Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 June 2011
Issue No. 1053
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Revolutionary turbans

Al-Azhar has called for a civil state in Egypt and independence for the 1,000-year-old religious institution, reports Gihan Shahine

It seems that the tsunami of political and democratic change currently taking place in Egypt has also reached the corridors of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the Sunni Muslim world's oldest and most important centre of religious learning.

Earlier this week, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, met with intellectuals from various backgrounds and religious scholars as part of a dialogue that issued in the publication of a document setting out the institution's political position.

According to the document, Al-Azhar supports "the establishment of a modern, democratic and constitutional state" in Egypt that will observe the separation of powers and will guarantee equal rights to all citizens.

The document, which aims to define the relationship between the state and religion at this important moment in the country's history, says that the principles of Islamic Sharia law are "the basic source of legislation" in Egypt, while adding that Egyptian citizens who are not Muslim should refer to their own religious traditions in deciding matters relating to personal status law.

"The significance of this document comes from the fact that it is the first for 150 years that has introduced a comprehensive project stemming from Egyptian identity and Islamic culture," said Al-Azhar scholar Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, a member of the Al-Azhar-affiliated Islamic Research Academy and one of those involved in drafting the document.

The document seems to take a firm stance on religious tolerance, recently considered a challenge facing the new Egypt. It calls for respect to be shown to the three monotheistic religions as well as for protection of their places of worship. All citizens should have the right to practice their religion, the document says, warning of the dangers of instigating sectarian rifts, which it describes as a "national crime".

Al-Azhar, the world's most important seat of Sunni learning, has recently been criticised for allegedly acting as a mouthpiece for the former regime, even issuing edicts widely seen as supporting its policies. During the 25 January Revolution that led to the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak, Al-Azhar was criticised for allegedly toeing the government line, damaging the institution's credibility.

However, Al-Azhar's links with the state, too, may be about to change. The document stresses the leading role played by Al-Azhar in spreading the moderate message of Islam, emphasising that Al-Azhar, owing to its history and prestige, should remain the source of correct Islamic jurisprudence and should be free to decide the nature of the relationship between state and religion.

Though non-binding, the document is being seen as a vital component in the debate on Egypt's new constitution and a sign that Al-Azhar is regaining its important historical role.

It also reveals changes in the discourse of the still government-affiliated institution, which is now giving emphasis to eliminating poverty and illiteracy and improving scientific research and education. Al-Azhar's post-revolutionary orientation insists on the need for development, social equity, the fight against corruption and unemployment and the need for better healthcare.

"Giving priority to women and children's rights and insisting on the necessity of the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary are all important points in this historic document, bringing it into line with the revolutionary spirit of the time," Bayoumi said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

The document also guarantees freedom of expression and creativity and a commitment to international treaties and laws in accordance with the principles of Islamic culture.

One of the most important points in the document concerns the possibility of Al-Azhar regaining its former independence. There is something of a consensus among observers that the institution may not be able to regain its formerly influential role unless its head, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, is elected, rather than being appointed by presidential decree, as has been the case since the 1950s.

The institution also needs to regain its financial independence, observers say, such that Al-Azhar sheikhs are free from government pressures.

In the document, El-Tayeb reiterates calls for future grand sheikhs of Al-Azhar to be elected by a council of scholars versed in Islamic Sharia law. This council would also be responsible for restricting the tenure of individuals elected to the position, formerly held for life by virtue of a presidential decree issued in 1952.

Nevertheless, some critics of El-Tayeb's calls remain sceptical. Sheikh Gamal Qotb, former head of Al-Azhar's fatwa council, which delivers religious rulings, said that the timeframe and procedure for the proposed election of the institution's grand sheikh were not defined and that the document, which has no legal force, cannot replace the law currently regulating the operation of Al-Azhar.

"It remains unclear who will form this council to elect the grand sheikh and whether it will include the imams of mosques, those working in the Ministry of Religious Endowments and those teaching in Al-Azhar institutes," Qotb told the Weekly.

Qotb said that Al-Azhar could not regain its independence without first separating the Ministry of Waqf, or religious endowments, from the government and re-affiliating it to the mother institution as was the case earlier in the last century. Egypt could not truly be a civil state as long as the government and the religious endowments authority were linked, Qotb said.

Secularist writer Salah Eissa, one of the staunchest supporters of the establishment of a civil state, is also dissatisfied with the Al-Azhar document on the grounds that it maintains that the principles of Islamic Sharia law should be the source of legislation. "If new laws need the consent of Al-Azhar, then that immediately means we are in a religious, and not a civil, state," Eissa said.

Bayoumi said that Eissa's objections were due to a misunderstanding of the document. The document, the brainchild of a large panel of intellectuals of all religious affiliations, including Copts, had deliberately used the expression "principles of Islamic Sharia" as the source of legislation because those principles promoted the basic values of all three religions, including freedom, equality, justice and democracy.

Besides, Bayoumi said, "all new laws will need the consent of the Supreme Constitutional Court and not Al-Azhar, whose role will only be advisory."

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