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New constitution fails to delimit state and Islam: El-Houdaiby

According to researcher Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, Egypt’s new constitution falls short of resolving the battle between society and state over the ‘ownership’ of Islam

Dina Ezzat, Sunday 15 Dec 2013
Ibrahim El-Houdaiby
Researcher Ibrahim El-Houdaiby (Photo: Al-Ahram)
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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.

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14



George Hishmat
19-12-2013 08:16pm
16-
4+
The people decide not the terrorist junta
Democracy means if you have 100 people and 51% of them are fools, then the fools will rule. Muslims believe in Islam just as Christians believe in Christianity. Who are you to tell Muslims that they have no right to take part in political life unless they renounce their faith. If you tell Hindus that they would have to stop veneraing cows before getting involved in politics, they probably would kill you. So please, keep your ignorant andfascist tendencies to yourself.
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13



expat
19-12-2013 07:13pm
2-
9+
please,enlighten me here.....
I dont get it.... people,which believe in a religion,which doesnt have any string to the democratic system of one man,one vote, try to tell her,that their opponents are fashists? people,which would be happy to chop off heads just because a person might disagree with their prophets talk think,they can really discuss democracy???? is this a fools garden in egypt now? you guys want sharia,want the islam rule?and really,you talk about other people being fashists????? you ever read the khoran,whats standing there about infidels or dhimmis? how to tread them in your house of peace????? i always have a laugh on offensive islamists requesting to be treated as part of a democratic system,which they hate inside themselfs as hell and would happily switch,if they can,to mutilate minorities, stone women or chop off hands accoridng to their prophet given laws... I have senn them in action in pakistan,i am happy,you crap people are stopped by the military,honestly you are hypocrits,using the name of democracy system,while you hate each sentence,what it means you my cent......
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Noura Fallah
19-12-2013 08:29pm
6-
3+
secularism ispart of Christianity, not Islam
Secularistpoliticians have no right to impose secularism on a predominantly Muslim nation.
Ahmed
19-12-2013 08:09pm
4-
5+
Ignorant comment
They are fascist because they deny Muslims in Egypt their natural right to participate in political life based on their Islamic convictions. So why is it that everyone is free to form a political party based on their convictions except Muslims? why? Why? And if Islam is so evil. why make it state religion in article II of the constitution.
12



sabri
19-12-2013 03:41pm
5-
3+
Yes to Islamic Party
If Islamic based party is banned in mouslem populated country, the constitution is not from the majority.
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11



Ilham
17-12-2013 06:35pm
19-
232+
Secularist intellectuals don't represent the Muslim people of Egypt
Whether Islam is a religion or a political ideology depends on the views of Egyptian Muslims not Egyptian secularists. Secularists only represents themselves. Secularists have no right to tell Muslims that Islam is just a religion and has nothing to do with politics.
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10



huda Gamal
17-12-2013 01:57pm
19-
166+
A fascist not secular constitution
Why is it that "Christian democratic parties" are everywhere whereas Muslim democratic parties are outlawed? I think we are talking a bout a fascist constitution, not a secular constitution.
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9



Naguib Amin
17-12-2013 10:15am
270-
19+
Separate State and Religion
The New Constitution, while it attempts to limit the religious over politics, is still too close to religious rules. The full separation from the State is due as the door to Arab revival and enlightenment, out of the Middle Ages fanaticism that we still live in. For true believers, please go ahead and pray in your worship places and leave the parliament for the rule of the future. Religion and politics don't mix.
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Alex
17-12-2013 01:44pm
15-
145+
A hateful and undemocratic constitution
India is rule by a Hindu religious party based onHinduism, Gemany is ruled by a Christian democratic party, the Republican Party in the US has a Christian Protetant background. So is Egypt being more democratic than India or Germany or the U.S. Let the people decide, not 50 unelected ifiots chosed by a charlatangeneral who can't spaek two Arabic sentences withou making mistakes.
Anwar Fahmi
17-12-2013 01:08pm
16-
199+
Don't impose your religion on Muslims
In Islam, religion and politics do mix. Secularism is part of Christianity. It is not part of Islam.
Hussein Mustafa
17-12-2013 01:05pm
17-
215+
Islam is a political philosophy, too.
Religion and politics may not mix in Christianitym not in Isla,.Islam is politics, economics, morality, everything. Don't impose your understanding of religionon others.
George
17-12-2013 12:59pm
13-
146+
Scandalous constitution
But why is it that Marxists can function politically based on their functions while Muslims can't function based on Islam? This is scandalous.
8



Tammy
16-12-2013 11:23pm
387-
19+
Muslim haters?? really??
If you cannot live by your religious beliefs and faith in your own lives without a government having to put it into writing then YOU DO NOT HAVE ANY FAITH IN YOUR OWN RELIGION AT ALL!! Why should a whole country or state have to live by one religions set of laws? Egypt is not 100% islamic, not !00% muslim so why should those who are not islamists or muslim have to live by those laws?? Nowhere in this or anywhere have I seen something saying that muslims cannot go to mosque, cannot pray & cannot believe in their own religion..IN FACT THIS CONSTITUTION MAKES IT POSSIBLE FOR ALL EGYPTIANS TO LIVE A LIFE OF FREEDOM REGARDLESS OF THEIR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS. You cannot force islamic laws & islamic belief onto others who are not muslim or islamic. If you feel this threatened by religious freedom for all Egyptians then you have no faith in your own belief at all. and as for the gov't being facists....if indeed they were truly facists most of those who left comments here would already be jailed for speaking against the gov't. So before you go screaming facist & nazi think about it..THIS GOVERNMENT IS NOT EVEN CLOSE TO BEING EITHER ONE..the only thing I see in most of these comments are people so brain washed by the mb & their propaganda that they cannot even think for themselves because they all keep mouthing the same words without even knowing the true meaning of them.
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Samer
17-12-2013 01:11pm
21-
140+
We hate secularismm we will trash this hateful constitution
Let the people decide, not 50 unelected idiots. (0 million Egyptians have the right to decide to live according to their convictions. This dirty constitution imposes secularism. We rekect secularism.
Huda Azmi
17-12-2013 10:25am
16-
156+
hateful and criminal constitution
If you can not stand the heat don't enter the kitchen. This constitution is favoring the secularist minority. It doesn't allow Muslims to practice politics according to their convictions. It is a hateful and criminal constitution. It must be trashed ro the dustbin of history.
George
17-12-2013 10:16am
12-
120+
They do have an issue
Tammy: You can't hide the appaling defects and shortcomings of this hateful constitution by calling your opponents names. They could call you names as well.They have an issue and you are ignoring it.
Laura Hilwani
17-12-2013 10:12am
14-
295+
Criminal and hateful constitutionb
Tammy: Don't make a short story unnecessarily long. This constitution is a fraud. It steals our right to have political parties based on our convictions. Period.
7



Yousuf
16-12-2013 09:08pm
25-
84+
Give me freedom or give me death
I will fight to death those who want to force me to renounce my faith and adopt another religion, which is what this constitution is trying to do.
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Randi Stewart, Norman, Oklahoma
17-12-2013 10:31am
12-
94+
Secularism in Egypt means hostility to Islam
Tammy: You sure don't know what you are talking about. American secularism means freedom for all. It means protection of religion from government, In Egypt, secularism means hostility to Islam. Try to learn more and be honest and don't be arrogant..
Farid
17-12-2013 10:14am
26-
14+
Ignorance
It only shows lack of your knowledge. This constitution protect YOURS and other religions, does not force you to change it.
Tammy
16-12-2013 11:36pm
114-
24+
Lets get it right..@Yousuf
@Yousuf..I find it funny that you choose to quote an AMERICAN known for FREEDOM & LIBERTY, Patrick Henry, 1775 speech "Give me freedom (liberty) or give me death"..yet you choose to mock a constitution which gives you the freedom & right to say those words..Islamists say they hate secularism & they hate the west & secularism is not part of islam so please do not use words from one of the greatest freedom fighters of the SECULAR U.S. to support your stance..
6



Muhammed Helmi
16-12-2013 08:09pm
29-
124+
Logic and common sense defeat secular fascists. Allaho Akbar
We must put this constitution under our feet. It is an anti-Islam constitution. It tries to impose Christian values on a Muslim nation. This is unacceptable. In true democracy, people are free to choose their way of thinking . According to this dirty document, Muslims can't choose Islam as their political ideology.
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Jacqlyn Anwar
16-12-2013 09:01pm
26-
84+
Where are the advocates of this constitution? pls tell the truth?
Is this true? that Egyptians according to this constitution can't choose Islam as their political ideology? If true...then this constitution must be trashed.
5



Ayyoub
16-12-2013 05:52pm
29-
185+
Hostile to Islam
True, why is is it that Political parties based on the Islamic ideology are banned while political parties based on the Communist ideology are allowed? Did the Communists write this constitution?
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