The Egyptian government said Tuesday that Muslim preachers in the country must now adhere to uniform pre-written weekly sermons, a controversial move that authorities say is aimed at combating extremism but has irked some clerics.
The Ministry of Religious Endowments has since 2014 been setting topics for weekly sermons delivered during Friday prayers across the country, but the new move would further restrict preachers in Egypt's more than 100,000 mosques to read out the same text.
"The objective [of the decision] is not at all political," Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said Tuesday, stressing that the aim is to push moderate Islamic ideology and ensure that radical ideas do not spread.
Officials say the move will help address problems in preaching, including “being lengthy” or “politicising topics.”
The sermons will be drawn up by ministry officials and senior scholars from Egypt's Al-Azhar — the highest seat of Sunni Islam learning — with contributions from members of parliament's religious affairs committee, psychologists and sociologists, the head of the ministry's religious division Gaber Tayea told Ahram Online.
The minister, who has yet to set a date for implementing the decision, said he would start with himself and deliver the pre-written sermon next Friday.
He said clerics aged up to 45 years would be selected by the ministry to be trained for preaching at mosques.
Several preachers have been incensed by the move, arguing that it would squander preaching talents and stifle eloquence, and that it fails to cater to cultural and demographic diversity in separate communities that may require specific speeches tackling local issues.
"This would turn a sermon into a useless news bulletin that does not appeal to the audience and obliterates the imam's personality and talent by turning him into a machine reading out a script," Ibrahem El-Zafery, an Al-Azhar imam at a mosque in Upper Egypt's Qena, told Ahram Online.
"How would a pre-written sermon fit every community and audience?" El-Zafery asked.
The decision in 2014 mandating that Muslim clerics conform to topics set by the religious endowments ministry for the weekly Friday sermons also sparked anger among some preachers at the time.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has more than once blamed “outdated religious discourse” for holding back Egypt and called for reform, saying that radicalised thinking has become a source of destruction for the rest of the world.
Following the 2013 overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the religious endowments ministry revoked the licences of all non-authorised Al-Azhar clerics and preachers — some 55,000 — and forced them to apply for new ones.
The move was part of the government's efforts to stop the use of mosques as a platform for political groups and to clamp down on “extremist views” that authorities said were being spread by preachers supporting Morsi's now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group and its ultraconservative allies.
Some 12,000 freelance preachers were barred from delivering sermons in 2014.
Around 100,000 clerics and preachers are now licensed in Egypt, including some 57,000 employed by the religious endowments ministry, officials say. The rest are Al-Azhar-educated clerics.