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ANALYSIS: The new Azhar law and the battle over religious authority in Egypt

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Besides being the world’s leading institution on Sunni Islam, al-Azhar is the top religious authority in Egypt and the main reference on Islamic affairs.

This does not only apply to religious education taught through al-Azhar’s schools and university colleges, but also through religious edicts (fatwas) issued on contemporary day-to-day matters.

Despite the relative autonomy it enjoys, al-Azhar has for years been a representative of state Islam, that is the version of Islam that the state wants to promote as opposed to that promoted by extremist groups, and most recently the Muslim Brotherhood.

Therefore, al-Azhar has always been seen as a beacon of moderate Islam. However, the institution was never immune to criticism whether over the content of its curricula, the influence of ultra-orthodox scholars, or the status of the grand imam and this is how a new law came into being.

Radical changes

The new law, proposed by MP Mohamed Abu Hamed, introduces radical changes to the way al-Azhar operates especially as far as the grand imam is concerned. According to the law, the grand imam’s term would be limited to six years and can only be renewed for a second time and the grand imam is to be elected by members of two al-Azhar bodies—The Council of Senior Scholars and the Islamic Research Committee.

The law details the procedures to be taken to investigate the grand imam in case of negligence or misconduct. The law also changes the makeup of the Council of Senior Scholars and the Azhar Supreme Council so that their membership is not only limited to religious scholars and is extended to other secular professions as well as individuals appointed by the president.

In case the new law is approved, non-religious al-Azhar colleges will no longer be under its jurisdiction and will instead be affiliated to the Ministry of Higher Education like other universities. As for religious colleges, the law proposed a comprehensive curricular reform that would remove all texts that might be misinterpreted by fundamentalists as justification for violence. Abu Hamed initially collected around 250 signatures from MPs that supported the law, yet many have withdrawn their signatures ever since.

Opposition

The law was opposed by a sizable number of MPs. Mohamed Sharshar submitted a complaint to parliament speaker Ali Abel Aal in which he argued that the proposed law violated article 7 of the Egyptian constitution.

According to article 7, “Al-Azhar is an independent Islamic scientific institution, with exclusive competence over its own affairs” and “Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh is independent and may not be dismissed.” It also states that “the Law shall regulate the method of appointing the Grand Sheikh from amongst the members of Council of Senior Scholars.” According to Sharshar, the approval of the law will destabilize a religious institution that is not only Egyptian but also global.

“It has to be understood that al-Azhar and its grand imam are red lines,” he added. Sharshar collected more than 170 signatures from MPs who object to the law. MP Magdi Bayoumi said that he initially welcomed the law when he thought that it introduces reforms to the educational system at al-Azhar colleges. “But now this is a flagrant attack against the world’s symbol of religious tolerance and moderate Islam,” he said, adding that the House of Representatives should not interfere in the choice of the grand imam or the length of his term.

Supporters of the law mainly focused on the educational part and preferred to avoid broaching the grand imam controversy. MP Emad Gad said that education in Egypt will never progress as long as two separate systems exist, in reference to regular and Azhar colleges.

“You don’t find religious colleges anywhere in the world,” he said. “Plus, this system is against equality since scientific colleges in al-Azhar require much lower baccalaureate grades than regular ones which is both unfair and in violation of the constitution.”

Gad added that unifying curricula would allow for state supervision. “This way we can make sure that parts which would help in inciting violence or encouraging militant activities are removed.” Gamal Fahmi, head of the Culture and Media Committee at the National Human Rights Council agrees with Gad. “All curricula should be supervised by the Ministry of Higher Education.”

What is peculiar about al-Azhar law is not whether it will be approved, but rather whether it will be discussed in the first place. A request was submitted to parliament speaker Ali Abdel Aal by disapproving MPs that the law be dismissed before being discussed. This request was faced with strong objection on the part of law’s initiator. “If 60 MPs approve, then a law can be discussed at the House of Representatives, so it will be discussed” said Abu Hamed. “I am not forcing any MP to approve the law, but I and my fellow MPs are practicing our constitutional right at having the law presented, discussed, and voted for.”

Abu Hamed dismissed Abdel Aal’s statement about the law being shelved despite admitting that such statement did encourage many MPs to withdraw their signatures.

“However, I still have a confirmed 85, which means that the law will still be discussed,” he said. “My purpose is to get the support of members of the committees of education and scientific research, legislative and constitutional affairs, and religious affairs.”

According to researchers Nathan Brown and Mariam Ghanem, there is more than meets the eye in the new draft law. For them, the law reflects a new strategy followed by the state to pass laws without directly being involved.

“Technically, the draft was the initiative of Muhammad Abu Hamed, a Sisi supporter in the Egyptian parliament,” they wrote. “In that sense, it reflects a new trend in Egyptian legislation, in which controversial and authoritarian proposals are presented as coming from parliament rather than the presidency and security bodies (the more likely real initiators).

This keeps the regime’s fingerprints off of legislation and also avoids much involvement by concerned ministries, the cabinet, and other state bodies.” Brown and Ghanem argue that the same strategy was followed when passing the laws that governed the appointment of senior judges and the operation of nongovernmental organizations.

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