The grand imam of Egypt's top Islamic body, al-Azhar, caused a stir when he issued a fatwa sanctioning abortion at any time during pregnancy for women who have been raped but added on the condition the woman was found to be "chaste."
The imam told a closing session of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs about the fatwa, which stirred controversy amongst the scholars of the world's leading institution of Sunni learning for the inability to determine a "chaste" woman and for allowing the abortion of a fetus after it has developed.
But the grand imam, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawy, argued that an example of a "chaste" woman would be "if a girl was walking in the street on her way to university and someone raped her" then "she has the right to go the doctor and have an abortion to save her honor."
Al-Azhar's scholars argued, however, that it was impossible to determine the chastity of a woman and stressed that allowing abortion at any time during pregnancy, or after the first four months, was murder.
Some 20,000 women or girls are raped every year, an average of 55 women a day, according to the Egyptian Interior Ministry. Experts say statistics may be much higher as most rape victims do not go to the authorities over fear of social disgrace and dishonor.
"All members of the Center for Islamic Research (CIR) rejected an earlier fatwa by the grand imam that allows the abortion of a raped woman any time during the pregnancy," Dr. Mohamed al-Shahat, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, told Al Arabiya.
Shahat argued that a woman who is raped should have an abortion immediately if she finds herself pregnant. "It is not permitted to have an abortion at the time when the fetus is already a human being. This will be considered murder," Shahat said.
Dr. Amena Nasseer, professor of theology and philosophy at al-Azhar, echoed Shahat's stance and added since rape is such a traumatic experience for a woman getting rid of its consequences was a must.
"Rape is similar to death for a woman and causes extreme psychological damage," she told Al Arabiya. "Abortion helps her to get rid of this painful memory."
According to the Maliki school of thought, one of the four schools in Sunni Islam, abortion has to be within the first 40 days of pregnancy, CIR member Dr. Mohamed Rafaat Osman said.
"Abortion in cases of rape should be done immediately to avoid the grave consequences of giving birth to the child," Osman told Al Arabiya.