 65 million Egyptians.

Sheikh Abdel-Moeti Bayyoumi, dean of the Faculty of Religion Fundamentals at Al-Azhar University and one of the sheikhs who provide religious counsel on an Islamic telephone service, said, “smoking is not a reason for divorce. This is ijtihad (discretionary interpretation) by the Mufti, and Islamic jurisprudence is full of ijtihad.”

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  • Elazar Ibrahim Sjahranie

    Even if drugs were not known at the advent of Islam, there is a ruling “every intoxicant is haram”, which means things like opium, LSD, and things like those are haraam even if they’re not mentioned explicitly on Qur’an or Sunnah.