Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
(photo credit: PAVEL GOLOVKIN/POOL VIA REUTERS)
An insidious religious war is being waged in Egypt and getting more virulent by the day. It has nothing to do with the deep-seated hostility of significant segments of the population toward the large Coptic minority and the too frequent episodes of violence against its members. Battle has been joined between the Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al Sisi and Sheikh Al Azhar Ahmed el Tayeb over the need for a new interpretation of the Islamic narrative, that is, in plain words, adapting Islam to present times.
During the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet in the Ministry of Endowment – Awkaf – the ministry in charge of religious affairs – on November 18, there was a very public clash. Several Islamic organizations then called for protests to be held in support of el Tayeb and indirectly against the president, who had said that ills plaguing Muslims today are caused by the misinterpretation of the texts that are the source of Islam. Therefore, he went on, Islamic sages must do their utmost to find in the Sharia the way to enlightenment and the enacting of laws adapted to the present time and to modernization, in order to help the nation and the world of Islam to progress.
There was nothing new in that speech; Sisi had said the same things on the same occasion three years ago, a scant few months after his election. Then he had stunned Egypt and the Muslim world by calling for a “revolution” in Islam and reviewing traditional Koranic interpretations that have taken root for centuries and given birth to organizations such as al-Qaida and Islamic State, which have transformed Islam into a vector of mayhem and destruction and turned the rest of the world against it.
Al Azhar, highest institution of higher learning of the Sunni world, did not respond to that call. On the contrary, its scholars stressed that there was nothing to change or amend in the Sharia, which is good and fitting for all situations and all times. But the president did not let up. He notably asked el Tayeb not only to publicly declare a) Islamic State; b) Ansar Beit El Makdess in the Sinai Peninsula, which had sworn allegiance to ISIS; and c) the Muslim Brotherhood apostate organizations, and to publish a fatwa condemning as apostate any Muslim or organization perpetrating terrorism. El Tayeb refused on the grounds that one cannot call apostate a man who recites the Shahada – the Muslim profession of faith – and therefore proclaims his belief in Allah and the prophets. He added that el Tayeb opposed in principle any move to “punish” a Muslim by declaring him apostate so long as he has not rejected the principles of Islam.
From then, relations between the president and the sheikh deteriorated quickly, although the general public was privy to only a part of it. Al Sisi tried to have the law of Al Azhar amended in order to be able to fire El Tayeb. The conflict became public last year when the Sheikh rejected the president’s initiative to formalize divorce by having the parties sign a binding document, thus doing away with oral divorce. Then the Ministry of Endowment decided that it would henceforth prepare Friday sermons for all mosques so that young people not be exposed to extremism and incitement to terrorism. It was a blow to the independence of Al Azhar, which had traditionally been in charge of sending sermons to the thousands of mosques under its tutelage. Furthermore, the ministry published new religious books without submitting them to Al Azhar, as was the norm. The venerable institution retaliated by publishing new books of its own that will be presented at the Cairo book fair next February.
Tension was high on the eve of the November 18 celebration. Undeterred, the president reasserted his position. He was backed by Endowment Minister Mohammed Mokhtar Gomaa, who stated forcefully that it was the duty of Al Azhar scholars to keep on working to eliminate extremist narratives and reinterpret the Sharia to adapt to modern times through respecting the fixed principles of Islam. Among his recommendations was a new reading of the Sunnah, a body of texts and prescriptions based on the oral transmission of the teaching of the Prophet.
He then revealed that his ministry was drawing plans to establish a new religious academy to prepare male and female preachers. Sheikh el Tayeb rejected all attempts to reinterpret the Sunnah or amend it. Since it would lead Muslims to dispute some aspects of the Koran and its prescriptions, provoking a rift within Islam. He canceled the private meeting that was to be held with the president and refused to shake the hand of the minister. Echoes of the clash got out and on the same day, in a show of support two distinct organizations, the union of Southern tribes and that of Al Azhar graduates led special prayers in a mosque in the hometown of the sheikh in Upper Egypt. Both organizations wanted to hold a protest outside the mosque, but were convinced not to do so by a younger brother of the hheikh, himself a respected religious figure. They pledged to keep up the fight to stop “attacks on Al Azhar and on the holy Sunnah.”
Can there be a compromise between the sheikh, who is not ready to accept any compromise, and the president, who feels that Egypt has to free itself of the chains of a way of life set down at the time of the Prophet to build a strong economy and modern and progressive society?
Meanwhile Sisi maintains a direct dialogue with the youth of the country through meetings where he tries to convince them of their role in creating a new society. He initiated a National Youth committee, which meets every year at Sharm El Sheikh and the projected religious academy is yet another attempt to bypass Al Azhar and the Islamic establishment.
Though Islamic movements are up in arms, Egyptians who are now aware of the situation have yet to take stands. There is no tradition of democracy and free speech and the population as a whole is deeply religious. In the first elections following the ouster of Mubarak, Muslim Brothers and Salafists garnered 73% of the vote. The president will have to tread carefully.
According to persistent rumors, he is considering a media campaign against el Tayeb, A double-edged policy. How would Al Azhar react? As things stand today, the president will have to promote new and modern legislation without the support of the Islamic establishment, something that the Tunisian president achieved in spite of that establishment, when he enacted laws giving women equal rights in the matter of inheritance.
Sisi has the support of the army and of the security forces, which will have to maintain order and stability should protests turn violent. But Al Arabiya reports that a new extremist group, Murabitoun, has infiltrated the army and created dozens of secret cells with officers at their heads.
In today’s Middle East, the hopes of the Arab Spring have been dashed and powerful forces are still resisting progress and democracy and promoting radical Islam. Fratricide wars are destroying Arab states and Shia Iran is deepening its involvement. Egypt is still facing a Jihadi insurgency in the Sinai and radical groups are still sowing terrorism in Cairo. The president will have his hands full implementing his economic reforms while dealing with traditional Islam striving to restore the so-called Golden Age of the Righteous Caliphs and resisting all attempts at changes.
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