Change at Al-Azhar?
The sudden endorsement of a draft law designed to regulate Al-Azhar has stirred controversy, reports Gihan Shahine
A draft law that proposes the election of the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar instead of his appointment by the government was endorsed by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) earlier this week, provoking much controversy.
The draft law, presented by the current grand sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb and approved by the cabinet last week, was signed by the SCAF just four days before the new parliament convenes its first session and was thus not subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
The bill stipulates that the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar will no longer be appointed by the president, as was previously the case, but will instead be elected by members of the Senior Scholars Authority, which will be reinstated to include scholars from Egypt and the Islamic world.
This system of election applied before 1961, when late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser abrogated the authority and replaced it with the state-controlled Islamic Research Academy in an attempt to bring the religious establishment under state control.
The new law appears to answer repeated calls from religious scholars and intellectuals to end the system of appointing the grand sheikh and reinstates the centuries-old institution's independence from the state.
However, critics charge that the new law has been tailored to help current officials remain in place, arguing that it does not give Al-Azhar financial independence from the state and ignores calls that the institution should regain the control over religious endowments that it had in the past.
The fact that officials at Al-Azhar kept a lid on the details of the new bill until it was endorsed by the ruling military council, which was equally quick to sign it only a few days before the new parliament convenes, is another source of suspicion.
Islamic intellectual, lawyer and presidential hopeful Mohamed Selim El-Awwa has been quick to slam the "suspicious law" as lacking legitimacy and has charged the SCAF with "double standards" in hastening to pass the Al-Azhar law before parliament convenes while ignoring another draft law setting out a unified building code for places of religious worship.
El-Awwa called upon the new parliament to form a committee to study the bill, which he said should not be brought into force until discussed by parliament. "The issue is too important to be ignored," El-Awwa said.
Muslim Brotherhood MPs were similarly angered that the new law had been endorsed before parliamentary scrutiny. Brotherhood MP Khairat El-Shater slammed the endorsement of the bill as being a "huge mistake on the part of the military council and the leadership of Al-Azhar."
Quoted in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, El-Shater said that the new law was "a blatant violation that should not be allowed to pass."
Brotherhood MP Hamdi Hassan similarly told Al-Ahram Weekly that all the laws passed by the SCAF could not be considered to be valid unless they had been subject to discussion by the parliament. Otherwise, Hassan warned, "the SCAF will be creating a crisis and getting into a conflict with the new parliament."
"This is a violation of the legitimacy of the parliament, and it casts doubt on the policies of the SCAF," Hassan said. He added that the parliament "will refer the issue to the courts if the SCAF does not allow MPs to review and even amend such laws if necessary."
One catch in the new law is that it stipulates that the current grand sheikh will select the members of the Senior Scholars Authority that will elect the next one.
According to El-Awwa, this provision is designed to ensure that the institution is not genuinely independent. "The Scholars Authority should be open to different scholars from Al-Azhar, Egypt and the world," he said.
Instead, the law in its current form "would only allow the current grand sheikh, or someone from his circle, who may be affiliates of the former regime, to be elected as the grand sheikh," said Sheikh Gamal Qotb, former chair of Al-Azhar's Fatwa Council.
The age limit set for holders of the post of grand sheikh is another bone of contention. The bill stipulates that the grand sheikh should retire at the age of 80, which many scholars oppose on the grounds that he would then be too old to do the job effectively.
The new law also makes it a condition that the grand sheikh should not be less than 60 years old. Critics say that such an age requirement would make members of the Islamic Research Academy, who were involved in drafting the law, the most eligible for the post of the grand sheikh, since most of them are over 60.
Abdel-Rahman El-Berr, dean of the Faculty of Islamic Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University in Mansoura and a leading Muslim Brotherhood member, was critical of this age limit and the overall lack of transparency of the new law.
El-Berr suggested on the Brotherhood's website that the age limit should be reduced to 40, thus allowing more people to put their names forward.
A member of the academy, who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, said that when the age limit had been discussed by senior clerics El-Tayeb had suggested a retirement age of 70, but a voting majority had settled on 80.
The qualifications needed for membership of the authority that will elect the grand sheikh are also controversial. According to the bill, members must be known for their piety and their adherence to the teachings of ahl al-sunna wal-gamaa [the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed and his companions].
Qotb said that "the piety condition is too subtle to be proved," and that as such it could be "used as a pretext to include or exclude whoever the current grand sheikh wants in the position."
The wording used does not provide guidelines on what it means to adhere to Sunni teachings.
"The Salafis, for instance, insist that they are the most faithful adherents of the Prophet and his companions," Qotb said. In the absence of any clear-cut definition of the moderate teachings of Al-Azhar, Qotb said that influences from other schools of thought could affect the institution's teachings.
Over recent years, many Azharite scholars have taught in universities in Saudi Arabia, where according to Qotb "they have been influenced by the [ultra-conservative] Wahhabi school of thought and included it in their publications and teaching." Others may have been influenced by the ideas of Hassan El-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"The majority of Al-Azhar scholars fit the criteria, and even Brotherhood members adhere to the teachings of the Prophet and his companions," Qotb told the Weekly. "Those who have been influenced by other schools of thought do not constitute more than a fraction of Azharite scholars."
Academy members insisted that the "faithful adherents of the Prophet and his companions are known by name" and that Al-Azhar's teachings are clear about what this teaching consists of.
But Qotb said that the new law should have included a clear-cut curriculum for the moderate teaching of Al-Azhar and should have developed its affiliated institutes, which have become notorious for their superficial curricula and rote- learning techniques.
Over recent years, Al-Azhar has been lambasted for allegedly acting as the mouthpiece for the former regime, even issuing edicts widely seen as supporting its policies.
Dependent on the state since the 1952 Revolution, Al-Azhar's staff, including its grand sheikh, have been turned into government employees sometimes more worried about their livelihoods than about the integrity of their religious views, critics charge.
The institution's grand sheikh and mufti, Al-Azhar's two most prominent voices, have been appointed by the government since the 1952 Revolution, and whereas the mufti can be replaced at any time, the grand sheikh remains in office for life.
As a result, Al-Azhar's credibility has been damaged, sometimes even lost, over the past half century of its existence.
The former grand sheikh, the late Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, was widely criticised for having issued fatwas, or religious rulings, pleasing to the former regime.
Whereas El-Tayeb is seen as more eloquent and pious than his predecessor, he has still been widely perceived as a government appointee owing to his membership of the former ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) Policies Committee.
There is a consensus among analysts that Al-Azhar will not be able to restore its former prestige and credibility unless it regains its independence from the state, including over financial matters, such that its staff are free from government pressures.
Qotb, for one, has insisted that the new law "will only deepen the current state of corruption in the religious establishment, and it will limit high-ranking posts to those close to the authorities and the state security, as was the case under the former regime."