The meaning of the Arabic expression “to divorce in three” (Talak ba’thalath) is that it is enough to say three times you are divorced for an Islamic divorce to be valid. It is an absolute commitment, from which there is no going back, unless the woman married of her own free will another man and divorced to return to her husband. There have been many sharia-based arguments about the issue of divorce for generations, but one thing was always agreed upon: Divorces are valid whether made orally or in writing. It is enough for an exasperated man to say the threatening words (a right that women lack, of course).
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This issue is exactly the one bothering Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. On National Police Day (January 25), which also marks the day the Arab Spring erupted in Egypt, the president proposed legislation that only a written divorce signed before an authorized civil servant would be deemed valid. Sissi was frightened by the central bureau of statistics data indicating that 40 percent of all couples divorce within their first five years of marriage. The president blames the ease with which the religion permits divorce, which he says influences the nation and its future.
However, this male tradition, which started in the days of the Prophet Mohammed, is in no rush to surrender. Islamic scholars from the powerful Al-Azhar university and mosque, including the latter’s grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, put their foot down and made it clear to the president they would not heed his call.
Al-Azhar spokesman Abbed al-Munam Fuad surpassed himself when he wrote an article sharply critical of the president in the state newspaper Al-Akhbar, in which he asserted that the president has no authority on this issue. Ali Guma, a former mufti, wrote on his Facebook page that the question of divorce is purely a matter of sharia law, and that the president should know that sharia is science, and therefore only authorized sharia scholars could interpret the law.
However, Sissi isn’t giving up so easily either. “You tired me, dear sheikh,” he told the head of Al-Azhar on National Police Day. The “tiredness” stems from what Sissi views as opposition by Al-Azhar not only on the divorce question but also on everything related to renewing religious discourse in Egypt.
This is the major issue that has kept the president busy since he rose to power in July 2013, after he deposed Mohammed Morsi and put an end to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule. Sissi has drawn a road map for Egypt, by which he has sought to introduce innovation into the religious discourse in order to rid from the public space extremist sermons and religious rulings issued by the Islamic scholars of radical organizations. His goal is to strip the Muslim Brotherhood of its public status as religious guides and to control the discourse both inside and outside the mosques.
Renewing the religious discourse is not a new concept in Islam, but its meaning was not always clear. Sometimes, renewal was expressed in returning to the sources and adopting a fundamentalist approach, and sometime it was meant to reduce the gaps between enlightened, modern Western thought and Islam. Thus, for example in light of the rise of Al-Qaida and ISIS, orthodox muftis arose to protect what they called “the correct Islam” and to eradicate from the discourse expressions and fatwas supporting these organizations.
Sissi is responsible through the Religious Endowments Ministry for the content of mosque sermons. He prepared a detailed document that determines Friday sermon scripts in order to meet the state’s political needs. The statement, which has sparked a public confrontation between the Religious Endowments Ministry and Al-Azhar, includes 54 topics for the first year and another 270 or so for the next five years.
The plan calls for “strengthening nationalism and national belonging,” “to introduce enlightened ideas” and “to correct mistaken concepts.” In other words, they will correct the ideas used by the extremist movements. Sissi also called for the application of a unified mosque sermon, an order that ran into a wall of opposition among Islamic scholars, who see it has restricting freedom of religious thought. Al-Azhar simply refuses to implement it.
The last thing Sissi needs is a public power struggle with the most important religious institution. Al-Azhar is indeed a part of the government apparatus. It receives most of its funding from the government, and the president appoints its head. More importantly, Al-Azhar is the institution that provides the president the religious legitimacy he needs to be considered a suitable ruler who is not anti-religious. It is a mutual dependency, which Islamic scholars and muftis (and not only those from the fundamentalist streams) have attacked for decades, as they see it as religious submission to the state and subordination to a political ruler who persecutes believers like the Muslim Brotherhood.
It seems, therefore, that the current battle will not cause a historic schism between the president and Al-Azhar, but the two sides need to come out winners. Sissi perhaps will cede to Al-Azhar the question of the divorce law, but he will want in exchange a new, polished “religious discourse,” the kind that will give him a religious stamp of approval to continue moving against the Muslim Brotherhood in the court system, which long ago developed into a struggle against political, not just religious, rivals.