Facebook is a popular social networking website. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Cairo: A fatwa or a religious decree, passed by a prominent Muslim cleric branding the use of Facebook as un-Islamic, has caused a stir among the loggers onto the popular social networking website and other Muslim clergy.

Al Azhar's Islamic Research Academy has refuted reports that its fatwa committee issued a ruling against the social network.

"The committee hasn't issued any decrees regarding Facebook," said Shaikh Sa'eed Amer, head of the academy's fatwa, or religious-edict, committee. "We haven't even had any inquiries about the religious legitimacy of using it or not."

"Such fatwas give a very bad impression about Islam and Muslims," said Hussain Abdul Azeem, a commerce school post-graduate. "I use the Facebook to communicate with my friends worldwide and learn about the latest news. Do I really commit a sin as the one who issued the fatwa claimed?" he told Gulf News.

In the fatwa, the latest in a series of controversial fatwas in this predominantly Muslim country, Shaikh Abdul Hameed Al Attrash, a former official at Al Azhar, said Facebook is a tool of harm and time-wasting, and its users are sinners. Al Azhar is the Sunni Muslim world's influential seat of learning.

"The Facebook and other networking sites could result in the proliferation of illicit affairs," Al Attrash was quoted as saying by media.

"Surfing such websites makes it easier to develop forbidden relations with others ... While one spouse is away, the other turns to chatting online, thus wasting time and falls into the trap of illicit affairs. This is an instrument that destroys family and violates Sharia (Islamic law)."

He based his opinion on the findings of a recent study released by the state-run National Centre for Criminological and Sociological Studies, which showed that one in five Egyptian men, who divorced their spouses, had affairs through the internet.

"Generalisation is against logic as anything can be good or bad depending on how one uses it," said Abdul Halim Qader, a Muslim scholar from Al Azhar.

"One can use a glass to drink water or alcohol. By the same vein, Facebook can be a useful or harmful tool of communication. It all depends on how you handle it," he told Gulf News. "Accordingly, one cannot pass a conclusive ban on it."

A recent torrent of controversial fatwas, popularised by an explosion of Islamic satellite TV stations, have triggered calls to restrict their issuance and punish those who are not qualified to make such edicts.

In May 2007, Al Azhar University, Egypt's leading governmental Islamic seminary sacked a professor after decreeing on a TV talk show that it is permissible for women to breastfeed their male colleagues at workplace as a way around segregation of women and men at work.

According to his fatwa, if a woman fed a male colleague "directly from her breast" at least five times, they would establish a family bond and thus would not violate Islamic Sharia by being together at work. 

Do social networking websites make it easier for spouses to be unfaithful? Where does ultimate blame lie? Should religious authorities be involved in online regulation?