Al-Azhar reform draft law stirs controversy

The draft bill proposed by leaders of Al-Azhar to reform the oldest Sunni Muslim institution has sparked controversy among some young preachers, who dismiss it as a move by the old guard to tighten their grip on power.

The proposed legislation caused a stir after the local press unveiled details of the draft discussed in a recent meeting between the grand imam of Al-Azhar and members of the Islamic Research Academy, the Al-Azhar body in charge of handing down fatwas.

The proposal seeks to re-instate the Senior Scholars Authority and entrust it once again with electing the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. In 1961, President Gamal Abdel Nasser abrogated this body and replaced it with the state-controlled Islamic Research Academy as part of his policies aimed at bringing religious establishment under his control.

According to Nasr Farid Wassel, a former Mufti and member of the Islamic Research Academy, the Senior Scholars Authority is expected to have the final say on controversial public matters that require a religious opinion.

Last week, Al-Azhar’s senior clerics discussed the proposed bill, according to Wassel. In their meeting, they were equally divided over whether to set a retirement age for the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar. However, the tie was broken by the current Grand Sheikh, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, who voted in favor of setting an age limit, recounted Wassel. Tayyeb suggested setting the age at 70, but the academy eventually agreed on 80.

Although the draft has heeded the persistent demand of most religious leaders and observers in ending the tradition of having the president appoint the Grand Sheikh, the suggested retirement age provoked some young imams.

“The retirement age for the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar cannot be 80. This does not conform to divine norms,” complained Rabei Marzouq, a 36-year-old Cairo-based preacher. "When a person gets older, he does not maintain the same concentration span. He loses the ability to administer matters."

Meanwhile, the bill laid out the eligibility conditions for members of the revived authority. A potential candidate should be known for his piety, hold a PhD, be well-published and at least 60 years old. According to Marzouq, the age requirement is meant to facilitate the nomination of incumbent Islamic Research Academy members, who are mostly over 60, to the new body.

“They make laws that suit them exactly as [toppled President Hosni] Mubarak did when he amended [the constitution] to cede his place to his son,” contended Marzouq, adding that the minimum age should go down to 45. He shrugged off the current academy as “a shelter for the elderly”.

For his part, Mohamed Raafat Othman, who has been part of the Islamic Research Academy for over ten years, argued against Marzouq’s views on age limits. “Up to the age of 80 years, he [the Grand Sheikh] would be able to make fatwas and administer the big institution,” he said.

He also dismissed as "unacceptable" Marzouq’s claims that old religious leaders are tailoring laws to serve their own interests.

“The older religious leaders get, the more scientifically mature they become. They also become more capable of understanding Sharia injunctions,” he added. “Religious leaders never lose the skill to make fatwas, no matter how old they get.”

After Mubarak’s ouster, different groups echoed demands to reform Al-Azhar and liberate it from state control, but each group had its own motives. Liberals contended that the empowerment of Al-Azhar, which has been known for its moderate interpretation of Islam, might eventually weaken the growing power of the Salafis. In the meantime, some Islamists, namely Salafi parties, have expressed their vehement support of granting Al-azhar full independence and empowering it, in the hope that they might eventually hijack it and use it as a platform from which to spread their rigid interpretations.

Tayyeb, who is famous for his moderate views and Sufi leanings, appointed a commission of religious scholars and legal experts in March to come up with amendments to the Al-Azhar law, inherited from Nasser’s time. According to Mohamed Fathy, a public relations officer with Al-Azhar, the Tayyeb-appointed commission has finished its work and the draft is now being discussed with senior religious scholars.

Meanwhile, hundreds of young preachers launched their own initiatives and put forward a draft bill of their own. Many of them held that Tayyeb could not be entrusted with spearheading a genuine reform process, given his ties with the old regime and his initial opposition to the revolution.

Marzouq is a representative of the Coalition of Revered Al-Azhar Pundits, one of the loose entities formed after Mubarak’s fall to reform Al-Azhar. Over the last year, the group called for rallies to pressure the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to adopt a six-page draft bill that it had designed to revamp Al-Azhar. Besides stressing the need to revive the Islamic Scholars Authority,  the proposal holds that all endowments should be brought back under Al-Azhar's control, as opposed to falling under the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which falls under the control of the executive branch of government.

According to the proposal, the ministry should cede control of nearly 110,000 mosques to Al-Azhar to ensure the independence of their religious discourse from government meddling. Further, the Islamic institute Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, which issues religious fatwas under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, should be brought under Al-Azhar's ambit, the rebellious preachers’ draft bill suggested, in a quest to unify the source of fatwas under the umbrella of Al-Azhar.

“Al-Azhar can become powerful when its children are invited to give their opinion on how to achieve renaissance. But having a shelter for the elderly come to us with a law is no different from what Nasser did in 1961,” complained Marzouq.

It remains unclear whether Tayyeb’s draft bill touched upon the expansion of Al-Azhar’s mandate. According to Wassel, the Islamic Research Academy discussed the idea of annexing Dar al-Iftaa to Al-Azhar, but members did not support it. As to bringing the endowments under Al-Azhar guardianship, Wassel said the matter was not even discussed.

For his part, Othman expressed his vehement opposition to such proposals.

“Al-Azhar has a lot of responsibilities in different social, political and religious realms. We cannot overload it with the endowments and Dar-al-Iftaa,” said Othman. “We should be seeking decentralization in administration,” he added.

According to Fathi, no decision has been made on whether this draft bill will be sent to the SCAF for endorsement as legislation or to the newly-elected People’s Assembly, which will convene for the first time on 23 January.

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