Egypt’s Al-Azhar prohibits excavating and displaying mummies

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A scholar at Egypt’s leading religious establishment, the Al-Azhar University has caused outcry by prohibiting the excavation of ancient Egyptian tombs and putting mummies on display.

Sheikh Ahmed Karima, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at the Al-Azhar, said in a televised statement earlier this month that exhuming graves was against Islamic teachings and that “extracting the bodies of the ancient Pharaohs and putting them on display in return for dollars from visitors is forbidden.”

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According to Karima, the digging up the graves violates the dignity of the dead and that Islamic law forbids their desecration. “Bodies of the dead cannot be exhumed unless for the purpose of scientific search,” the scholar said.

“The grave is a blessing from God to house the human being after his demise,” he added.

“Museums can exhibit the treasures of the Pharaohs, talk about [their civilization] and about the mummification, but without displaying their dead bodies.”

READ: Egypt unveils biggest ancient coffin find in over a century

However, leading Egyptian archaeologist and Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who was appointed minister of state for antiquities affairs under the late former President Hosni Mubarak, has criticised the ruling.

“We do not excavate the graves of Muslims, Christians or Jews,” Hawass explained during a telephone interview with Egypt’s Sada Al-Balad channel, adding that the function of the Antiquities Ministry is to revive the greatness of ancient people and introduce their civilisation to people of today.

“The opinion of Sheikh Karima can be applied to thieves who tamper with graves and destroy mummies, but archaeologists work to immortalise these people, as they restore their coffins, graves and mummies, because the presence of these coffins inside the wells exposes them to decomposition and fragmentation,” he said.

However, Hawass agreed with Karima that the way the mummies were previously displayed before they were transferred to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization was humiliating, but that they were later properly displayed. “The mummies will be exhibited at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in a civilised way, with a detailed explanation of each mummy and the historical era in which it lived,” he explained.

Columnist and TV host Khaled Montaser, known for his reformist views also disagreed with Karima’s opinion, which he described as negative propaganda ahead of the planned inauguration of the Egyptian Grand Museum, one of the largest museums in the world set to be opened later this year and which the Egyptian government hopes will boost its dwindling tourist industry which has been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

READ: Egypt showcases scores of 2,500-year-old coffins

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