Armed with a Constitution that is the best in the country’s modern history, Egypt today moves forward along its Roadmap to a democratic, modern State. The Roadmap was drawn jointly by the military
, the various civic sectors, al-Azhar, and the Church once the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) rule was overthrown in the wake of massive public protest last July. It is disturbing, however, that indicators currently hint at a relapse in the norms that constitute a modern State governed by a constitution and rule of law, the very raison d’être of the Roadmap.
I hesitated before venturing onto this issue so long placed on hold, since it relates to a venerable institution that has played an enlightenment role during the period since the 25 January Arab Spring Revolution in 2011 in Egypt. By this I mean al-Azhar, the Cairo based topmost Sunni Islamic authority, today headed by the Grand Imam Dr Ahmed al-Tayeb who is famous as an enlightened, moderate, modern leader.
Since Egypt’s 2011 Revolution, al-Azhar has indefatigably defended enlightenment; it issued several statements that called for disengagement of religion and State, and championed democracy, pluralism, and freedom of belief, thought, art, expression and scientific research. These were no paltry tasks, given that Egypt was then under the sway of an Islamist regime that sought to impose just the opposite. Al-Azhar might have taken the easy way out and chosen to accommodate the fundamentalist Islamist demands, but it stood proud and strong in advocating a moderate, tolerant version of Islam. For this it also endured a vicious battle with the fundamentalists who had insisted on inserting the ‘provisions’ of Islamic sharia in the Constitution as the main source of legislation, instead of the more tolerant and unambiguous ‘principles’ of sharia which were finally approved.
Today, and since the overthrow of the MB last July, Egypt is in the grips of a crucial battle against terrorism and religious extremism, a battle Egyptians have sought to overcome through State authority and rule of law. We have been frustrated and disappointed at governments which, under the pretext of avoiding international censure, dealt leniently with the terrorists and fell short of firmly upholding State sovereignty and enforcing the law. We have had to confront extremist fatwas—Islamic legal edicts—that work to divide Egyptians along religious lines, taking us back to the time following the 2011 Revolution when radical Salafi thought sought to patronise the minds and consciences of Egyptians, and categorised people as sinners or angels for the most trivial reasons.
In this context, should al-Azhar be caught up with issuing fatwas that have nothing to do with faith, pronouncing the most mundane activities halal (non-sinful) or haram (sinful)? Where then does the law come in, and what happens if a fatwa contradicts the law? Do these fatwas which, I repeat, are not concerned with Islamic faith or spiritual practice, extend to non-Muslims? Shouldn’t non-religious issues lie solely in the domain of the Constitution and the law? Is no one aware that a pointless predicament is brewing? I’ll cite here a few examples.
• The recent feud in Aswan between the tribes of the Arab-origin Hilaliya and Nubian Daboudiyas, which left scores dead and injured on both sides was by all means an abominable crime that involved stark violations to the law. Justice should have been brought by catching the culprits and enforcing the law. Only then could have efforts at mediation and conciliation between the two clans set off. But no; the State—represented by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, a number of his cabinet ministers, and the governor of Aswan Mustafa Yusri—attempted conciliation efforts even before the culprits were identified or brought to justice. The Grand Imam, Sheikh Tayeb was a major part of these efforts. Where did the State or the law stand in all this?
• A recent fatwa by al-Azhar pronounced that illegally drawing electricity from an official power supply source to be haram. I was stunned. What does al-Azhar have to do with such an explicit law violation? And why issue such a fatwa in defiance of the legal provisions in place? Granted, the fatwa is well-intentioned, but it has the potential of drawing the public away from the law and trapping them in the clutches of halal and haram.
• I previously wrote wondering why al-Azhar should issue a fatwa to the effect that combatting the locust swarms that invade the southeast borders of Egypt is halal. Egypt has very well established policies in spotting, monitoring and combatting locusts, regardless of halal and haram, so why the need for a religious fatwa in this regard? And what if at any point in time some fatwa decides it is haram to combat locusts?
• Prior to Christian religious feasts such as Christmas and Easter, al-Azhar has got used to issuing a fatwa to confirm that extending good wishes to Copts on their feasts is halal. Copts have frequently appreciated the move, since it countered fatwas to the opposite by fundamentalist Muslim groups. The fatwa, however, is seen by many to sideline concepts of citizenship and coexistence, as well as values of tolerance and diversity.
• Apart from the fatwa issue, and despite the tireless efforts of Sheikh Tayeb to uphold tolerance, many Muslim fellow Egyptians have written regarding the curriculum of al-Azhar University, and have cited flagrant cases where this curriculum brims with extremist, fundamentalist, fanatic thought. Doesn’t this file warrant more reform effort than the efforts at halal and haram fatwas?
27 April 2014
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