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Fasting exemption for football team kicks off debate in Egypt

Egypt's top religious institution allow the national football team to abstain from fasting before a decisive match.

CAIRO // A surprising fatwa from one of Egypt's top religious institution allowing the national football team to abstain from fasting before a decisive match tomorrow has generated debate about the role of religious edicts in the minutiae of daily life. The president of the Egyptian Football Association, Samir Zaher, said in a press statement that the players apparently had agreed not to fast on match day after Dar al-Iftaa issued religious edicts before Ramadan on the subject.

"If the player has no choice but to play matches in Ramadan, and thinks that fasting will influence his performance, he has a licence to break his fast in this case," said the fatwa posted on Dar al-Iftaa's website. "This is concerning matches that the player has to play, but training sessions should be at night, so the player can fast," added the statement. Equally respected clerics have loudly opposed the ruling. "This is rude," said Sheikh Farahat el-Mongy, a senior scholar at the prestigious al Azhar university in Cairo, in a lecture earlier this week at al-Rawad sport club, east of Cairo.

"God allowed the sick, pregnant, breast feeding or menstruating women to break their fast," continued Sheikh Mongy in the lecture, which was posted on the internet, "God said nothing about allowing football players to break their fast." "I totally oppose this fatwa, as most religious leaders are against it," said Khaled Tawhid, a deputy editor of Al-Ahram el-Riyadi, the sports magazine of the oldest and largest state-owned daily.

"I wish Dar al-Iftaa hadn't involved itself in issuing this fatwa, as superfluous fatwas are adding to people's confusion...," said Karam Gabr, the board chairman of Roselyoussef, a state-owned and pro-government daily. "This fatwa opens the door to many questions: Does it apply to all matches or only the upcoming match? Does it apply to handball and basketball matches as well? What happens if, God forbid, the national team lost while its players are not fasting?"

Mohammed Aboutrika, the star midfielder of the team, who is known to be very religious, has insisted he will continue fasting, even on the match day against Rwanda. The team's director, Hassan Shehata, also told local papers that many players were intending to fast. Egyptians are obsessed with football, and wining international matches can seem a matter of life or death. "This is a stupid fatwa, why would football players break their fast to play 90 minutes match, while Egyptians fought Israelis and crossed the Suez Canal while they were fasting in 1973 war," said Mohamoud Awad, 25, who is a staunch fan of the national team. "Besides, there is no need to break their fast, as they are not going to make it to the finals anyway, so they shouldn't use fasting as a pretext or excuse," he added.

Egypt is three points behind Algeria in their qualifying group after three rounds of matches. Egypt must win in order to have a chance to qualify for the World Cup finals in South Africa next year. Prominent cartoonist Amr Selim, in Al Masry Al Youm, drew two sheikhs from Dar al-Iftaa, one of them telling the other that this fatwa "is better of two evils: When 11 players break their fast is better than 80 million losing their faith while watching the match".

Dar al-Iftaa and senior clerics from other institutions are also involved in a controversial fatwa exhorting Muslims not to listen to recordings of the Quran in public. Sheikh Gamal Qutb, who led a fatwa committee at al Azhar, said: "Listening to the Quran in public and crowded places is dealing chaotically with the holy book and implies lack of respect." Sheikh Qutb complained that Muslims who play the Quran loudly on microphones at funerals or from taxis are imposing on other people by forcing those who are doing other things to choose between listening to the Quran or ignoring it.

Dar al-Iftaa announced its rejection of this fatwa by reposting on its website an opposite fatwa that it had issued five years ago. "If some Muslims played the Quran while they are busy with their work without intentionally meaning to ... distract other Muslims from listening, there is nothing religiously wrong with that," said the fatwa. Many commentators in the press have taken issue with the proliferation of small scope fatwas. Mr Gabr, of the Roselyoussef daily, complained that "the machines of issuing fatwas are working day and night non-stop and are surrounding people while they are awake or asleep".

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