Al-Azhar looks to broaden appeal with Cairo Metro booths
Cairo - Retired civil servant Mahmoud Hassan tapped his foot and anxiously checked his watch every few minutes as he waited his turn to visit al-Azhar scholars.
He was not, however, in one of the labyrinthine rooms of al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest religious institute in the country. He was in a queue outside of a small booth inside al-Shohadaa, Cairo’s busiest metro station.
When it was his turn, Hassan, who is in his mid-60s, entered the booth and conferred with three al- Azhar scholars, all wearing the red imama. When he emerged, Hassan looked vastly relieved.
“I wanted to ask the sheikhs about whether my marriage was still valid after I swore an oath to divorce my wife,” Hassan said. “I swore the oath a few days ago after we quarrelled but the sheikhs told me that the marriage is still valid.”
Marriage and divorce are among the topics the hundreds of people who go to the booth every day raise with the al-Azhar scholars. Their aim is to provide all Egyptians with access to learned religious opinions, away from the domineering vistas of al-Azhar University and the over-the-top views of religious television personalities.
The goal, also, is to promote a tolerant and moderate understanding of Islam at a time when religious extremism and terrorism represent a major threat to Egyptian security.
The initiative has some of the brightest minds at al-Azhar to address the public directly, whether regarding day-to-day issues or loftier concerns.
The fatwa booth proved so popular that six al-Azhar sheikhs are working shifts to meet public demand, with a panel of three al-Azhar scholars available from 8am-8pm every day. Egyptians from all backgrounds visit the booth, whether they made the journey specifically to speak with an al-Azhar scholar or were commuters with a few moments to spare.
“We go to where we can find the people to answer their queries and clarify religion to them,” said Saeed Amir, a senior al-Azhar official responsible for the booth. “If we do not go to these people, they can seek advice from radicals, which will pose a danger to society.”
This is a danger that Egypt is seeking to fight on several fronts, whether directly against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula or against extremist views that fuel them from mosque pulpits and metro stations.
Al-Azhar has faced criticism for proving resistant to government calls to reform religious discourse, including calls by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to end verbal divorce.
Some people criticised the new fatwa booth, accusing al-Azhar of seeking to “Islamise” society. “I think we are gradually turning into a religious state,” said Khaled Montasser, a TV commentator and an outspoken critic of al-Azhar.
About 3 million commuters use the Cairo Metro every day and al- Shohadaa is by far the most crowded of the 55 Cairo Metro stations.
Inside the see-through fatwa booths, sheikhs are always busy listening to visitors. Those visiting have queries about marriage, divorce, inheritance, financial dealings, sexual relationships, bank interest rates and, most important, religious edicts by notorious preachers who appear on satellite television sanctioning jihad in Syria and Iraq.
“We are here to make people know that such edicts have nothing to do with Islam, which never calls for either killing or destruction,” said Tawfiq Abdel Azeem, one of six sheikhs working in the booth. “We do our best to help people give up radical ideas mistakenly believed to be Islamic.”
Some of those who visited the booth asked about operations carried out by ISIS against Egyptian troops in Sinai, Abdel Azeem said. Others asked how Muslims should treat non-Muslims.
Beside the desk, where Abdel Azeem and his five colleagues sit, there is a small library where al- Azhar’s publications about extremism are on the shelves for visitors. One of the books available is “Terrorism: A Danger to World Peace” and another is titled “Islam: A Religion for Mankind.”
Before moving out of the booth, Hassan, the retired civil servant, took one of the free books. He looked at its cover, nodded in agreement and rushed off to catch his train.