Al-Azhar’s Role in Freedom of Belief in Egypt

9 December 2018

“Today, there is no freedom, especially the freedom of religion. The Ministry of Religious Endowments will not allow unlicensed preachers to give sermons at mosques. We are the sole competent authority to decide on this matter.” This was the answer of Muhammad Abdel Razeq, former undersecretary to the minister of religious endowments for mosque affairs, in response to a question about allowing Salafist clerics to deliver sermons at mosques.

The answer was not startling on the level of legislative reality in Egypt, as Law No. 157 of 1960 states that the Ministry of Religious Endowments “shall manage mosques whether or not an endowment certificate is issued, provided that such mosques are delivered to the ministry within a maximum period of 10 years from when the present law comes into effect. The ministry may supervise the management of such mosques until it takes full control of them. It may also supervise the management of small prayer rooms (zawiyas), which are renovated with the approval of the minister of religious endowments and directed to faultlessly deliver their religious message.”

This response could be a signal of the state’s approach to religious control through al-Azhar Mosque when dealing with religious freedoms in general, whether related to preaching at mosques, expressing mixed religious views within the Sunni school, or the freedom of religious practice or belief in other sects such as the Shi’a sect.

Al-Azhar is dissatisfied with the expression of the mixed views arising from the Sunni school, as al-Azhar is “the main reference of religious sciences and Islamic affairs” on the basis of Article 7 of the Egyptian Constitution. Later on, we will also discuss how al-Azhar deals with Shi’ism or with other faiths such as Bahá’ísm and how the courts relied on the opinions of al-Azhar to restrict the freedoms of followers of these faiths and sects.

When celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in 2015, President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi said, “It’s unconceivable that the thinking—I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’—that we hold most sacred over the centuries, to the point that changing it has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.” In his repeated calls for the renewal of religious discourse, Sisi added, “We are in dire need of a religious revolution. I am saying these words here at al-Azhar before this assembly of scholars and clergy—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.”

Sisi then addressed Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, saying, “You imams are responsible before Allah.” These words hint at the state’s view, represented by its president, of the freedom of expression in religion, where competent authorities and scholars shall assume that responsibility.

Obviously, the TV show Ma’a Islam (“With Islam”), presented by the intellectual reformer Islam al-Behairy, was a prime example of this issue. Behairy criticized Islamic heritage and centuries-old interpretations. Al-Azhar scholars accused Behairy of insulting Islam. In April 2015, al-Azhar filed a complaint to the General Authority for Investment calling for a ban on the show. In this complaint, prepared by the Azhar Islamic Research Academy (AIRA), al-Azhar objected to Behairy’s repeated allegations that the religion is not a science and that sharia is understood by all people and addressed to all people. Behairy claimed in his show that everyone has the right to understand religion according to his personal views and inclinations. The complaint deemed Behairy’s statements to be a call for misleading people into misunderstanding Islamic texts and rulings. It added that all religions and laws have restrictions and Behairy is mistaken to call for the easing of restrictions in Islam. The case was closed when the TV show was suspended and Behairy was jailed for one year in December 2015 on blasphemy charges.

In the same vein, Minister of Religious Endowments and AIRA member Mokhtar Gomaa said in his book Toward the Renewal of Religious Discourse, which was printed in 2015, that the renewal of religious discourse “shall not be left for unqualified and nonspecialist preachers or blasphemers who seek to shake Islamic fundamentals under the pretext of renewal.” Gomaa described the current period as critical, citing major internal and external challenges. He added, “When a qualified specialist strives to apply his reasoning and he is mistaken, he will have one reward. When a qualified specialist strives to apply his reasoning and he is correct, he will have two rewards. Those who give a fatwa with no knowledge and are correct incur a sin, but those who give a fatwa with no knowledge and are mistaken incur two sins—the sin of advising on a particular subject without qualification and the sin of those who follow them. Fatwas, given with no knowledge, lead many people astray and result in the ruin of society.”

It is noteworthy that the opinion of Gomaa, as a scholar, appears to be in line with Law No. 13 of 2012, an amendment to some provisions of Law No. 103 of 1961 on the reorganization of al-Azhar institutions. In Article 2b, the law states: “Al-Azhar is the main reference for Islamic affairs, sciences, and heritage, the interpretation of principles, and Islamic jurisprudence.” This in turn underscores an agreement between al-Azhar and the state on restricting the freedom to discuss religious opinions, particularly fatwas.

It is no surprise that the view of al-Azhar’s senior scholars about the Shi’a sect is almost identical to its stand on the mixed views within the Sunni school. Firstly, Shi’a are barred from practicing or observing rituals. A few days ahead of the Day of Ashura—which marks the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein—in November 2013, the Ministry of Religious Endowments said that it would close all mosques “to curb any Shi’a rituals.” The ministry also asked the Ministry of the Interior to take the necessary security measures—a request that was in breach of Article 64 of the Egyptian Constitution, which does not restrict the freedom of belief or practice of rituals for the followers of “divine religions.”

The official religious institutions published papers that incite hatred and discrimination against Shi’a. For instance, Dar Akhbar al-Youm published a book titled The Shi’a Are Coming written by Said Ismail, with a forward by Tayeb. In May 2015, Tayeb condemned more than once the practice of religious rituals by Egyptian Shi’a, describing it as “Shi’a preaching in Sunni states,” in a statement to the institution’s official newspaper, Sout al-Azhar. In the same month, Tayeb, in his TV show during Ramadan, addressed several controversial issues, including the Shi’a opinion concerning Prophet Muhammad’s companions. Tayeb described Shi’a as “blasphemers” of the companions. Other testimonials of the state’s religious policy toward the Shi’a were published in a report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) titled Restricted Diversity in State Religion: The Case of Religious Freedom of Shi’a Egyptians.

This exclusive monopoly on the practice of Islam and expression of ideas has not only been directed at the Shi’a but also at followers of other faiths that are not classified as “divine religions” according to the Egyptian Constitution. This classification renders these faiths less protection from state intervention compared with the previously mentioned sects, having originally been deprived of constitutional rights. For example, the Prohibited Identities report issued by the EIPR in 2007 said that the Egyptian state deals with Bahá’ís through “the policy of abolishment” pursuant to Law No. 263 of 1960, issued by the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Under that law, Bahá’í communities and societies were dissolved and their assets confiscated. On May 3, 2006, Sheikh Sayed Tantawi, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, said in a letter to Counsel Mahmoud Abul Leil, minister of justice, “Islamic jurists unanimously agreed that Bahá’ísm is not a divine religion.” The reply came in response to Abul Leil’s question about “the legitimacy of the Bahá’í faith and its link with the divine religions.” The letter also cited Bahá’í rites and the Supreme Constitutional Court’s decision on March 1, 1975, which stated: “Though the freedom of belief was made absolute, the freedom of practicing religious rites was made conditional on compliance with public order and public morality. The constitution has banned the establishment of these communities whenever their activities are noncompliant with the order of society, i.e., the public order.”

Based on the above, the role played by al-Azhar as the guardians of religious identity or the Ministry of Religious Endowments as the authority responsible for the management of religious activities is not restricted to the practice of Islam. This comes in tandem with the constitutional and legal role of al-Azhar in managing the freedom of religion and belief in Egypt. If there is a real political will to enhance the freedom of belief, this role will be revoked and a democracy favoring equality in rights and freedoms and in which no centralized religious institution plays such a powerful role will be adopted.

This article was published in  Timep  on the 7th of December 2018