Away from political motives and via secret ballot, members of Al-Azhar’s Senior Scholars Authority (ASSA) on Monday chose Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim as Egypt’s new grand mufti.
Attia Al-Sayed Fayyad, a professor of comparative jurisprudence and Farahat Abdel-Aati Saad, a professor of jurisprudence, both at Al-Azhar’s School of Sharia in Cairo, came second and third, respectively.
The ASSA is a 40-member committee that includes senior Al-Azhar scholars. It acts as an advisory body to Al-Azhar’s grand sheikh in religious matters.
Since the establishment of Dar Al-Iftaa in 1895 and until the endorsement of the new constitution, the president has appointed the grand mufti of the republic. Now, for the first time in Dar Al-Iftaa’s history, the ASSA became the sole body entrusted with choosing the mufti, with the role of the president being limited to the endorsement of the decision made by the ASSA. This is expected to ensure the independence of Dar Al-Iftaa — the official institution assigned with issuing religious opinions — and any possible interference from the executive authority.
Abdel-Karim, the country’s 19th mufti, is expected to take over the post immediately after the president endorses the ASSA decree.
Abdel-Karim, 55, was born in the Nile Delta governorate of Beheira. He received his PhD in 1996 from Al-Azhar University’s Faculty of Sharia and Law. He does not seem to have any political affiliations.
“We believe that Abdel-Karim is the best choice for this position,” said Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel, former grand mufti and a member of the ASSA. “I have known him to be a dedicated professional scholar who has devoted his entire life to promoting the modernity and tolerance of Islam.” Wassel added that Abdel-Karim had always distanced himself from politics and focussed only on his study to defend Islam and promote its core values.
Abdel-Karim is known for being a moderate, and of belonging to the Maliki Sunni school. He wrote many books which explain the tolerance and modernity of Islam including one on the political rights of women in Islam and another on determining and changing the gender of fetuses during pregnancy and its legitimacy according to Islamic law.
Following the decision, Abdel-Karim stated: “It is an honour to have been chosen by the Al-Azhar Senior Scholars Authority. I hope to fulfil people’s trust in me and I hope I would be fit for the position.”
He said he would remain in his current position as head of Islamic jurisprudence and Sharia law at Al-Azhar University in Tanta until President Morsi officially approves his appointment.
Abdel-Karim is set to succeed the current mufti, Ali Gomaa, who will retire in March at the age of 61. His term was extended by one year in 2012 by the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Earlier this month, it was reported in the press that the president turned down a request by Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb to extend Gomaa’s term for another year. Gomaa was known for his progressive fatwas such as the ones supporting equal rights for women, including the right to be president. Gomaa also stood firmly against female genital mutilation and the death sentence for apostasy.
Before the election of Abdel-Karim, it was widely rumoured that Abdel-Rahman Al-Barr, a Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau member, was a leading candidate. However, Al-Barr hurried to deny such talk as false.
“Al-Barr did not register to run for the seat in the first place. These are all rumours,” said Yasser Mehrez, spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Barr has the right to run as he is the dean of Al-Azhar University’s branch in the Nile Delta city of Al-Mansoura.
The new bylaws of Al-Azhar stipulate that the new grand mufti must be under the age of 60. The candidate should also have worked continuously inside the religious establishment following the completion of his studies, and be a scholar of jurisprudence and Sharia law. He must also be fluent in English.
Al-Azhar is the main source of religious edicts for Sunni Muslims worldwide and the post of grand mufti has been in existence since 1895.
Gamal Qutb, a former head of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, said that electing the grand mufti is an important step for the independence of Al-Azhar and to restore its important role in the Egyptian and Muslim world.
“I believe Al-Azhar scholars have made a historic decision when they insisted on electing a professional and committed scholar for the post of grand mufti,” he said.
Moetaz Abdel-Fattah, a political analyst said that the position has little political power but is an important indicator of a country’s religious trends.
“Choosing a moderate Al-Azhar scholar for the post of the mufti is necessary during the current stage when Egypt and the rest of the Arab world is divided between progressive schools and conservative brands,” he said.
The grand mufti has a variety of tasks in Egypt. He reviews and ratifies death sentences issued by courts. He is also responsible for announcing when the Muslim fasting month begins and ends, according to the lunar calendar. In response to citizens’ requests, he also issues religious edicts, known as fatwas, and gives opinions over government policies.
Under the new constitution, which was passed in a public referendum in December, Al-Azhar was tasked with reviewing all draft laws to decide whether they violate Sharia, or Islamic law.