Amid ongoing disputes between the two major Islamic institutions, Al-Azhar and the ministry of religious endowments, over finding an appropriate vision to renew the religious discourse, the Egyptian Parliament drafted a new law to regulate the process.
Discussions about the renewal of religious discourse were immensely tackled in the media in the past years, while also being addressed in different seminars and conferences, to combat terrorism and protect young people from extremist thoughts.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has been calling for the renewal of religious discourse since he took office in 2013. On several occasions, he asserted that a religious reform is required to harmonise with the latest developments of the current age.
Al-Sisi believes that there is a problem concerning the understanding of religious texts and that it needs to be re-revised, especially after the worldwide distortion of the image of Islam as a result of acts of violence and hate speech conducted by extremists in the name of Islam. Thus, the president stressed the importance of renewing the religious discourse as one of the basic elements to fight extremism and terrorism with.
Egypt’s concern about the issue did not come out of the blue, but due to the challenges long suffered in the region as a consequence of political Islam, which is believed to be the main instigator of terrorist operations.
Al-Azhar and the religious endowments ministry have organised several campaigns to fight extremism and terrorism, but nothing was completely satisfactory and up to the standards expected by the ambitions of the Egyptian president.
Draft law to regulate fatwa chaos
MP Omar Hamroush, secretary-general of the religious affairs parliamentary committee, who drafted the new law, said that it would help Al-Azhar and the ministry of religious endowments to reach common grounds.
“The law is of great importance in the renewal of religious discourse and will confront abnormal fatwas – ruling of Islamic law – which dramatically spread in Egypt,” Hamroush said, adding that his draft law will prevent extremist clerics from issuing invalid fatwas by criminalising the issuance of fatwas without obtaining licenses from Al-Azhar or the ministry of religious endowments.
He noted that invalid fatwas harm the stability of the state, as many were issued by extremist Salafi clerics that legitimised extremism by encouraging youth to join terrorist groups to bomb churches and monasteries.
Hamroush pointed out that such invalid fatwas began when the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist Salafists came to power in Egypt in 2012.
Osama El-Abd, head of the committee, said that if the differences between the two institutions were not settled soon, the parliament will intervene to solve the issue.
Another member of the committee, Mohamed Abu Hamed, said that Al-Azhar seemed as if it were rejecting reforming religious discourse, however it is not the sole religious arbiter in accordance to the constitution.
Article 7 of the constitution states that “Al-Azhar is the main reference on religious sciences and Islamic affairs”, but does not stipulate it is the sole reference. The parliamentary member noted that this article opens the door to other institutions and intellectuals to give their views on religious issues.
The state attempts to regulate the chaos of fatwa which recently appeared, as many invalid fatwas have been spreading and were widely debated which caused widespread backlash.
Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Iftaa, Egypt’s principal Islamic legal institution for issuing fatwas, are set to prepare a list of only 50 religious scholars and clerics who will be permitted to issue fatwas via the media.
In 2017, Dar Al-Iftaa launched fatwa kiosks at the Cairo Metro to offer religious advice to commuters and fight extremist ideas. It focused on daily life issues, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, as well as correcting misinterpretations of Islam.
The division between religious institutions occurred when the ministry of religious endowments said it has the right to issue fatwas, while Al-Azhar rejected the ministry’s interference in this regard, insisting that one of its affiliated committees has been tasked to issue fatwas since the 1980s and it should continue to do so.
A fatwa is normally issued by a recognised religious authority or individual based on the Holy Quran and the Prophet’s teachings for guidance (Sunnah) on the routine of daily life subjects, such as marriage and inheritance.
In Egypt, Dar Al-Iftaa, under the ministry of justice, is the official institution devoted to issuing fatwas, along with Al-Azhar’s clerics in nationwide offices. For example, all court sentences of death ought be approved in consideration with Dar Al-Iftaa.
However, the state’s top clerics and religious scholars, mainly those affiliated to Al-Azhar and the endowments ministry, are still unable to agree on a fixed vision for the reform, as some believe they have to adhere to the Holy Quran only and minimise the independence on Sunnah.
The difference between Al-Azhar and the ministry of religious endowments reached a crescendo last week when the representative of Al-Azhar announced he would not attend any more meetings on the law.
Stances of Al-Azhar and endowment ministry over Sunnah
The Minister of Endowments, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, had contradictory visions over the new anticipated discourse which that clearly apparent during the celebration of the Prophet’s Birthday (Mawled) in November which was attended by Al-Sisi.
The minister urged that the renewal of religious discourse should consider the requirements of the current age and place as well, saying that the “early scientists succeeded to come up with religious discourse corresponding with the conditions and circumstances of their time, so in terms of changes and developments, now we have to take into account the circumstances of our times and conditions.”
Gomaa cited one of the sayings of the Prophet that was applicable in previous eras, explaining that it cannot be followed in the current time due to developments and changes.
Al-Tayeb said that he rejects questioning the validity of the Prophet’s sayings and Sunnah in general, while Gomaa suggested coming up with a new legislation that will be suitable with the current conditions of people.
Al-Tayeb also highlighted that the Sunnah is the second source of legislation in Islam preceded by Al-Quran, pointing out that it provided more details that were not mentioned in Islam’s holy book, and that there is a need to maintain the Sunnah along with Al-Quran in the legislation and provisions for Muslims.
His statements came in response to calls of excluding some of the Sunnah from the legislation process, stressing that these calls are not new, as they were initially launched in India in early 20th century.