Al-Azhar – the highest authority in Sunni Islam – has been the subject of fierce debates at the constituent assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution, with ultraconservative Salafists pressing hard for Al-Azhar to be the exclusive reference on Sharia (Islamic Law) and secularists pulling in the opposite direction.
"The wording of the article dealing with Islamic Sharia (Article 2) is of major concern to us because Egypt is a pivotal Muslim country whose laws should be governed by Islam and the orders of the Holy Quran," Younis Makhoyun, a leading member of the Salafist Nour Party, told parliamentary correspondents on 9 September.
Makhyoun said Salafists wanted Article 2 to say, "Islamic Sharia – rather than the ‘principles’ of Islamic Sharia – is the major source of legislation in Egypt... This means hudood (punishments), such as cutting off the hands of thieves, should be in force."
By contrast, secular members of the assembly insisted on keeping intact the text of Article 2 in the 1971 constitution, which states, "The principles of Islamic Sharia should be the main source of legislation in Egypt."
Closely related with this issue is the future role of Al-Azhar. The Salafists want Al-Azhar (or its Council of Leading Clerics) to be the major reference point on Islamic Sharia issues.
Again by contrast, secular members reject any dominant role for Al-Azhar.
Gamal Gibriel, chairman of the Basic Components Committee on the constituent assembly and a constitutional law professor, said, "Throughout history Sunni Islam has never selected a religious institution to act as a major and compulsory reference on religious and Islamic Sharia matters."
Gibriel explained that, "It is Shia Islam (or the followers of Ali, the cousin of Prophet Mohamed) that implements the principle of Welayet El-Faqih (a group of clerics acting as reference on issues of Islamic jurisprudence.) This is currently adopted in a Shia country like Iran but has never been adopted in Sunni Islam countries."
Gibriel recommended that Al-Azhar only be consulted on Islamic Sharia matters. "In that case, Al-Azhar would be just one of several religious institutions which could be consulted on Islamic Sharia matters," said Gibriel. "It is highly dangerous to entrust an exclusive institution with an absolute right to decide on Islamic Sharia."
Joining forces, Anwar El-Sadat, chairperson of the liberal-oriented Reform and Development Party, argued that "interpretation of Sharia should be left to a diverse group of clerics and institutions rather than to the monopoly of one exclusive authority."
El-Sadat warned that "Al-Azhar, which is currently described as a moderate Islamic institution, could later fall in the hands of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist activists embracing a radical brand of Islam."
On 5 September, a meeting by Al-Azhar’s Council of Leading Clerics said, "The text of the 1971 constitution on Article 2 dealing with Islamic Sharia should be kept in place. It must read that the principles of Islamic Sharia – rather than Islamic Sharia – are the main source of legislation in Egypt.”
The meeting also recommended that two new articles (3 and 4) should state that Al-Azhar is completely independent of all state institutions.
Gibriel indicated that all members of the assembly agreed that Al-Azhar should not come under any kind of state control. "It should be independent and only the council of its leading clerics should be authorised to elect the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar," said Gibriel.
There were strong fears that the moderate Al-Azhar would be manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political wing – the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – is the most potent political force in the country. President Mohamed Morsi also came from the ranks of the Brotherhood, thus critics believe it is this Islamic group that actually rules post-uprising Egypt.
Many Brotherhood deputies in the outgoing parliament pressed hard to change the law regulating the performance of Al-Azhar (law no.103 of 1961) to allow non-Al-Azhar clerics to stand for the post of Grand Imam.
Sayed Askar, chairman of the outgoing parliament's religious affairs committee, launched a scathing attack against Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb, insisting that he was a diehard supporter of former president of Hosni Mubarak and should be ousted from his position.
"This requires that the law governing Al-Azhar be amended to allow prominent clerics to run for the post of the Grand Imam," said Askar.
Many analysts believe there is a gap of confidence between Egypt's Islamist President Morsi and Al-Tayeb. In their meeting on 5 September, Al-Azhar's Council of Leading Clerics said it had confidence in Al-Tayeb, recommending that "the people in power do not to mix religion with politics."
Al-Azhar was just one of a number of tricky issues that have figured prominently on the agenda of the Constituent Assembly this week.
According to Abul-Ela Madi, a member of the assembly and chairman of the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, four critical issues have triggered fierce debates and delayed the wording of the new constitution’s chapter on the "Basic Components of the State."
In Madi's words, "these issues deal with Islamic Sharia, the crime of blasphemy, the role of Al-Azhar, and the setting up of a Zakat (alms-giving) institution."
The above four issues widened the gulf between Islamists and secularists. They added salt to the wounds of differences between the two camps on the highly controversial issues of freedoms and rights.
Madi explained that "in the event of a deadlock over the wording of articles on the above four issues, the matter will be left to the 100-member assembly to decide in plenary meetings."
He added: "It could adopt the view of Islamists or secularists, or reach common ground between the two by embracing a third wording.”
The critical issue of blasphemy was a source of tension between Islamists and secularists. Whereas the 1971 constitution never included an article on the issue, Salafists believe that "it has become a necessity at a time of dominant liberal values."
Makhyoun argues that, "The crime of blasphemy has become widespread in recent years upon the grounds that freedom of speech and thought should know no limits. The addition of a new article criminalising blasphemy in the new constitution is important to stem the tide of publications expressing contempt for God and Islamic values."
In response, liberal members such as Ayman Nour, chairman of the Ghad Al-Thawra Party, said, "The addition of an article criminalising blasphemy in the new constitution could be arbitrarily used by radicals to impose harsh restrictions on freedom of speech and thought. Such a crime should be left to the judiciary and not be imposed by the constitution."
Salafists also proposed an article to establish an institution entrusted with collecting Zakat (alms-giving). Makhyoun indicated that "Zakat – one of Islam's five pillars – has never been seriously applied by successive governments since the 1952 revolution."
"It was left to the individual will of ordinary citizens, but we believe that if organised under one institution, Zakat could be a major source of income to address social inequality,” said Makhyoun.
The Zakat proposal is not a matter of difference with liberals. They, however, argue that the establishment of a Zakat institution should be regulated by law rather than stated by the constitution.
"The constitution should be a charter about universal and national values rather than about purely religious issues," argued Nour.