Cairo: Egypt’s top Islamic authority has prohibited online chat between unrelated men and women, triggering a big controversy in the country.

The Dar Al Ifta, Egypt’s official body in charge of advising Muslims on spiritual matters, said in the fatwa (a religious edict) that such chats are religiously impermissible “because they are one of the tools of the devil and a way for spreading discord and corruption.”

The institution also said that a woman should not send her photo to strangers to “protect herself and preserve her dignity”. It added that there is evidence of “moral deviants” who misused women’s photos to malign them.

The fatwa, released on Friday, was issued in response to a question from a Muslim on Islam’s opinion on online chats, according to the state-run institution.

“From the religious point of view, this fatwa is sound,” said Abdul Hamid Al Attrash, a senior cleric at Al Azhar, Egypt’s prestigious institution of Sunni Islam. “Chats between a boy and a girl who are strange to each other is prohibited because this opens the door to the devil and leads to illicit relations that are harmful to society. It is necessary to comply with this fatwa.”

Not everyone is in agreement with the edict, though.

“This fatwa is unrealistic,” Amnah Nusseir, a professor of Islamic theology and philosophy at Al Azhar University, said.

“Social networking sites have become part of our life and cannot be denied. Chats could be religiously permissible or impermissible depending on their content,” Amnah told independent newspaper Al Youm Al Saba.

“Maybe the fatwa was issued after such sites were manipulated by some men to deceive girls with false promises.”

The fatwa restricted chats to “cases of necessity”.

Still, it has drawn harsh and even sarcastic criticism from young Egyptians.

“Chat is un-Islamic? Dar Al Ifta left everything illegal in the country and shifted its sights to online chats instead,” Ahmad Al Sayyed posted on his Twitter account.

Hamada Barbari, another online user, tweeted sarcastically: “Dar Al Ifta launched a campaign promoting offline virtue and prohibiting chat vice!”

Online users in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country of around 87 million people, are estimated at around 37 million, according to official figures.