In a statement titled “Al-Azhar Document” and read on national television, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, the country’s highest religious authority, outlined his institution’s vision on key political, social and economic issues that have been subject to raging debates across the country for months.
The product of a consensual agreement reached between Al-Azhar officials and numerous prominent intellectuals and religious figures following extensive discussions over the last few weeks, the Document contains 11 main articles and is meant to serve as a foundation for a new social arrangement in post-Mubarak Egypt.
The statement opens with a definitive and unequivocal position on the contentious debate taking place in society between liberal forces and religious currents on the nature of the relationship between religion and the state in a new Egypt.
In a clear rejection of the argument put forward by many Islamic Salafists, the Grand Imam laid out his support for a ‘democratic and constitutional’ state.
“Islam has never, throughout its history, experienced such a thing as a religious or a theocratic state,” El-Tayeb said. He added that theocratic states have always been autocratic and humanity suffered a great deal because of them.
The document stressed its support for universal democratic rights such as free and democratic elections where the citizens as a whole constitute the sole and legitimate source of legislation.
The Grand Imam said that striving towards social justice needs to be a basic component in any future economic arrangement in Egypt. He stressed that affordable and decent education and health care services must become a right for all citizens.
The document was explicit in its support for freedom of expression in the arts and literary fields within the accepted boundaries of Islamic philosophy and moral guidelines. It highlighted the need for expanded scientific and popular campaigns to combat illiteracy and advance economic progress.
“We need a serious commitment to universal human rights, the rights of women and children,” El-Tayeb said.
In a clear reference to the status of religious minorities especially Copts, the Grand Imam stated that citizenship must be the sole criterion by which both rights and responsibilities are administered in society.
The document emphasised the right of all citizens to practice any of the three main religions in complete freedom. Along those lines, the Grand Imam admonished all those “who use religion to incite sectarian strife or those who accuse others of religious apostasy simply based on political disagreements.”
The document asked all Muslims to refer to Al-Azhar’s religious opinions as the highest and final word in all disputed theological matters.
In foreign affairs, the document stressed that Egypt must regain its once prominent status in the Arab, Muslim and African spheres, maintain its sovereign and independent decision making process and continue its support for the Palestinian people.
Finally, the Grand Imam demanded that the Institution of Al-Azhar be independent of the state. Along those lines, the document pointed out that the Supreme Clerical Committee of Al-Azhar not the government – as has been the practice for decades – chooses the position of Grand Imam.