Differences between Egypt’s two major Islamic institutions, Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, have led to parliament’s Religious Affairs Committee suspending its discussion of a draft law regulating religious fatwas.
Osama Al-Abd, head of the committee, told the media that “if the differences between the two institutions are not settled soon parliament will intervene to give a final word on the matter.”
The law, drafted by the committee’s secretary-general, has already been discussed at length, said Al-Abd.
“One major issue remains, whether the Ministry of Religious Endowments has the right to issue fatwas. Al-Azhar wants the ministry be completely stripped of this right while the Ministry of Religious Endowments insists one of its affiliated committees has been mandated to issue fatwas since the 1980s and should continue to do so.”
The differences between Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments reached a crescendo last week when the representative of Al-Azhar announced he would not attend any more meetings on the law.
Omar Hamroush, the independent MP who drafted the law, told Al-Ahram Weekly that members of the Religious Affairs Committee had tried to help Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments reach common ground in order that “the law does not face any delays given there is a pressing need to contain the current fatwa chaos”.
Hamroush says his draft will prevent extremist clerics from issuing bizarre fatwas.
“These bizarre fatwas pose a major threat to internal stability. Many of them, issued by extremist Salafi clerics, attack Christians, and hark back to a pre-modern mindset.”
Hamroush says his draft penalises anyone who issues a fatwa without being licensed by Al-Azhar or the Ministry of Religious Endowments.
“Al-Azhar insists it has the sole right to issue such licences while the Ministry of Religious Endowments says its affiliated committee has the right as well.”
“Ministry of Religious Endowments officials argue that the ministry’s affiliated committee has also been authorised since the 1980s to issue religious fatwas and its members are respected clerics who graduated from Al-Azhar.”
According to Hamroush, “fatwa chaos began when the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist Salafis came to power in Egypt in 2012.”
“Since then a huge number of bizarre fatwas have been issued, many attacking Christians and urging Muslims not to have any dealings with them. Some of these fatwas encouraged terrorist groups to bomb churches and monasteries.”
“We have ultraconservative clerics who issue rediculous fatwas on television channels. Some edicts claim citizens are forbidden by Islam from saluting the flag or singing the national anthem, that Islam demands women wear the niqab and that government schools are haram because they teach a secularist curriculum.”
Hamroush lamented that even “Al-Azhar professors” were issuing strange rulings, pointing to Said Noaman, a member of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, who gained notoriety after pronouncing that girls can be married even when they are embryos in their mothers’ wombs.
“Noaman said that if ultrasound scans show an embryo is a female, then her father can decide on her marriage even if she is still in her mother’s womb.”
Noaman issued his fatwa in the course of a TV interview during which he objected to the government’s family planning and birth control campaign.
Mohamed Abu Hamed, an independent MP and member of the Religious Committee, told the Weekly that Al-Azhar is resisting calls to reform religious discourse, “and in the area of religious fatwas Al-Azhar claims that it is the sole arbiter under the constitution”.
Article 7 of the constitution states that “Al-Azhar is the main reference on religious sciences and Islamic affairs”, but does not stipulate it is the sole reference.
“The article opens the door to other institutions and intellectuals to give their views on religious issues,” says Abu Hamed.
The MP revealed he is in the process of drafting amendments to the law regulating the performance of Al-Azhar (Law 103/1961), since “without legislative amendments Al-Azhar will continue resisting any calls for religious reform, particularly those voiced by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.”
Other draft laws that seek to contain extremism and push for religious reform have also been left in limbo.
“We have drafts which seek to reform the curricula in Al-Azhar’s schools, prevent Salafi clerics from preaching at Friday prayers, impose a ban on women wearing the niqab in public places, and to remove religious identification from ID cards and official documents,” says Al-Abd.
“None of them appears to be going anywhere.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Religious rulings