BEIRUT: The prospect of having two grand muftis remained Tuesday despite the resignation of six members of Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani’s Higher Islamic Council in a bid to dissolve his branch of the body.
Speaking during a news conference at the Press Federation headquarters, the resigned members said their decision came “to prevent the worst from happening and out of eagerness to protect the higher interest of the Sunni sect, and out of fear that two grand muftis will be elected – which is something we cannot accept.”
They said their move would bring the number of those resigning from Qabbani’s 32-member council to 15, after nine resigned earlier this year.
“Article 45 of Legislative Decree 18 [which regulates Dar al-Fatwa] states that the resignation of 15 members is sufficient to consider the council dissolved before the end of its term,” the statement of the resigned members said.
Mounting disputes between the Future Movement and Grand Mufti Qabbani led to the council splitting into two rival branches last year. One is headed by Qabbani and the other by former Minister Omar Miskawi. Each of the two councils considers the other illegitimate.
The council, set up in 1930, supervises the financial and administrative affairs of the institutions of Dar al-Fatwa, the top Sunni religious authority in Lebanon.
Qabbani’s term expires in September. Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who recognizes Miskawi’s council, has called for a successor to be elected August 10. Director General of Islamic Endowments Sheikh Hisham Khalifah, who is close to Qabbani, has set Aug. 31 as the voting date.
But Mustafa Banbouk, who read the statement of the resigned members, said Qabbani’s branch could no longer hold an election for the grand mufti post because so many members of the judicial committee that approves candidacies had resigned now that the body had effectively been dissolved.
Predictably, his interpretation has been disputed, with Maher Saqqal, the deputy-head of Qabbani’s council, saying the council still existed and insisting that a new grand mufti would be elected Aug. 31.
Saqqal said Tuesday’s resignations were an “unsuccessful operation” engineered by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, the head of the Future parliamentary bloc. Siniora could not immediately be reached by The Daily Star for comment.
“They have miscalculated and the council still exists,” Saqqal told The Daily Star.
Saqqal explained that the council had appointed a new member to fill one of the new vacancies, adding, “This makes the current number of the resigned 14 rather than 15.”
He said that even if the council was dissolved in the future, this would not prevent the election of a new grand mufti, pointing to Qabbani’s decision last month to expand the electorate who can pick his successor from over 100 to around 2,800 members.
The grand mufti justified the move by saying this was the size of the electoral body between 1955 and 1996, the year he was elected the mufti. That year, 1955’s Legislative Decree 18 was amended to reduce the size of the electoral body.
Saqqal said it was the General Directorate of Islamic Endowments rather than the council that supervised the election of a new grand mufti. “Whether the council was dissolved or not does not affect the electoral process,” he said.
Banbouk said that over the past year, the six members who resigned Tuesday had tried to end divisions and create one council again, but that their efforts had hit a dead end.
“We had the aim of being a centrist group that could bridge gaps and propose initiatives and compromises to both sides in a bid to maintain communication,” he said.