In a celebration to mark the birth of Prophet Mohamed (Moulid Al-Nabi) on 19 November, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi lamented that so little has been done to turn his repeated calls for the reform of religious discourse into reality.
“It is really sorrowful that some still insist on giving perverted readings of Islam. Everyone must play their role in correcting these misguided readings of Islam, and stand up to those who hijack its teachings and distort them,” said Al-Sisi.
“Who is doing harm to Islam?” wondered Al-Sisi. “Those who follow the teachings of the Quran, or those who spread extremist ideologies?”
“I hope one day Egypt will be able to play an effective role in standing up to those who have hijacked Islam to impose their extremist thoughts. Devout religious clerics are the ones that spread a message of tolerance and moderation, who have a cosmopolitan mentality, and who discuss the issues of the age as thinkers and not just as a clerics.”
Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the grand Imam of Al-Azhar, criticised those “who only want to depend on the Quran and abandon the traditions of Prophet Mohamed in their understanding of Islam”.
In his speech Al-Tayeb, who did not mention the reform of religious discourse, opposed those who want to abandon “jihad, opting instead to follow the culture of the West and colonialists”.
In contrast, the Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa heaped praise on President Al-Sisi’s repeated calls for religious discourse to be reformed.
“Your courageous call to reform religious discourse should be taken as a duty by all clerics and intellectuals,” said Gomaa. “Reforming religious discourse should be a dynamic process which never stops.”
MPs and thinkers almost all agree clerics, particularly from Al-Azhar, have not paid heed to Al-Sisi’s calls for religious reform.
Mohamed Abu Hamed, an independent MP who has proposed many laws to reform religious discourse, told Al-Ahram Weekly that despite President Al-Sisi’s calls “religious reform has not yet become a priority”.
“Reforming religious discourse took centre stage when President Al-Sisi first took office in 2014, only to be relegated by other priorities like fighting terrorism and solving economic problems,” said Abu Hamed.
Abu Hamed says MPs have tried to submit legislation on religious reform many times, but to no avail.
“MPs have proposed laws regulating religious fatwas, banning the niqab and preventing Salafi clerics from taking Friday’s prayers,” he said.
Al-Ahram analyst Nabil Abdel-Fattah agrees that religious institutions, particularly Al-Azhar, have not shown much interest in religious reform.
“Many clerics feel threatened by extremist movements which describe them as regime loyalists,” said Abdel-Fattah.
Abdel-Fattah accuses clerics of “rigidity”.
“They are fond of following the interpretations of mediaeval clerics though these are just personal opinions,” says Abdel-Fattah.
“It is intellectuals who should play the leading role in religious reform. They are the ones who can make a leap forward. They should be supported in doing so by the president and state authorities.”
Abdel-Fattah complains the Supreme Council on Combating Extremism and Terrorism has proved redundant. “It was formed in 2017 but has not taken any steps in standing up to extremist ideologies.”
Islamic thinker Tharwat Al-Khirbawi says clerics are acting to disrupt Al-Sisi’s calls for reform.
“Clerics hate the words reform and enlightenment and love the words imitation and legacy,” says Al-Khirbawi.
“President Al-Sisi’s words on the anniversary of the prophet’s birthday were an implicit criticism directed at these clerics.”
In a press interview Al-Khirbawi said overhauling the prophet’s hadiths (traditions) should take priority.
“What President Al-Sisi suggested is that there should be a review of the hadiths because extremist movements have distorted them to justify terrorism and spread militant jihadist ideologies.”
Salah Salem, an Al-Ahram commentator on political and religious affairs, agrees intellectuals should take a pioneering role in pushing religious reform forwards.
“Intellectuals, in collaboration with state authorities, can achieve a lot in this respect, adopting a critical review of religious legacy, fighting Salafist ideologies and spreading the current of rationality in Islamic thought. “
Unfortunately, he added, “in the past intellectuals who tried to stand up to clerics in favour of an enlightened reading of the Quran and the prophet’s traditions were either killed or sidelined.”
Independent MP Ismail Nasreddin told the Weekly that parliament had not done enough to promote religious reform.
“Very few MPs have proposed laws in this respect, and no moves have been taken to turn them into reality. If the state is sincere about religious reform it should support these legislative initiatives.”
According to Omar Hamroush, a member of parliament’s Religious Affairs Committee, “the Ministry of Religious Endowments is supporting religious reform.”
“But more needs be done, particularly in the area of barring Salafi clerics from delivering sermons on Friday. They have used Friday services to spread bigotry and extremism since the mid-1970s and it is time it was stopped.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Much talk, no action