“You’ve been very trying, venerable imam,” President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said during 2018’s Police Day celebrations. The president’s remark, directed at the Grand Imam of Al-Ahzar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, encapsulates the relationship between the presidency and Al-Azhar at a time when the former is insisting on an overhaul of religious discourse so as to prevent radical religious groups from using scriptures to justify violence.
Al-Sisi called for a “revolution in religious discourse”.
“We need a revolution and renewal of religious discourse. This discourse must be in tune with the age,” he said. Addressing the grand imam, Al-Sisi continued: “You are responsible for this before God… and I will continue to press my point with you until Judgement Day.”
During Police Day ceremonies Al-Sisi had also hoped to secure a fatwa prohibiting divorce solely on the basis of an oral declaration by the husband.
“Our venerable imam, do we not need a law to regulate divorce, eliminate oral divorce and ensure that divorce takes place before an authorised religious official, in order to give people the chance to have second thoughts,” he asked.
In response the Council of Senior Muslim Clerics, headed by Al-Tayeb, issued a statement saying Islam accepts oral divorce under certain conditions.
The statement, released after an emergency meeting the council, concluded with a sting: “Those who treat fatwas on divorce so lightly should turn their energies to what benefits the people and contributes to solving their day-to-day problems. People today are not in need of a change to the provisions of divorce as much as they are in need of ways to secure the means to lead a dignified life.”
Al-Azhar’s own Islamic Research Academy had previously issued fatwas in support of oral divorce, meaning that if Al-Azhar had issued a contrary fatwa it could have been portrayed as a sign of Al-Azhar’s subjugation to the executive.
One of the earliest fatwas cited on the subject was pronounced by Sheikh Gad Al-Haq Ali Gad Al-Haq, the grand imam of Al-Azhar from 1982 to 1996. It stated that divorce could be enacted by proclamation by the husband without any other form of legal intervention and stressed that attempts to legally restrict divorce could aggravate marital problems and hinder the possibility of couples reuniting once they had experienced a period of separation.
The council’s statement may have contained jurisprudential arguments but few doubted the communiqué was also an expression of the anger Al-Azhar hierarchy felt towards what it believed was an orchestrated media campaign against the grand imam after the president had embarrassed him during Police Day celebrations.
In November tensions again bubbled to the surface, this time on the Anniversary of the Prophet.
In a speech marking the occasion Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, the minister of religious endowments, praised the president for his “courageous call to renew religious discourse”.
“The renovation of religious discourse is one of the great tasks of our times, of the highest priority for religious scholars, intellectuals and thinkers. It is a dynamic process that must be ongoing, while always preserving the essential principles,” said Gomaa.
“To attribute mutability to the sacred constant is to destroy the essential principles. But to attribute immutability to the changeable products of human thought arising from interpretations of sacred texts is the essence of rigidity, reification and insularism, and displays an inability to keep pace with the march of civilisation.”
Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb responded by criticising “calls bent on questioning the value, immutability and authority of the Prophetic Sunna and on discrediting the Companions, followers and those who came later and transmitted it”.
Claims that the Sunna has no legislative value in Islam and that the Quran is the sole source of legislation “sweep aside the need, on which all Muslims are unanimous, to keep the Sunna side-by-side with the Quran, for otherwise we will have lost three-quarters of the faith,” argued Al-Tayeb.
He cited the rites of prayer, the second pillar of the faith, as an example of what would be lost by heeding such calls.
“We know that prayer is an established principle in the Quran. However, there is not a single verse throughout the length and breadth of the Quran that explains how the Muslim should perform the five prayers per day, nor how many prostrations to make, nor the manner in which they should be performed. Such details can only be known and explained from the Prophetic Sunna which is the second source of law in Islam.”
In an attempt to settle the argument between the two religious officials, President Al-Sisi stressed how many times he had urged the need for religious reform, without which Muslims will set themselves against the rest of the world.
He then asked: “Do those who advocate the need to use the Holy Quran alone, as a source of law, instead of the Quran and the Sunna together, commit a greater offence to the faith than those who err in their interpretation of the fundamentals of the faith?”
Al-Azhar came again into the spotlight when Al-Azhar University professor Saadeddin Al-Hilali said he was in favour of amendments to Tunisian personal status laws that allowed for the equal distribution of inheritances regardless of the gender of the beneficiaries.
Al-Hilali is a noted Al-Azhar professor, and his support for the Tunisian move provoked controversy. Al-Azhar was prompted to issue the following statement:
“The Council of Senior Muslim Clerics has followed with extreme concern recent debates regarding certain incontrovertible established legal principles and provisions that some are trying to demean and disregard while others work to reduce their value by removing them from the realm of absolute certitudes to the realm of assumptions… Al-Azhar cautions Muslims throughout the world against this sedition and those who spread it. It absolutely opposes all attempts to undermine or tamper with, directly or indirectly, the articles of the Muslims’ creed and the provisions of Sharia Law.”
Nor was the altercation between Al-Tayeb and Gomaa already mentioned the only incident of its kind in 2018.
Indeed, Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments have been at loggerheads for several years now, the dispute beginning when Al-Tayeb excluded Gomaa from membership of the technical bureau of the Al-Azhar rectorship.
Although Al-Tayeb said Gomaa’s exclusion was unintentional, the minister attempted to use the media to undermine support for the imam. Stories were published claiming Deputy Grand Imam Abbas Shuman and a number of Al-Tayeb’s other advisors had supported the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi.
Al-Tayeb responded in February 2015 by declining an invitation to attend a conference convened by the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. Instead, he appointed Shuman and a number of his other advisors to attend in his place.
The conflict escalated to such a degree that some commentators predicted Al-Azhar would avail itself of a constitutional right to annex the Religious Endowments Ministry’s proselytising functions.
Al-Azhar was conspicuously absent from ministry-sponsored conferences, including a 2015 event held under the banner “Renewing religious discourse”.
The ministry responded the following year by dismissing Al-Tayeb’s senior advisors from the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.
In 2018 the issue of Friday sermons triggered another confrontation between Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments. In July, the ministry announced its intention to produce a single written sermon to be read out by imams on Fridays.
The Council of Senior Muslim Clerics rejected the ministry’s decision.
There is little sign of the tensions abating. And though it is difficult to predict the course they will take one thing is clear. Under the Egyptian constitution the grand imam cannot be dismissed.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Wrangles over renewal