BEIRUT: Lebanon could end up having two grand muftis, with each of the two Higher Islamic Councils calling Thursday for a new religious head to be picked for the Sunni sect.
“Based on Article 13 of legislative Decree 18 of 1955, the Higher Islamic Council asks Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who heads the Islamic Electoral Council, to call on the body as quickly as possible to elect a grand mufti,” said the council of former Minister Omar Miskawi after it convened at Mohammad al-Amin Mosque in Downtown Beirut.
Miskawi is technically the council’s deputy but has assumed leadership of a splinter, rival body that was formed at the end of 2012 following disagreements with Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, who heads the other council.
The statement said that electing a new grand mufti would preserve the national role of Dar al-Fatwa, whose financial and administrative affairs the council supervises.
Attendees of the meeting said Qabbani was tarnishing the status of his post by violating Decree 18 of 1955 in a number of ways, accusing him of posing a grave threat to the unity of Muslims and the institutions of Dar al-Fatwa. Decree 18 regulates the affairs of Dar al-Fatwa, the top Sunni religious authority in Lebanon.
Qabbani was also insulting the post of the prime minister, which is the highest position for the Sunni sect, the statement said, and that his behavior had practically turned the post of grand mufti into a vacant one.
Miskawi’s council also accused Qabbani of taking part in a “suspicious political plan” to undermine the unity of Muslims in Lebanon.
Since the end of 2012, disputes between Qabbani and Saad Hariri’s Future Movement have split the council into two. One part is chaired by Miskawi and is considered to be close to the Future Movement, while the other is headed by Qabbani. Each of the councils considers the other illegitimate. Qabbani has recently showed openness toward March 8 officials, which has furthered exacerbated the rift.
The decision of Qabbani’s council over the weekend to expand the electorate body to pick his successor from over 100 to around 2,800 members has added to the disputes between the two bodies. Qabbani’s term expires in Sept. 15.
The statement by Miskawi’s council described the credibility of Qabbani’s decision as “non-existent.”
But former Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss defended Qabbani’s decision, saying it enhanced democracy in the process of electing a grand mufti.
“It is a decision allowing the widest segment of Muslims to pick a competent person with good history to serve in this sensitive post,” Hoss said in a statement Thursday.
Earlier Thursday, Director-General of Islamic Endowments Sheikh Hisham Khalifa, who is loyal to Qabbani, set August 31 as the date to elect a new mufti.
In a statement, he said the election would take place at the Dar al-Fatwa headquarters in Beirut.
Citing Decree 18, Khalifa said the new grand mufti would need a two-third majority from the Islamic Electoral Council to be elected.
If this was not secured, he said, the session would be adjourned till 11 a.m. later that day for a second round, which would need only a 50 percent quorum and an absolute majority of those present for the winning candidate.
In case the quorum was not achieved, he added, members would gather in Dar al-Fatwa on Sept. 7 and elect a grand mufti – regardless of the number of sheikhs attending.
Commenting on the increasingly heated dispute, the Association of Muslim Scholars called for “mutual respect” between the grand mufti and the prime minister.
Qabbani launched a scathing attack on the Future Movement and Salam Wednesday, saying he was not afraid of the Grand Serail and “who is in the Grand Serail.”
The group warned against holding the election of a new mufti with the presence of two higher Islamic councils and two electoral bodies.
It said the priority should now be the preservation of unity in the Sunni sect in terms of its religious authority and the premiership.