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Sissi Sets His Sights on Al-Azhar, the Beating Heart of Egypt's Religious Life

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt, on May 24, 2020. 
Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt, on May 24, 2020. Credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who this month marked seven years in office, has set his sights on a new objective. He is tired of the challenges coming from Al-Azhar, the most important religious institution in Egypt and the most respected one in the Muslim world, and after several clashes he plans to clip its wings.

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Last week, the Egyptian parliament approved a draft bill designed to sever Dar al-Ifta, the religious institution in charge of religious rulings and the interpretation of religious law, from Al-Azhar, to which it is subordinate, and to grant it independent status. In other words, Dar al-Ifta would report directly to the Egyptian government.

That means that Al-Azhar would be required to adapt its rulings to the president’s policy, and the mufti of Egypt will be chosen and appointed by the president, who would even decide on the length of his tenure. Its budget would be part of the state budget, and in effect it would become a competing religious body, overshadowing the authority of Al-Azhar.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in 2019.Credit: Vadim Ghirda / AP

The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, justifiably sees this law as a step that would not only undermine his status, deny him the authority to appoint the mufti and give the country a religious executive branch – he is also accusing the government of violating articles of the constitution making Al-Azhar the only source of all religious interpretation and rulings, and granting it full independence in its decisions. Religion, according to Al-Tayeb’s interpretation, would henceforth be under state control, read the president. Thereby, the president would complete his takeover of all the country’s institutions.

Sissi has been at loggerheads with Al-Azhar and its head since 2013, when he deposted his predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and effectively seized control of the government until making his status permanent in the 2014 presidential election. Although Al-Tayeb supported Morsi’s ousting, because he was afraid of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of the country’s institutions and of Al-Azhar, shortly afterward he harshly criticized the violence against the demonstrators who protested the step – repression in which about 1,000 people were killed and thousands more were injured.

Sissi did not forget this criticism, which joined several other verbal clashes between the president and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar. For example, Al-Tayeb refused to rule that Islamic State fighters were heretics. In his opinion, imposing the status of heretic is dangerous because ISIS itself justified the killing of Muslims by defining them as heretics.

Pope Francis shaking hands with Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb in 2019.Credit: Tony Gentile/ REUTERS

Al-Tayeb’s opinion sparked opposition and broad criticism by the government, and in 2015 television preacher Islam Behery called for his ouster. Two years later a new dispute emerged, when Sissi, who publicly favored taking a more liberal interpretation of Islam and putting an end to radical preaching, demanded a limit verbal divorces and a ruling that only written divorces would be deemed valid.

Sissi explained that about 40 percent of Egypt’s 900,000 annual marriages end in divorce – most of which attain validity when the husband says “You are divorced” three times. Al-Tayeb opposed this demand on religious and traditional grounds, thereby becoming the “enemy” of the new religious discourse that Sissi was promoting.

Sissi and Al-Tayeb also disagree on the question of the status of religious interpretation. Sissi believes that people should be guided by the Koran and that interpretation is what has caused the growth of radical and terrorist movements, based on extremist religious interpretation. In contrast, Al-Tayeb believes it is impossible without interpretation to observe the religious law and to adapt it to contemporary times. “Nowhere in the Koran is it explained how a Muslim should pray,” he said. “The prophet’s Interpretation and tradition are what have given us the necessary knowledge.”

Sissi is a believer, but he also thinks that Egypt needs a strong leader, who can’t afford to stumble among the myriad rules of democracy, free speech and human rights. He has neutralized his political rivals, and he arrests his critics. If there is a need to put an end to freedom of religious interpretation and to adapt it to his standards, he doesn’t hesitate. And in fact, one of the questions that has preoccupied Egyptian commentators was why he hasn’t ousted the head of Al-Azhar. That’s what President Gamal Abdel Nasser did in 1961 when he nationalized Al-Azhar and turned it into a government institution and simultaneously replaced the sheikh heading it.

But what was possible in the 1960s is far more difficult to implement today. Al-Azhar is an institution that enjoys international prestige, and Al-Tayeb has excellent ties with world leaders, including the pope. Al-Azhar is responsible for over 150,000 mosques as well as a prestigious university, with thousands of students from all over the world. And no less important: The head of Al-Azhar enjoys the support of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, a diplomatic and military ally of Sissi.

The dismissal of the head of Al-Azhar would probably trigger unnecessarily a dangerous and public outcry. For Sissi, it is sufficient to control the content of religious rulings, without undermining the sheikh’s status and prestige. In 1919, Saad Zaghloul, the revolutionary and future prime minister, declared, “Religion belongs to Allah, and the homeland to us all,” when he tried to unite the Egyptian people, with its many religious communities, in his struggle against the British occupier. Apparently, Sissi has taken this slogan a few steps further – religion belongs to Allah, subject to the president’s interpretation.

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