Al – Azhar: Faltering Attempts for Reformation and Renewal
By Walid Zayed
Translated from Arabic by the Center for Arab Progress
Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, the main reference for Sunni Muslims in the world, issued a statement condemning the incidents of repeated harassment, which reached an unprecedented level in Egypt. Al-Azhar used for the first time unusual human rights terminologies, and condemned the harassment categorically and the justifications of some sheikhs and citizens, and declared his categorical rejection of linking women’s clothing to harassment. The speech was considered a qualitative development in dealing with women’s issues and human rights issues in general. Especially in view of criticism of Al-Azhar as responsible for the deterioration of the level of religious discourse and its contribution to the production of extremists and terrorists.
In the wake of calls by some state institutions, headed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, parliament and civil society organizations to renew the religious discourse, many questions emerged as to who will undertake the process of renewal and the meaning of renewal itself. While the political authority relies on Al-Azhar to play this role and be renewed within Al-Azhar, in an attempt to replace the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic groups that have dominated the religious space since the early seventies. Civil society calls for the renewal of the religious rhetoric from outside Al-Azhar, considering the crisis is caused by the traditional religious establishment of Al-Azhar.
For this purpose, the Egyptian parliament is discussing a law to regulate fatwas to be limited to specific bodies within Al-Azhar, Awqaf and Dar al-Ifta, and to specific persons. It is not available to any preacher or preacher without official authorization. We cannot clearly identify this without examining and analyzing the status of official religious institutions and the factors that influence the renewal of discourse and rhetoric.
Al-Azhar was not a traditional institution. It was not a positive actor in dealing with most of the modern products that reached Egypt, from the prohibition of drinking coffee and the use of the printing machine. Al-Azhar did not take the initiative to deal with the latest developments in reality, but was forced by the community movement to deal with the situation and renew its speech to coincide with the course of history. In some cases, often driven by political variable detailing religious discourse of power suits and requests.
The problem lies in two things: first, the institutional structure itself. Al Azhar has been bulldozed like other institutions for purely political reasons over the past decades. Al-Azhar education has become poor and fragile, discouraging critical and creative thinking or self-criticism. But it is not easy when it is linked to religion. The basic feature of Al-Azhar is that it does not build educated and critical cadres but produces the followers and imitators. This is what governs the organization’s behavior and its frequency if there are any changes in the language of the speech, because it will cause questions that are not ready to be answered and understood.
Second, there is a general belief among most Azharis and traditional religious institutions that there is only one version of religion, and the problem begins when some decide to confiscate the opinion of others who believe in different interpretations. It is even worse when political power takes this religion as the official belief of the state. Religion is used as a tool for governing, and citizens are discriminated against based on what the state deems correct. This type of religiosity prevailed in Europe during the “Middle Ages” which ended with religious wars. This is what happened in other countries when dealing with religion as a political tool, such as Iraq, Lebanon and others.
Since the early seventies, it began to take a clear radical direction and turned into a clear social reaction with the start of talk about the time of the Islamic awakening, the political incursion of Islam in the public sphere, the submission of the Sadat regime and the attempt to bury it under the Mubarak regime. In 1978, Al-Azhar proposed that the Constitution stipulates that women should wear the religious dress and forbade flaunting makeup. Some Azhariyans continued in the sphere of equality between the crime of rape and the practice of consensual sex, considering that the perpetrators were equal to adulterers, and linking women’s clothing to harassment.
With the emergence of widespread criticism and critical reviews of the religious discourse and the religious heritage as a whole, headed by Faraj Fouda and Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid. The religious leaders (Sheikhs) decided to confront these criticisms with violence and incitement rather than rethinking. Sheikh Mohammed al-Ghazali ruled that Faraj Fouda could be killed and testified before the court that the murderer should not be executed. He claimed that the members of the “Ummah” can instate the laws when the State is not capable of executing. Then Faraj Fouda was killed after one week of a major debate held between him and Sheikh Ghazali. Meanwhile, the Al-Azhar raised a court case requesting that the wife of Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid should be divorced from him given that he is an infidel or not Muslim. The court accepted and ruled in the favor of divorcing them.
It has been observed in recent years that the dynamics of the work within the Al-Azhar Foundation do not signal the movement in any direction or initiative, but rather the movement of the community and the external context to deal with the matter. This may be due to the weakness of its independence on the one hand and the penetration policy of the Muslim Brotherhood to control Al-Azhar on the other hand. In the same vein, Al-Azhar’s statement of condemnation of harassment did not appear to be unequivocally. It was the result of a policy adopted by civil society organizations in the clash with Al-Azhar, rather than boycotting it. The first attempt was in 2003, when a group of activists and institutions activated a dialogue platform for the first time with the Azharis. The talk was about re-reading the religious text, but due to the surprise faced by the Al-Azhar sheikhs, they accused these institutions of being against Islam and Sharia. But this movement has opened questions to the religious leaders (Sheikhs) they face for the first time.
In 2006, women’s associations renewed their engagement with Al-Azhar in discussing customary marriage or dealing with modern scientific developments related to DNA. Especially in the issues of proof of descent and the problem of the existence of the kit in light of the possibility of knowing the existence of pregnancy or not through medical analysis three months before the end of the kit. However, the debate went away from the basic issue and women were attacked for not wearing the veil and accused of working abroad.
After the 2011 protests, Al-Azhar, like most institutions, did not enjoy the same level of respect and reverence it had before the revolution. The revolutionary situation imposed itself on the social scene as a fundamental variable, and it was customary for Al-Azhar to receive blows and criticism from all directions, whether liberal or secular or Islamic groups. Al-Azhar was seeking to have a role in this transitional phase to restore its status again. At the time, the organizations had gone a long way in breaking the monopoly of knowledge that was hovering over the discussions with the Azharis. Further, they found in Al-Azhar the opportunity to cooperate with them to counter the social and political apostasy led by the Muslim-dominated House of Representatives to change the personal status laws to become more reactionary. Debate on the publication of the so-called “Women’s Rights Document” in 2013 represented a moment of progress in the history of Al-Azhar because political and social events were greater than the traditional discourse of Al-Azhar.
For example, Qawama was defined by defining its meaning as a financial responsibility associated with the context of the situation of the vulnerable woman at the time, and does not entail a moral significance or moral superiority. Moreover, the document dealt with the physical integrity of women and the prohibition of abuse in private and public. But the institution took advantage of the protests of June 30, 2013, the political events that followed, the document was not officially issued. The institution may have thought that the period of social transformations was over and that it did not need to take progressive positions. There were also fears that Al-Azhar’s name existed on any progressive document concerning women, although it did not meet the aspirations of the participating women’s organizations. These fears have made some Azharis reluctant to show the truth of what Al-Azhar reached for five years, but now the talk again about this document after being reluctant.
It is often argued that the renewal of religious discourse is connected to countering the Takfiri terrorist ideology that leads to the establishment of an authoritarian Islamic project only. However, does that really mean renewing religious discourse? Today’s circulation is a specific idea of a monotheistic interpretation of Islam that is monopolized by Al-Azhar and the religious state institutions. Thus, it is ensuring the continuation of the status quo, which includes the domination of some religious minorities and intellectual orientations. While this is inciting official religious institutions against atheists and non-believers as a departure from the monotheistic approach. And in its perception that this falls within what is known as irreplaceable traditions, but is this different from the thought of the Takfiri Islamic groups that the state is fighting against?
In fact, the “jihadist” organizations do not wait to take licenses to issue fatwas of killing, ostracizing or exclusion, because they are essentially hostile to the state and its institutions. Thus, the legalization of the fatwa for example has no meaning for these organizations, given that they will not support anything that is issued by the State. In fact, the absence of a clear substitute differs from the rhetoric of extremist groups, moving in a direction that supports the values of pluralism, full citizenship and acceptance of the other, and supports the rights of women and minorities. It is not a renewal of speech but a continuation of the same values but in different forms. At the same time that Al-Azhar sees it as the right to be renewed. Dr. Yusri Jaafar, a professor of faith and philosophy at the Faculty of Fundamentals of Religion, is suspended from work by Al-Azhar University after accusing him of “atheism and trying to revive the thought of Mohammed Abdo and Taha Hussein.”
In light of all the above, there exists a perception of a unilateral interpretation of religion, and that Al-Azhar is the only institution capable of protecting religion and society from extremism. Further, that Al-Azhar’s infamous structure will not accept much of a different speech from outside.
It is not strange to hear about a conflict between the Al-Azhar and Al Awqaf (Egyptian Ministry for Religious Endowment), on who has the right to control the religious discourse of the State. This conflict emerged when Al-Azhar rejected the decision of the Ministry of Awqaf to activate the unified Friday sermon. Further, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar rejected President Sisi’s call to stop oral divorce, and ended with Al-Azhar refusing to be the Department of Fatwa in the Ministry of Endowments among specialists in the issuance of fatwas, even though most of this department’s administration happens to be from Al-Azhar.
Moreover, considering Al-Azhar a unified institution is not accurate. Shortly after the Al-Azhar Sheikh’s statement condemning harassment, another report was issued by Azharis on Al-Azhar Global Fatwa Center which blamed those who “wear makeup” or mix between the genders as the main reasons for harassment. Although the Global Fatwa Center withdrew the report and apologized for it, it shows that the majority within the Al-Azhar Foundation have these sentiments.
The prevailing religious discourse contributed to the transformation of sexual harassment from an individual phenomenon into a dangerous social phenomenon that threatened the security and stability of the entire society. It also contributed to the loss of the rights of many citizens, exacerbated social crises and provided fertile ground for terrorism and violence. The whole issue of renewing the religious discourse, which many call so far is useless, because the term is ambiguous and vague in its aims. This confusion is not confined to the Al-Azhar Foundation, but also in the speech of the same political leadership that promotes innovation. Despite the multiplicity of religious speeches, from Salafism, Brotherhood, and Azharism, they all share the fact that they have not taken a modern course in line with changes in reality.
In sum, religious discourse did not contribute to the enrichment and development of societal values for the protection of the rights of individuals and society, and to expect a traditional classical institution to play this role is a spin in a vicious circle and, more importantly, This is not done with the desire to use speech renewal as one of the tools of the political game. The historical experience offers a deep lesson that social and cultural movements are responsible for this task.