Provisions in Egypt’s new constitution on Islam and Sharia law maintain, for the most part, state hegemony over religion while provisions on Al-Azhar cautiously — even unintentionally — open the door to the possible, if limited, independence of the oldest Islamic school in Egypt, argues researcher and activist Ibrahim El-Houdaiby.
This said; El-Houdaiby believes that the independence of Al-Azhar, which he says has been under state control for about a century, requires much more than a constitutional text. Moreover, he added, the road is still long before state control over Islam, which he argues has been politically beneficial for the state, recedes.
Egypt’s new constitution, to be put to a referendum in the second week of January according to government sources, specifies that Al-Azhar “is an independent scientific Islamic authority that is in charge of managing its affairs independently; it is the main reference in religious studies and Islamic affairs, and it is responsible for the promotion and advancement of scientific studies (of Islam) in Egypt and the world.”
The constitution further states, in Article 7: “The state is committed to provide sufficient financial allocations for [Al-Azhar] to fulfil its mission.” It also stipulates that the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar “is not to be ousted from his post, to which he is assigned by the regulations of [relevant] law that allows for the choice of the Grand Imam from the board of grand scholars.”
For El-Houdaiby, the text of this article does not go beyond offering the most basic recognition for the aspired to independence of Al-Azhar, saying the latter would “inevitably remain part of the state establishment,” even if the article is moved from the first chapter of the constitution, that addresses matters related to “the state,” to the second chapter, that addresses “basic elements of society.”
This formulation, El-Houdaiby argues, fails dramatically to offer clear answers to one of the key questions raised by the January 25 Revolution: namely, the relation between the state and religion.
For El-Houdaiby, this relation is at best superficial, if not superimposed, because “religion is part of society and not a tool for the state to use, even when it claims it is ensuring that the basic precepts of a religion are well-observed.”
Pursuit of the independence of Al-Azhar, El-Houdaiby believes, is key to restituting religion from the unfit hegemony of the state and placing it again in the sphere of society, where it truly belongs.
“This was the way things were before the intervention of the state, gradually putting its hand on Al-Azhar, as early as the late 19th century,” El-Houdaiby says.
The independence of Al-Azhar “is a much more complex matter than the text of the constitution that we see,” he said. A key factor is financial independence, he believes, “and this used to be the case through its control over endowments.”
Another aspect, El-Houdaiby added, is the wide and direct access Al-Azhar had to society through the affiliation of Sufi schools. “There was a time when all the grand scholars of Al-Azhar were associated with the Sufi schools,” he said.
A third element, El-Houdaiby explained, is administrative independence. “To get this there needs to be an executive legal text that goes way beyond the text of the relevant provision in the constitution,” he argued.
It was through a consecutive set of laws and regulations that were introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that Al-Azhar’s independence was eroded as the state standardised and controlled education at Al-Azhar, interrupted the free study tradition in favour of a four-year programme and regulated the quality of education, specifying the necessary qualifications and mandate of teaching “staff” at Al-Azhar — and ultimately the mandate of the Grand Imam himself.
“Through this process of standardisation and regularisation, Al-Azhar turned from being a school that offered the authentic Islamic studies to being ‘the religious establishment,’ and ultimately the state religious establishment — one that ‘safeguards moderate Islam,’” El-Houdaiby laments.
“To make Al-Azhar really independent there need to be laws that allow it to regain the four key missions it was stripped of: religious studies, jurisprudence, religious edicts and preaching,” El-Houdaiby said.
El-Houdaiby explained that the consequent establishment of the School of Religious Studies (Dar Al-Oloum), the School of Islamic Jurisprudence (Madrasset Oloum Al-Sharia), and the House of Religious Edicts (Dar Al-Ifta) denied Al-Azhar, “which had already been standardised and formatted as a state institution,” the lion’s share of its mandate, leaving it with a limited role in religious preaching, given the split that was introduced between Al-Azhar and the Sufi schools, and eventual state control of these schools.
Ultimately, El-Houdaiby adds, this process opened the door for the state to claim ownership of Sharia and to turn it into a set of laws to fortify its own strength.
At that point came the all but artificial interaction between state and religion — an issue that peaked during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s, and that took a more blatant turn under Anwar El-Sadat in the 1970s, when religion offered by independent preachers who had not necessarily attended Al-Azhar, and who were simply responding to demand in a “market,” took over from “state religion.” This trend continued throughout the Hosni Mubarak era, starting in 1981, “when we saw what could be called the state-sponsored ulemas (Muslim scholars), who were not necessarily in line with the concepts of Al-Azhar,” according to El-Houdaiby.
Along this path, religion became tainted under Sadat. “So we saw the influence of petrodollars on religion, just as we saw an impact across the spectrum of society, and we ended up with the incorporation of many Wahhabi ideals,” El-Houdaiby explained.
A by-product of this era, that went unchallenged during the following decades, was the ascendance of Salafi-oriented scholars in Al-Azhar — something El-Houdaiby thinks explains the considerable syncronicity in patterns of argument and voting between the representatives of Al-Azhar and Salafist currents during the drafting of the constitution.
While Al-Azhar became a tool of the state, the Salafist movement, as part of the wider Islamic movement, is also a product of state control over religion that opened a vacuum in the religious sphere filled by “neoliberal Islam” as represented by the “new preachers” and political Islamic groups, El-Houdaiby argues.
So while Article 219 of the 2012 Constitution is dropped in the amended draft, having been perceived in liberal quarters as the primary tool for the introduction of “radical” Islamic views, El-Houdaiby is convinced that these views have already found their way into society and into Al-Azhar, which is “supposedly the podium for ‘moderate’ Islam.”
“In any case, I don’t agree with the qualifications of radical and moderate because as far as I know there is authentic and inauthentic Islam. There is, of course, the Wahhabi influence, which is generally qualified as radical but in fact is more inauthentic than anything else, as it tainted Islam with Wahhabi practices,” El-Houdaiby argues.
As such, according to El-Houdaiby, the draft constitution Egyptians will soon vote on simply fails to address the reality of the relation between the state and religion — it just accommodates certain narrow concerns.