On the celebration of Laylah al-Qadr(Night of Greatness), President Abdul Fattah El Sisi in a speech requested that Al-Azhar renew the religious discourse to meet the demands of the times. He also called for an “intellectual resistance” against all factions that tarnish the image of Islam. This resulted in a number of policies to control the religious domain, stirring much controversy and debate about the role of religious institutions in public life.
Law 51/2014, the Preaching Regulation Law, is one of these controversial laws. It restricted preaching to those holding a preaching license from the Ministry of Endowments or Al-Azhar. The new law sets a punishment between one month to one year as well as a fine between LE 20,000 and LE 50,000 for those convicted of giving religious sermons or lessons in mosques without having a license.
Sheikh Muhammad Ezz al-Din Abd Al-Sattar, Deputy Minister of Endowments, said the new laws aim at regulating the religious discourse and ensuring that it follows the Azharite method in order to eradicate extremism and radicalism. The argument is that better control over the mosques, preachers and the content of the sermons will lead to a decreased possibility for political groups to use them to incite for violence or propagate hate speech.
Salafis are the most severe opponents of this law, as Salafi groups feel targeted by these laws. Most Salafi sheikhs have no Azharite certificate, and thus they are the most affected by the law. Indeed, its most prominent sheikhs, including Muhammad Hussein Yaqob, Muhammad Hassan, Abu Ishaq al-Heweny, Younis Makhyun and Yassir Borhami have all been barred from giving sermons. After a period of political maneuvering, Al-Da’wah Al-Salafiah decided to agree to the new law and pull back its unlicensed preachers to have them apply for licenses.
Human rights groups, such as the Egyptian Initiative of Personal Rights (EIPR), who clearly have no religious underpinnings to their work, stated their concern about Law 51/2014. It was perceived by EIPR as a “continuation of the policies of restricting religious freedom and strengthening the legal monopoly of the religious establishment in stating Islamic views and opinions.”
EIPR researcher Amr Ezzat said that having Al-Azhar control the religious discourse will not guarantee its independence from political influences, as Al-Azhar's support for El Sisi’s removal of ousted President Mohamed Mursi on July 3, 2013, showed that it is not politically neutral.
Furthermore, some Azharite scholars have reportedly taken part in verbal assaults against religious groups, such as the Baha’i and the Shia. Dr. Abbas Shoman, undersecretary of Al-Azhar, reportedly stated on May 13, to Al-Fathnewspaper that the Shia are “devils,” having published a video of the Azharite Sheikh Farag Allah Al-Shazili while he was making the Shia call for prayer, causing him embarrassment. Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Institute reportedly accused the Baha’i community in 2009 of being “kufar” or infidels, and called them a Zionist group aiming to spread immorality in the world.
In this respect, Dr. Nabil Abd Al-Fattah, strategic expert at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, criticizes the narrow attempt at renewing the religious discourse now undertaken. He states that the usage of the term “renewing the religious discourse” has not gone beyond changing the topics of the Friday sermons; no change has been enacted in the structure of the religious discourse. Renewing the religious discourse cannot be undertaken without renewing Islamic thought, schools of interpretation and comparative religions according to Dr. Abd Al-Fattah.
Further, this renewal cannot be undertaken without the introduction of critical thinking in social sciences. Just restricting the Salafis, limiting the space for religious freedom, and empowering the religious establishment has its impact on freedom for artists and intellectuals.
Dr. Gaber Asfour, Minister of Culture, voiced his fears over the level of freedom of art by an empowered religious establishment. Dr. Asfour said he was not opposed to the movie Noah, which was rejected by Al-Azhar, and added that if he had been the Minister of Culture at that time, he would have allowed it to be screened without referring it to Al-Azhar for advice as the previous minister did, which made it possible for Al-Azhar to publicly oppose the movie. Asfour believes, “Al-Azhar should not rule us but we should resort to the Constitution.”
Later, in an article published in Al-Ahram, Asfour named a few Al-Azhar sheikhs — including Rifa’ah Al-Tahtawy, Muhammad Abduh and the current Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyib — as men who have formulated the basis for an enlightened religious discourse based on the separation of religion and state. He asked Al-Azhar to hold a dialogue with the intellectuals who believe in freedom of thought and political neutrality.
Al-Azhar scholars were not pleased with the culture minister's article. Dr. Shoman critiqued the basis of the “enlightened religious discourse,” which Asfour referred to as the separation of religion and state. He further denied that any Al-Azhar scholars had any nuances of secularism in their thought, hinting that Asfour’s piece lacks intellectual honesty.
Dr. Shoman also attacked what he called “a religious discourse of the Ministry of Culture,” stating that some books published by the ministry contain elements of “anti-religious immorality,” paid for by taxpayers money.
This debate on the position of religious institutions in society does not seem to be concluding soon, and the religious and cultural policies of the current regime seem to create many divergences, far deeper than those between the pro-Mursi and the pro- al-Sisi camp. What is needed and missing, however, is a possibility to conceive of a common ground on which these views can co-exist.
Yosra El Gendi is a researcher at Arab West Report, an electronic magazine and database founded in 1997 to foster understanding between people of different cultures and convictions. She has an MA in Comparative Politics from the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and an MSC in Development Studies from Lund University, Sweden.
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