Sisi’s religious revolution for tolerance

Last week Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a religious revolution

Abdullah Hamidaddin
Abdullah Hamidaddin
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
6 min read

Last week Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a religious revolution. If I am not mistaken this would be the first time a Muslim head of state has called for such. The statement was made during an occasion commemorating the birth of Prophet Mohammad. The location was one of the largest and oldest Muslim religious institutions in the world, Al-Azhar. The audience was filled with religious scholars affiliated with this institution and others. His main critique was “that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sanctified over the years to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible is antagonizing the entire world.” He believes that those texts call upon Muslims to wage jihad against the world and he exclaims: “Is it possible that 1.6 million Muslims should want to kill the rest of the world’s seven billion inhabitants so that they themselves may live?”

And then he concludes that “we are in need of a religious revolution” and that unless that happens Islam will be torn apart and destroyed. What he meant of course was the interpretations of the Quran and the traditions of Islam which created a sharp divide between the Muslim and the non-Muslim, and made it mandatory for a Muslim to either proselytize the world, or subjugate it. This sharp divide was picked up by contemporary Muslim fundamentalists and developed to become a central component of their Islamist fledged ideology. From the Muslim Brotherhood, to Hezbollah to ISIS the one common thread is that “the world is misguided and we are the vanguards of truth who will guide them or subjugate them.”

Whenever there is a call for reformation some analysts bring up Martin Luther’s reformation. Some may even go as far to consider the Lutheran reformation the standard against which religious reformations are assessed. And the first question asked would be: What about religious institutional authority? Would this revolution dismantle or weaken those institutions? Clearly in the case of Al-Azhar this is not the case. But this is not a Lutheran revolution, nor should it be.

If Sisi here wants to exploit religion to get rid of the radicals, then I am with him

Abdullah Hamidaddin

The Lutheran reformation had an enormous effect on the course of European history, but Luther himself was not tolerant and some of his views would seem harsh to the average individual living today. So should we follow suit? This is not to belittle Luther’s achievement. He was a man of his times, and his greatest achievement was in changing the course of Christianity. The specific issues which concerned him were also inspired by his time, and many of the values we criticize him for today were only developed in the centuries that followed. A contemporary religious reformation or revolution needs to be inspired by its own challenges and not by those of another era. If clerical authority was in Luther’s time a major issue to challenge; it does not mean that every future religious revolution should target that.

Religious devolutions

During the past 100 years, Islam underwent a few not revolutions but rather devolutions; transformations which deformed religion. If a cleric from the 18th century were brought back to life he would see a religion very alien to him. Unlike what some people think, many facets of today’s Islam were not a return to the past. They were a deformation of the past, and not a progression to the future. The most important example is that of politicizing Islam; a process which was championed by the Muslim Brotherhood. This was indeed devolution; it created a religion totally alien to the Islam practiced a hundred years ago. What we need now to is to revolt against that, not to regain a pristine past version of Islam but rather to generate one which fits our time and historical moment.

Politics as a savior

There have been many attempts to reform Islam. But they all failed. The only ones who succeeded in changing the face of Islam were the Muslim Brotherhood Islamists who, inspired by totalitarian ideologies, produced a totalitarian deformation of Islam and then presented it to the world as the only proper religion. All other Islamists passive and violent, including Shiite Islamists such as Ayatollah Khomeini, were inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood version of Islam. Now we need a counter strike. But the fact is that it can only be done with state commitment. The tide of the past hundred years cannot be turned by intellectuals or activists or good willed religious clerics. This needs a state.

Of course there is the concern that politicians exploit religion to their own ends. I will not argue against that; but what I will say that if Sisi here wants to exploit religion to get rid of the radicals, then I am with him. If he wants to promote religious tolerance for his own ends, then I am also with him. If he wants a pluralistic Islam, to serve his own ends then I am with him. If he wants the weekly religious sermons in Friday prayers to stop cursing Jews, Christians, and infidels then I am also with him. Daniel Moynihan, a late American Senator, once remarked, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Perhaps Sisi’s revolution is an important step in saving Islam from itself.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending