Posted tagged ‘Egyptian media’

In Egypt, Clashes Between The Institution Of The Presidency And The Institution Of Al-Azhar

August 21, 2017

In Egypt, Clashes Between The Institution Of The Presidency And The Institution Of Al-Azhar, MEMRI, August 21, 2017

Introduction

Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, the most important institute of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, and its head, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayeb, are currently facing a political and media attack led by the institute of the Egyptian presidency, headed by President ‘Abd Al-Fatah Al-Sisi. This is the latest episode in the past two years of ongoing tension between the two institutions, over Al-Azhar’s apparent refusal to comply with the president’s dictates in matters of religion.

One aspect of the attack on Al-Azhar is President Al-Sisi’s direct criticism of Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb; another is criticism of Al-Azhar in the government press; and yet another is parliamentary moves led by Al-Sisi’s associates aimed at limiting the authorities of the Al-Azhar sheikh. There have also been calls for Sheikh Al-Tayeb himself to step down.

The main criticism against Al-Azhar is that the institution has failed to join the ideological war on terrorism that is led by President Al-Sisi. Critics say that Al-Azhar is not complying with Al-Sisi’s major goal, announced in 2014 and frequently reiterated by him, to promote a renewal of the religious discourse in Egypt, and also point out that it is refusing to level the accusation  of heresy against the Islamic State (ISIS), which has claimed responsibility for several terror attacks in the country.[1] It is also being said that Al-Azhar’s curricula encourage young people to turn to terrorism. In addition, there is criticism of Al-Azhar’s refusal to change how divorces are handled, as Al-Sisi has also demanded.

Al-Azhar representatives, headed by Sheikh Al-Tayeb, have rejected these criticisms, calling them deliberate lies that damage Islam. To show that it is indeed fulfilling its role and that it is a moderate Islamic institution, Al-Azhar has in recent months held international conventions on the subject of fighting extremism, as well as meetings with young people, and has waged anti-extremism and anti-terrorism campaigns.[2]

It should be noted that despite the harsh criticism of Al-Azhar, and of Sheikh Al-Tayeb, it still has the public’s sympathy, and significant support from many members of parliament.

This report will focus on the tension between the Egyptian presidency and Al-Azhar, as reflected in statements by the leaders of both institutions, in parliamentary activity against it,  and in articles in the Egyptian press.

Al-Azhar Institute (image: balkans.aljazeera.ne)

Tension Between President Al-Sisi And Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb

As stated, in recent months it has become evident that there is considerable tension between President Al-Sisi and Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayeb, as reflected in the president’s criticism of the sheikh both in public and in closed meetings. Currently, the main criticism against Al-Azhar is that it is not making sufficient efforts to advance the renewal of religious discourse in Egypt, as Al-Sisi has demanded. 

President Al-Sisi Repeatedly Reprimands Al-Azhar Sheikh – And Reportedly Threatens To Replace Him There have been several Egyptian newspaper reports concerning President’s Al-Sisi’s displeasure with Al-Azhar’s lack of action on this issue; he has made this clear in individual meetings with Sheikh Al-Tayeb and at public events.

At January 1, 2015 festivities marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad at the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments, Al-Sisi said to Sheikh Al-Tayeb: “The preachers are responsible to Allah for the renewal of the religious discourse and for improving the image of Islam. [On Judgment Day,] I will argue against you before Allah [if you do not do this].”[3]

Following a November 30, 2016 meeting between the two, the independent Egyptian daily Al-Misriyyoun reported on their chilly relationship and noted that the president was furious at Al-Azhar’s failure to vehemently attack political Islam organizations, specifically ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and for its continuing aggressive anti-Shi’ite position.[4]

There are, however, only a few such reports; for the most part, Al-Sisi is careful to express respect for Al-Azhar while at the same time clarifying his position vis-à-vis how it functions. Thus, he told the editors of government newspapers in a May 2017 interview: “Our general line is to protect the institutions of the Egyptian state, to urge them to fulfill their roles, and to develop them in a way that will suit the challenges and dangers that we face. Al-Azhar has a monumental status both inside and outside Egypt, and that is why we insist that it fulfill its role, because both the region and the world need it to do so.”[5]

At a June 21, 2017 event marking Laylat Al-Qadr, the night when, according to Muslim tradition, the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad, Al-Sisi praised Al-Azhar as a source of pride and for the position it has held for over a millennium. He went on to reiterate the need for a renewal of the religious discourse, calling it “a matter of life and death for the people and the ummah.”[6]

On July 26, 2017, four months after the April 8, 2017 Palm Sunday attacks on Mar Girgis church in Tanta and St. Marks Cathedral in Alexandria, Al-Sisi confirmed his decision to establish a Supreme Council for the Fight Against Extremism and Terrorism,” to be headed by him, and whose members would include the parliamentary speaker, the prime minister, the Al-Azhar sheikh, the Coptic Patriarch, various government ministers, the head of Egypt’s general intelligence service, the head of the Administrative Supervisory Authority, and public figures such as former Egyptian mufti Ali Goma’a.[7]However, even though the Al-Azhar sheikh is on the council, Egyptian media members who are close to the regime interpreted the establishment of the council as a blow to Al-Azhar’s authority; some even called it proof of Al-Azhar’s “demise.” The establishment of this council, they said, meant that the institution of the presidency had decided that it itself would act on the matter of renewing the religious discourse, instead of waiting for the Ministry of Endowments or for Al-Azhar to do so.[8]

Another serious dispute between Al-Sisi and Sheikh Al-Tayeb erupted over the issue of talaq ­– that is, a Muslim husband’s power to divorce his wife on the spot by merely telling her three times “I divorce you.” Al-Sisi again reprimanded Al-Tayeb in public. During a January 24, 2017 speech marking Police Day, he addressed him directly, saying: “You’ve tired me out, my friend.”[9] Al-Sisi went on to call for an end to this divorce practice, which is common in Egypt, and for divorce to be documented legally in order to reduce the rate of talaq divorces in the country.[10] In response, MP ‘Amr Hamroush hastened to prepare a bill regulating divorce.[11]

This demand by President Al-Sisi, which also garnered support from the Egyptian media, was perceived by the Al-Azhar institute as an affront to Islam, an attempt to secularize Egypt, and an attempt to circumvent the authority of the institute. In an announcement, Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars clarified that “by virtue of Al-Azhar’s religious responsibility and its status in the Egyptian ummah, as determined by the constitution of Egypt,” it had in recent months convened todiscuss current social issues, among them the issue of divorce in a religious context, and that it had decided that talaq is permitted. In this way, the council made it clear that Al-Azhar does indeed have decision-making authority in matters of Islamic law.[12]

Al-Azhar cleric Dr. Yahya Ismail said: “The war against Islam and its rulings is an old war. There is an ongoing, focused campaign to secularize Egypt…” He added: “This is a conspiracy against Islam and its guidelines… The rulings and conditions regarding divorce are known… The game of [legally] documenting divorce is an old one, and it is Christian clerics who were behind it [and who] tried to persuade some of [Egypt’s] presidents in this matter…” Al-Azhar lecturer Ahmed Karima also criticized Al-Sisi’s demand, saying: “Who will successfully eradicate this [talaq]? Only Allah or His Messenger… “[13]

Following the media uproar over the divorce issue, there was an attempt to calm the waters by both sides, and to show that things had returned to normal. On February 26, 2017, Al-Sisi stressed, in a meeting with Sheikh Al-Tayeb, that Al-Azhar is like a lighthouse for moderate Islamic ideology.[14] Al-Tayeb advisor Muhammad ‘Abd Al-Salam also denied that there was any disagreement between the two institutions of Al-Azhar and the presidency.[15]

Measures Against Al-Azhar: A Bill To Limit Al-Azhar Sheikh’s Authority And Establishment Of A Committee To Examine Al-Azhar Curricula

One manifestation of the anger at Al-Azhar was recent parliamentary measures against it and its sheikh aimed at limiting his authority and independence. Recently, MP Muhammad Abu Hamed, known to support Al-Sisi, proposed a change to the 1961 Al-Azhar Law regulating the authority of both the institute and its head. This bill was supported by parliamentary speaker Ali ‘Abd Al-A’al, who argued that the bill did not harm Al-Azhar.[16]

The main points of the amendment bill proposed by Abu Hamed make it clear that it is aimed at limiting the Al-Azhar sheikh’s authority and at increasing governmental control of the institute itself. For example, Section 2 of Abu Hamad’s bill states that the Al-Azhar sheikh is the Grand Imam of all Muslim clerics and that he represents the institute, but also states that his term is six years and that he can be reelected only once. The 1961 law did not mention the length of the sheikh’s term. Also according to the bill, the candidates for the position of sheikh are to be selected not just by Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars, as has been the case to date, but jointly by the council and Al-Azhar’s Academy of Islamic Research. Further, according to Section 5 of the  bill, if two-thirds of the members of Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars feel that the sheikh is not fulfilling his role appropriately, he is to be sent before an investigative committee comprising seven of this council’s leading members. This committee has the power to warn him, reprimand him, or “revoke his authority.” The original 1961 law included nothing regarding internal oversight of the Al-Azhar sheikh.[17]

Section 8 of the bill authorizes the president to appoint the imam and preacher of Al-Azhar’s mosque, from among three candidates that are to be put forward by Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars.[18] Also, Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars is to determine the content of the Friday sermons delivered at Al-Azhar mosque, and set regulations for religious, social, and cultural activities at the mosque.

It should be noted that an addition to the general definition of Al-Azhar’s role focuses on the importance of its role in developing religious discourse in a manner highlighting humane principles and unifying the Muslim ummah, and undermining the sources of the extremist discourse that crudely interprets Islam.[19]

Abu Hamed said of the bill that in today’s circumstances it is inconceivable that the Al-Azhar sheikh cannot be fired, and emphasized that three senior members of Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars are MB members.[20]

A further parliamentary step taken against the Al-Azhar institute relates to its educational curriculum. The chairman of the Religious Affairs Committee in the parliament, Osama Al-‘Abd, said that the committee has established a working group to examine the curriculum at the institute as part of a process to renew religious discourse in Egypt.[21]

Despite Abu Hamed’s bill and the examination of the curriculum, it is evident that there is much support in parliament for Sheikh Al-TayebAbu Hamed’s bill was criticized by several MPs who said that they had been unaware the law harmed the status of the Al-Azhar sheikh and asked that their signatures be removed from the bill. Further, MP Osama Sharshar wrote a memorandum to the parliamentary speaker that was signed by the majority of the 406 MPs demanding that the bill be opposed and not submitted because it was clearly aimed at harming one of the institutions of Egyptian society. Al-Azhar is a red line, he said, much like the military, and firing the Al-Azhar sheikh is practically heresy.[22]

For his part, Abu Hamed rejected the MPs’ request that their signatures be removed, and said that he would try to enlist the support of additional MPs and re-submit the bill during the next parliamentary session.[23] In this context, parliamentary sources revealed to the Egyptian daily Al-Shurouq that top-echelon officials had ordered that the bill be shelved.[24] Nevertheless, on several additional occasions Abu Hamed stressed that he intended to submit the bill, and that he had the signatures of 80 MPs who support it.[25]

On May 9, a delegation of MPs met with Sheikh Al-Tayeb, who thanked them for their opposition to those aiming to harm Al-Azhar and warned that any affront to it was a blow to Egypt’s position as defender of Islam and its moderateness.[26]

Allegations In Media That Al-Azhar Is Not Acting Against Terrorism; Calls For Sheikh Al-Tayeb To Resign

The establishment media hastened to stand by President Al-Sisi and fiercely attacked Al-Azhar, by publishing dozens of articles criticizing Al-Azhar on several fronts: its refusal to accuse ISIS of heresy; its curricula, which they alleged encourages extremism and even terrorism; extremist statements made by Al-Azhar clerics, including allegations of heresy against Christians[27] and against Egyptian philosopher Islam Behery.[28]

For example, in several of his columns in the government daily Al-Ahram, Ahmad ‘Abd Al-Tawab criticized  Al-Azhar, stating that it is not implementing President Al-Sisi’s orders to promote the renewal of religious discourse in Egypt. He wrote: “Without beating around the bush, [I will say that] the religious institutions have not taken a single serious step in order to comply with President Al-Sisi’s call for a religious revolution… Over two years have passed since the president’s call [for this], which was welcomed by the members of Al-Azhar, but the [number of] days [that have passed since] proves that the flexibility that they showed [at the time] was [just] so that the wave [would pass over their heads] quietly…”[29]

In another article, Al-Tawab wrote: “Al-Azhar’s scholars hastened to welcome President [Al-Sisi’s] call for a revolution [in the religious discourse], but this was not translated into real action. Furthermore, for the [past] two years, [Al-Azhar’s] activity has been in the opposite direction – merciless attacks on anyone whose opinion is different without hesitating to use the weapon of accusing them of heresy, filing lawsuits that put several people behind bars [and that were] based on laws which are up for amendment to bring them into line with the new constitution, and so on…”[30]

On January 26, 2017, Muhammad Al-Baz, editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Dustour, called on the Al-Azhar sheikh to resign. He wrote: “Political experience since 2011 has proven that Dr. Al-Tayeb is not the right person for the position of [Al-Azhar] Sheikh… I believe in the sincerity of Dr. Al-Tayeb’s intentions to keep Al-Azhar distant from political activity, but is he actually doing this?…

“He has immersed himself in political activity, entered into struggles, and sided with opinions that were not in the best interest of the state. He has given his protection to people wandering around his office who he knows very well support the MB, and he has defended them with all his might. Instead of complying with the call to renew the religious discourse, he has continued with his activity to obstruct this call…

“I demand that the Al-Azhar sheikh submit his resignation – out of affection [for him], not hatred, [and] out of concern for him, not disparagement of his capability… I entreat him to comply with what we are demanding of him, and not to listen to the entourage surrounding him that wants him to remain in office to serve its own interests.”[31]

The attack on Al-Azhar and its head Sheikh Al-Tayeb escalated greatly following the Palm Sunday terror attacks on the Mar Girgis church in Tanta and St. Marks Cathedral in Alexandria; many journalists felt that Al-Azhar was to blame for the attacks because of its refusal to accuse ISIS of heresy. On April 14, 2017, the Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’ daily, whose board of directors is headed by Khaled Sallah who is close to the Al-Sisi regime, published an article titled “Why Does Al-Azhar Fear the War on Terrorism and the Renewal of Religious Discourse… Al-Tayeb Opposes ISIS’s Crimes, But Refuses to Accuse It Of Apostasy…”[31]

The article in Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’, April 14, 2017

Egyptian Writer: Al-Azhar Must Be Purged Of Extremism

Many articles stated that Al-Azhar is rife with clerics whose views are extremist. Sayyed ‘Abd Al-Magid, columnist for the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, wrote that Al-Azhar has an extremist majority that is protected by the Egyptian establishment, and called for purging it: “It is true that there are also enlightened people [at Al-Azhar], but they are a minority, against the vast majority that has it in its power to threaten, accuse of heresy, and to grant indulgencesThey are protected by several apparatuses, and are hosted by the sick government media. For this reason, purging Al-Azhar has become essential and cannot be delayed… Even though I do not agree with MP Abu Hamed, I absolutely support his efforts to limit the term of Al-Azhar Sheikh [Al-Tayeb], as long as [Al-Tayeb] does not manage to rectify the distortions [and renew the religious discourse], so that he will give way to another, who perhaps will carry out his duties…”[33]

Egyptian Writer: Al-Azhar Is Refusing To Accuse ISIS Of Heresy – But Accuses The Copts Of Heresy

In her column in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Sahar Al-Ga’ara wrote that the Al-Azhar clerics who consider Christians to be infidels, such as Dr. Abdallah Rushdi,[34] actually reflect the position of Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb. She said: “…Dr. ‘Abdallah Rushdi, a spoiled child of Al-Azhar, boldly danced on the blood of the victims [of the April 2017 terror attacks] at the Mar Girgis church in Tanta and St. Marks Cathedral in Alexandria… Rushdi did not deviate greatly from the Al-Azhar line, following in the path of the Grand Imam [Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb], who had in the past expressed the same opinion, saying, ‘Yes, they [the Christians] are unbelievers because they do not believe in Muhammad or the Quran, and from this point of view they are considered unbelievers as far as I am concerned. But because I, as a Muslim, do not believe in the Holy Trinity or in Christianity as it is now, I [too] am considered by them to be an unbeliever…”[35]

“Al-Azhar does not accuse ISIS of heresy… but the Copts – they are like prisoners in a wounded homeland, who can be easily expelled from their homes, whose women are easily taken captive, whose churches can easily be blown up, who are easy to humiliate and remove from positions of leadership in the country [based on] the Islamic law [stating] ‘an unbeliever may not rule over a Muslim’…”[36]

Egyptian Writers: Al-Azhar Clerics Support The MB And Wahhabism

Numerous articles claimed that many Al-Azhar clerics are extremist and support the MB and Wahhabism. For example, ‘Ali Al-Fateh wrote in his column in Al-Masri Al-Yawm about the “spread of Salafi Wahhabism in Al-Azhar and outside it under the protection of the state apparatuses.” He added that Al-Azhar embraces Salafi-Wahhabi leaders and extremist ideology.[37]

Writer Khaled Montasser wrote in the Al-Watan daily: “We have said, reiterated, and clarified, again and again, that there is no rivalry and no battle against Al-Azhar as an historic entity, but [rather] with the Wahhabi stream that wants to hijack it.”[38]

Dandrawy Al-Harawy, acting editor of the government daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’, wrote: “‘Abbas Shuman, [Al-Azhar Deputy Sheikh and] the strong man among the clerics who control the administration of this institute, which the world regards as a beacon of moderate Islam, in not the only one who declared his sympathy for the MB and its president Muhammad Morsi. Apart from him there are four others, no less important and powerful than he…  as well as dozens of Al-Azhar University lecturers who are [MB] sympathizers and fans.”[39]

Also, Egyptian researcher Ahmad Abdou Maher stated, following the Palm Sunday church bombings, that the Salafis and Wahhabis had taken over Al-Azhar, and called for holding Al-Azhar accountable for its teaching of “depraved and criminal jurisprudence.” To see a MEMRI TV clip of his remarks, see:

(Video at the link. — DM)

Al-Azhar Rejects Criticism, Egyptian Writers Speak Out In Its Defense

Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb, and Al-Azhar representatives rejected the accusations against the institute. In his weekly sermon on Egyptian television, Sheikh Al-Tayeb said that several media outlets were waging a campaign against Al-Azhar. There are elements acting deliberately to harm the roots of the nation, first and foremost Al-Azhar, he said, and noted that Al-Azhar is an element of stability in Egyptian society and in all Islamic societies. He said:

“The masses, not to mention the researchers and experts, feel that certain media outlets are waging a deliberate campaign against Al-Azhar. Those waging this campaign fall into two groups. [First,] the ones who know that what they are spreading in their programs on this [issue] is false and baseless, but [nevertheless regard] this as an opportunity to attract viewers and advertisers. In other words, they are guided by the financial criterion of [making a] profit… Every night [they] deceive public opinion, because when viewers constantly hear, on more than one program, that Al-Azhar’s curricula [spread] terror, and that Al-Azhar is the one cultivating terrorists, this [accusation] sticks in their mind… The second group that attacks Al-Azhar on certain media outlets is an organized and financed group which manufactures clashes between the ideological and religious values of societies [on the one hand] and the new material culture [on the other] in order to realize calculated plans that aim to destroy every authentic aspect of this umma, starting with Al-Azhar.”[40]

In other statements, during the April 26, 2017 “Religious Scholars of the East and West” conference at Al-Azhar, Al-Tayeb warned about the lies told by media that were linking terrorism to Islam and accusing Islam and Al-Azhar of being behind the two recent church attacks.[41]

Al-Azhar clerics rejected the claims that the institution’s curricula encourage extremism and violence. In an announcement, Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars stated: “The truth that is denied by the enemies of Islam, and also by the enemies of Al-Azhar, is that Al-Azhar’s curricula today are the same as yesterday…”[42]

Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars member Dr. Ahmad ‘Omar Hashem clarified that in Al-Azhar and its books there are no calls for extremism, violence, or terrorism, and that all the criticism of the institution is incorrect.[43]

Editor Of Egyptian Daily: Al-Azhar Cannot Possibly Be Blamed For The Spread Of Terrorism And Extremism

Defenders of Al-Azhar also made themselves heard in media outlets. Akram Al-Qassas, acting editor of the Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’ daily which is close to Egyptian intelligence apparatuses, stated that Al-Azhar cannot be held responsible for terrorism because terrorism and extremism are the result of economic, social, and cultural circumstances from years past. He wrote:

“Understanding the principles that underpin the relation between Islam and the state may be a better solution than clashing with and attacking Al-Azhar and blaming it for terror and extremism. It is better to conduct an open and honest dialogue among all the political and cultural elements in society. All signs indicate that terrorism, sectarianism and hatred result from factors that have built up over decades for many reasons – political, economic, social, educational and cultural. Moreover, it is impossible to ignore [the role played by] exported ideas that originate in other societies whose religious and ethnic makeup differs [from those of our societies]…

“We must not place the blame for the hatred, sectarianism and terror on one side only. It is important to review the circumstances, the way in which ISIS and organizations of its ilk emerged, and the extent to which they are influenced by doctrines that are theoretically related to Islam but whose content [actually] has nothing to do with religion. Proof of this can be seen in Iraq, which for decades after gaining its independence maintained its religious and ethnic diversity, but sectarianism only broke out [there] after the American invasion…  All this brings us back [to the conclusion] that holding Al-Azhar responsible for extremism is an exaggeration and ignores the [real] reasons and motivations [for extremism]…”[44]

Egyptian Writer: Al-Azhar’s Status Is Phenomenal And It Should Be Supported

‘Imad Hijab, columnist for Al-Ahram, wrote that instead of criticizing Al-Azhar, people should support it, in light of the danger threatening Islam and its image in the world. He stated:

“The great Imam, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, is held in the highest esteem by Sunni Muslims… all over the world, not only in Egypt…  as befitting  the great sheikhs of Al-Azhar who graced this honorable [institution] with their knowledge, experience, and humility…

“The current harsh criticism, and the hostile discourse of common citizens and the media, is directed at the role of Al-Azhar in general, not just at the Sheikh of Al-Azhar. It relates to the danger facing Islam and its image in the world with the increase in extremism and zealotry and the advent of organizations that spread terror and spill blood in the name of Islam, some of which are supported and funded by [various] countries and intelligence apparatuses. This great challenge requires [people] to support Al-Azhar instead of accusing it of exporting terror and terrorists.”

Alongside his defense of Al-Azhar, Hijab also criticized it and called on it to reform its curricula: “Al-Azhar must make an effort to fulfill its great and crucial role in meeting the needs of the hour, and present a program for renewing the religious discourse and the curricula so as to preserve the status of Islam.”[45]

 

* C. Meital is a research fellow at MEMRI.

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[1] The term “renewal of the religious discourse” was first coined by ‘Adly Mansour, acting president of Egypt (2013–2014)  following the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in the country. It refers to rectifying the misunderstanding of the meaning of Islamic law in Egyptian society, in order to stop the spread of extremism and terrorism. For more on Al-Sisi’s call to Al-Azhar to advance the renewal of the religious discourse and the criticism of its failure to do so, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6114, Egyptian Columnists On Al-Sisi Regime’s Campaign For ‘Renewal Of Religious Discourse’ As A Way Of Fighting Terrorism, July 23, 2015; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6549, Three Years Later: Egyptian President Al-Sisi’s Supporters Express Disappointment, Call His Regime Tyrannical, July 28, 2016; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6585, ‘Al-Ahram’ Columnist: Despite Al-Sisi’s Call For Revolution In Religious Discourse, Al-Azhar Scholars Continue On Their Extremist Path, August 24, 2016. For more on Al-Azhar’s refusal to accuse ISIS of heresy, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5910, Al-Azhar: The Islamic State (ISIS) Is A Terrorist Organization, But It Must Not Be Accused Of Heresy, December 21, 2014. It should be noted that a recent statement by Muhammad Zaki, secretary general of Al-Azhar’s Supreme Da’wa Council, may indicate a change in the institution’s position on this matter. He said on April 14, 2017, in a response to a journalist’s question on the possibility of accusing two ISIS terrorists who blew themselves up at the churches in Tanta and Alexandria in April 2017, that a suicide bomber belonging to an extremist organization is an infidel if he believes that Islamic law permits this murder. He stressed that Al-Azhar issues accusations of heresy only based on certain principles and conditions, and added: “If he [the terrorist] considered the murder to be permitted, then he has committed heresy, and if he considers this an operation permitted by Islamic law, then he has committed heresy. If he thought this way and sacrificed his life for this, then he has committed heresy against that which was brought down to the Prophet Muhammad [i.e. the Quran]…”  For more on this, see Alarab.co.uk, April 17, 2017. It should be mentioned, however, that this was an isolated comment that has not so far been repeated by Al-Azhar officials. Moreover, Zaki himself said in a January 2017 interview that Al-Azhar cannot accuse ISIS of heresy. For more on this, see Albawabhnews.com, January 6, 2017.

[2] For more on the campaigns by Al-Azhar representatives with young people in the various provinces, see Al-Watan (Egypt), December 7, 2016; on the campaign titled “No to Violence, No to Blood” in cooperation with the Youth Ministry, see Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, December 14, 2016; on the international conference in Alexandria sponsored by Al-Azhar, see Al-Ahram, Egypt, January 21, 2017.

[3] Al-Watan (Egypt), January 1, 2015.

[4] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), December 1, 2016. This was Al-Sisi’s and Al-Tayeb’s fourth meeting that year, against the backdrop of internal struggles between Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Endowments. See Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), December 2, 2016.

[5] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 18, 2017.

[6] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 22, 2017.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 27, 2017.

[8] Rassd.com, April 10, 2017; Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), April 19, 2017.

[9] Rassd.com, January 27, 2017.

[10] Rassd.com, January 24, 2017.

[11] Al-Watan (Egypt), February 6, 2017.

[12] Azhar.eg, February 5, 2017.

[13] Rassd.com, January 29, 2017.

[14] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 27, 2017.

[15] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’ (Egypt), February 11, 2017.

[16] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 8, 2017.

[17] Egypt.gov.eg.

[18] From reports and commentaries about the bill, it emerges that this clause is another restriction on the authority of the sheikh of Al-Azhar, who can no longer choose the imam for the mosque. For more information see soutalomma.com from May 3, 2017.

[19] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), April 24, 2017, Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 25, 2017.

[20] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’ (Egypt), April 26, 2017.

[21] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’ (Egypt), April 20, 2017.

[22] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’ (Egypt), May 3, 2017, Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 9, 2017, Al-Shurouq (Egypt), May 9, 2017.

[23] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’ (Egypt), April 30, 2017, May 3, 2017, August 3, 2017, Al-Shurouq (Egypt), May 8, 2017.

[24] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), May 15, 2017.

[25] Masralarabia.com, June 2, 2017.

[26] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 9, 2017.

[27] Following the Palm Sunday attacks on the churches in Alexandria and Tanta, Dr. ‘Abdallah Rushdi, an Al-Azhar scholar and the imam of the Al-Sayyida Nafisa mosque in Cairo, was interviewed on the TV show of Egyptian media personality Ahmed Moussa, who is close to the Egyptian regime, and stated that Christians are infidels. For more, see Al-Dustour(Egypt), May 22, 2017. In the interview, that was posted on the Al-Bawaba website, Rushdi expressed his opposition to the attack on Al-Azhar, and said that its graduates can fight extremist ideas. In answer to a question about why Al-Azhar does not accuse ISIS of heresy, Rushdi noted that their doing so would open the door to accusations against every thief or murderer, and then all of Egypt would be considered full of apostates. He also said that ISIS would turn this to its benefit and say that Al-Azhar is not adhering to Sunni custom. For more, see Albawabhnews.com, May 3, 2017. Following his anti-Christian statements, the Ministry of Endowments banned Rushdi from delivering sermons or teaching about religion. For more, see Al-Ahram, Egypt, May 16, 2017.

[28] Islam Behery is an Egyptian researcher and philosopher who was convicted of insulting religions and was released from prison by President Al-Sisi as part of a mass pardon of 82 prisoners. For more, see: Al-Hayat (London), November 17, 2016.

In a May 3, 2017 Egyptian TV show, acting Al-Azhar president Ahmed Hosni Taha called Behery an “infidel” and added that he had attacked the streams of Islam. The next day, in an apparent attempt to head off the attack in the Egyptian media that was sparked by Taha’s statement, the Al-Azhar sheikh fired Taha. However, the Al-Azhar spokesman did not explain the reason for his firing. Taha himself published an apology stating that he had not meant any offense and that his mistaken statement represented him alone, not Al-Azhar. Nevertheless, his apology did not convince Egyptian writers, who came out against his statements about Behery and cast doubts on the sincerity of his apology. For more see: Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), May 4, 2017; rassd.com, May 5, 2017; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 5, 2017; and also articles by Sahar Al-Ga’ara and Hamdi Rizq, columnists for the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt, May 5, 2017.   

[29] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 25, 2016. See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6585, Al-Ahram’ Columnist: Despite Al-Sisi’s Call For Revolution In Religious Discourse, Al-Azhar Scholars Continue On Their Extremist Path, August 24, 2016.

[30] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 6, 2016.

[31] Al-Dustour (Egypt), January 26, 2017.

[32] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’ (Egypt), April 14, 2017.

[33] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 18, 2017.

[34] See note 27.

[35] It should be noted that websites identified with the Salafis in Egypt have quoted these statements by Sheikh Al-Tayeb without noting where he made them. See also Fath-news.com, December 19, 2016; Anasalafy.com, December 20, 2016.

[36] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 17, 2017.  Many Muslim scholars mentioned this principle, among them medieval Quranic exegete Ibn Al-Mundhir Al-Naysaburi (855-930), who wrote: “All the scholars who studied the Quran have agreed unanimously that an infidel may not rule over  a Muslim.” See dorar.net.

[37] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 15, 2017.

[38] Al-Watan (Egypt), April 18, 2017.

[39] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’ (Egypt), April 16, 2017.

[40] Azhar.eg, April 21, 2017.

[41] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 27, 2017.

[42] Rassd.com, April 19, 2017.

[43] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 20, 2017.

[44] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi’ (Egypt), April 21, 2017.

[45] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 7, 2017.

Egyptian Writers Criticize The Negative Attitude To Christians And Jews Reflected In The Common Interpretation Of The Fatiha, The Opening Surah Of The Quran

July 25, 2017

Egyptian Writers Criticize The Negative Attitude To Christians And Jews Reflected In The Common Interpretation Of The Fatiha, The Opening Surah Of The Quran, MEMRI, July 25, 2016

On January 29, 2017, two days after the publication of Nadi’s article, Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, a columnist for the government daily Al-Ahram, praised Nadi’s article and stated that Quranic interpretations should be reexamined in light of “the impressive and respectable legacy of esteemed [Islamic] reformists.”

“So what does this mean, keeping in mind that we are talking not about the [Quranic] text [itself] but about its interpretation? It means that the issue of reforming the religious discourse is broader and deeper than we think, and we should address it by means of a well-planned academic program, especially [given] that we have [at our disposal] the impressive and respectable legacy of esteemed reformists. All that is left for the relevant authorities to do is monitor what appears in the booklets themselves…”

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A discussion has recently taken place in the Egyptian media regarding the interpretation of the last two verses (verses 6 and 7) of the Fatiha, the opening surah of the Quran. These verses state: “[Allah,] Guide us to the straight path, the path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have incurred [Your] wrath or of those who are astray.” According to the common interpretation of these verses,[i] the phrase “those upon whom You have bestowed favor” is taken to refer to the Muslims, while the phrases “those who have incurred [Your] wrath” and “those who are astray” are said to refer to the Jews and the Christians, respectively.  

The discussion in the Egyptian media was sparked by an investigative article published January 27, 2017 in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm. The article, by journalist Mu’ataz Nadi, stated that booklets handed out at funerals and in mourning tents in Egypt repeat this interpretation that refers negatively to the Jews and the Christians, even though renowned religious scholars, such as 19th-century religious reformist Muhammad ‘Abduh and others, claimed that it is false.

Several Egyptian journalists responded with articles that supported Nadi’s view, rejecting the interpretation that appears in the booklets and rebuking clerics, especially Al-Azhar, for allowing the publication of such materials that they said spread extremism. They added that the booklets are yet another indication of the urgent need to reform the religious discourse.[ii]

The following are excerpts from the Al-Masri Al-Yawm article and from articles that responded to it.

 

Al-Masri Al-Yawm Article: Booklets Circulated In Egypt Interpret The Fatiha As Referring Negatively To Christians And Jews

Mu’taz Nadi’s article, titled “Interpretations of the Fatiha – From Muhammad ‘Abduh to Mourning Booklets,” notes that booklets handed out at funerals and mourning tents “contain various interpretations that present any Christian who comes to comfort [the family] as ‘one who is astray.'” It states further that the interpretation appearing in the booklets, which refers negatively to Christians and Jews, also appears on a website of King Saud University in Riyadh as part of a hadith by ‘Adi bin Hatim, one of the Prophet’s companions. This interpretation, he says, is still commonly cited “even though over a century has passed since Muhammad ‘Abduh,[iii] who served as the mufti of Egypt and was one of the pioneers of religious reform and renewal in his generation, [published a different] interpretation of the last two verses of the Fatiha”…

Commentary on Quran 1:7, explaining that “those who have incurred [Your] wrath” refers to the Jews and “those who are astray” refers to the Christians (image:Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, January 27, 2017)

Explaining ‘Abduh’s interpretation in detail, Nadi states that, according to ‘Abduh, the phrase  “those upon whom You have bestowed favor” refers not to the Muslims but to “the Prophets, the righteous, the martyrs and the decent men among the ancient nations.” As for the phrase “those who have incurred [Your] wrath,” it refers to “those who abandoned the path of truth after they knew it, [namely] those who were informed about Allah’s jurisprudence and religion but rejected it,” while the phrase “those who are astray” refers to people who never received the message of Islam, or who misunderstood it. Thus, in ‘Abduh’s interpretation, none of the phrases refer to the followers of any particular faith. Nadi notes that this interpretation was endorsed by other prominent Islamic scholars as well, such as Muhammad Metwali Al-Sha’rawi (1911-1998), who served as Egypt’s minister of endowments,[iv] Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy (1928-2010), who was sheikh of Al-Azhar.[v]

The article also quotes Dr. Muhyi Al-Din Al-‘Afifi, director of Al-Azhar’s Academy of Islamic Studies, as saying: “The interpretation spread by [these] mourning booklets is at odds with what is said in the Quran, for the Honorable Quran mentions the Christians, and Allah the Almighty said of them [in Quran 5:82]:  ‘You will find the nearest of [mankind] in affection to the believers those who say, “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.’[vi] ‘Afifi called upon Al-Azhar to examine various interpretations, especially of the Quran, that are spread in Egypt, and amend them.[vii]

Interpretation of Quran 1:7 in Tafsir Al-Jalalayn likewise refers to the Jews and Christians

Egyptian Writers: Religious Establishment Allows Extremist Interpretations Of The Quran

As noted, Nadi’s article sparked responses from other Egyptians who said that the interpretation of the Fatiha as referring to the Jews and Christians is wrong and that alternative interpretations proposed by enlightened sheikhs should be upheld. These writers criticized Egypt’s religious establishment, especially Al-Azhar, for allowing these interpretations to be published.

Al-Masri Al-Yawm Owner: Why Are Enlightened Interpretations Rejected In Favor Of Extremist Ones?

Salah Diab, the owner and founder of Al-Masri Al-Yawm, who writes under the pen-name Newton, also addressed this topic in a January 27, 2017 article, titled “Rebuke.” Newton noted that the booklets which contain this interpretation bear a certificate of approval by Al-Azhar, which suggests that Al-Azhar approves this interpretation, which appears in them, and directed criticism at the Sheikh of Al-Azhar for this. He wrote: “Every person has a moral duty to extend condolences to the bereaved. The older we get, the more such visits we make. In most funerals I attend these days, it is customary to give mourners a copy of the Quran as they leave, and I therefore have a whole pile of Qurans. In other cases one is given a booklet containing a few surahs from the Quran, the first of which is the Fatiha. On the margins of each page of these booklets is some commentary, and the back cover bears a photo of an Al-Azhar certificate approving the publication of the booklet, so that various libraries can circulate it.

“The Fatiha, which we recite several times as part of our daily prayers, is easy to understand and requires no explanation, and therefore it never occurred to me to look for an interpretation and I never looked at the margins [of the page] bearing these verses… [But] at the last funeral I attended, I happened to run across a school mate of my son’s, who is Christian. After greeting me, he told me with a smile, referring to the interpretation of the Fatiha on the margins [of the booklet], that the words ‘those who have incurred [Your] wrath’ are said to refer to the Jews, whereas the words ‘those who are astray’ are said to refer to the Christians. I was amazed, and apologized to him, [saying] that [the authors of the booklet] are ignorant and do not understand what they are doing, and [then I] returned to my car, embarrassed.

“Who are ‘those who have incurred [Allah’s] wrath’? Perhaps it is those who blew up St. Peter’s Church [in Al-‘Abassiya in December 2016]?[viii] Are they not the ones deserving of wrath? [Or perhaps other] murderers, or people who abuse their parents? Does not the [Muslim] religion describe such people as deserving of punishment? Or does this [phrase] refer only to our Jewish brethren?  And what about a Muslim who deviates from the directives of his faith and drinks alcohol, fornicates and gambles – is he not worthy of the description ‘one who is astray’? Or does his faith render him immune, regardless of his behavior and [how much] suffering it causes others? Does one have to be a Christian to merit this description?

“I do not know much about religion and I do not purport to be an expert on religious exegesis. But the interpretation that appears [in the booklet] is apparently approved by Al-Azhar, whose certificate appears on the back cover. Why do they reject enlightened interpretations in favor of extremist ones? Why do we discard the enlightened approach of the two noble sheikhs, Imam Muhammad ‘Abduh and Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut, who was Sheikh of Al-Azhar in 1958-1963? Both of them said that ‘those who incurred [Allah’s] wrath’ and ‘those who are astray’ could be Muslim, Jewish or Christian, and that the phrases do not refer to the followers of any particular faith. Why do we discard these moderate ideas?…

“At a time when we speak of renewing the religious discourse, so that all faiths lead to [the goal] for which they descended, which is [promoting] peace, coexistence, compassion and acceptance of the other, I cannot but convey a certain [message of] rebuke to our honorable Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb…”[ix]

Egyptian Journalist: The Existence Of Different Interpretations Underscores The Need To Reform The Religious Discourse

On January 29, 2017, two days after the publication of Nadi’s article, Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, a columnist for the government daily Al-Ahram, praised Nadi’s article and stated that Quranic interpretations should be reexamined in light of “the impressive and respectable legacy of esteemed [Islamic] reformists.” He wrote: “The excellent investigative article by Mu’ataz Nadi… fascinated me… What did my colleague [Nadi] find in his review of the mourning booklets? He found a copy of the Fatiha with commentary on verse 7… [stating that] ‘those who incurred [Allah’s] wrath’ refers to the Jews, whereas ‘those who are astray’ refers to the Christians.  When my colleague looked into this interpretation, he found that it [also] appears on the website of King Saud University [in Riyadh], but that it is different from the interpretations [proposed by] Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abduh, Sheikh Muhammad Metwali Al-Sha’rawi, and the late Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy.

“Trying to get to the bottom of this, I turned to some sources I have, such as Al-Muntakhab, a [modern] compilation of Quranic commentaries  published by [Al-Azhar’s] Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. The 18th edition [of this book], from 1995, says that ‘those who incurred [Allah’s] wrath’ and ‘those who are astray’ refers to ‘those who merit Allah’s wrath and who strayed from the path of good and of truth because they rejected faith and obedience’ (p. 1). However, this is different from what appears in the ancient commentary by [eighth-century Syrian Quranic exegete] ibn Kathir, which says that ‘those who incurred [Allah’s] wrath’ are the Jews, and ‘those who are astray’ are the Christians. This interpretation also appears on the Ahl Al-Sunnah website.

“So what does this mean, keeping in mind that we are talking not about the [Quranic] text [itself] but about its interpretation? It means that the issue of reforming the religious discourse is broader and deeper than we think, and we should address it by means of a well-planned academic program, especially [given] that we have [at our disposal] the impressive and respectable legacy of esteemed reformists. All that is left for the relevant authorities to do is monitor what appears in the booklets themselves…”[x]

__________________________

[i] See e.g. the popular classical commentaries Tafsir Al-Tabari, by Abu Ja’far Ibn Jarir Al-Tabari (838-923), who was one of the first Quranic exegetes, and  Tafsir Al-Jalalayn, by Jalal Al-Din al-Mahalli (1389-1459) and his student Jalal Al-Din Al-Suyuti (1445–1505).

[ii] It should be noted that this issue has been debated in the past by Egyptian clerics and media. Islamic preacher Mabrouk ‘Atiyya said at a December 18, 2016 event at the Dar Al-‘Uloum faculty of Cairo University that, contrary to the opinion of many Islamic scholars,  the verse does refer to Christians and Jews, and “whoever interprets it this way understands nothing.” He added: “The Quran makes positive mention of Christians and [Allah] ordered [the believers] to be kind to them. How could the Quran speak positively of certain people and [at the same time] call them ‘those who are astray ‘ [or] ‘those who have incurred [Allah’s] anger’?” (cairoportal.com, December 18, 2017). Egyptian media figure Tamer Amin referred to this issue on a December 2016 television program. He noted that he was amazed to hear that an Egyptian sixth-grade textbook on Islam likewise explains that “those who are astray” in the Fatiha refers to the Christians. He added that the textbook thus presents every religion except Islam as a false religion, and that “this is the way to cultivate [future] terrorists.” He concluded that, “if [this claim about the textbook] is true, it is a disaster” (tahrirnews.com, December 12, 2017).

[iii] Renowned Egyptian Islamic scholar and jurist Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849 –1905), who called for renewal in the Arab and Muslim world, is regarded as one of the key founding figures of Islamic reform and Modernism.

[iv] Egyptian Islamic Scholar and Jurist Al-Sha’rawi was an immensely popular Islamic preacher, and has been called “one of the most prominent symbols of popular Egyptian culture” in the 1970s-1990s.

[v] Tantawy, an influential scholar, also served the grand Mufti of Egypt.

[vi] It should be noted that ‘Afifi ignored the first part of this verse, which refers negatively to the Jews, saying: “You will surely find the most intense of the people in animosity toward the believers [to be] the Jews and those who associate others with Allah.”

[vii] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 27, 2017.

[viii] The December 11, 2016 blast near the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Al-Abbasiya, Cairo, left 25 people dead and 49 injured. See Al-Ahram (Egypt, December 12, 2016.

[ix] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 27, 2017.

[x] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 29, 2017.