Al-Azhar’s contradictions betray bias against gender equality

Al-Azhar habitually targets and marginalises those from within the institution who make a remarkable contribution in the field of innovation and ijtihad.
Sunday 16/12/2018
A view of a minaret of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo as passers-by climb out of a pedestrian-crossing tunnel traversing a main street. (AFP)
Uphill struggle. A view of a minaret of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo as passers-by climb out of a pedestrian-crossing tunnel traversing a main street. (AFP)

While al-Azhar rejects opinions regarding equality in inheritance between men and women, on the basis that there is a clear text forbidding it and therefore the question does not tolerate ijtihad, it nevertheless closes its eyes on equally clear jurisprudence in the Quran, such as the punishment for theft and other crimes.

Al-Azhar considers family matters as its exclusive religious territory and, like all radical currents, it obstructs attempts to break into the space of legislation related to personal rights and freedoms.

Al-Azhar leaders apparently believe that closing their eyes to enforcing the religious rules and measures limiting the powers of the ruler is offered in exchange for the government staying out of al-Azhar’s traditional spheres of influence, in which it can apply its traditional jurisprudence. This is, in their view, the way to achieve the proper balance of power between it and the state.

This explains why al-Azhar’s scholars and its head, Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, held fast to their traditional positions whenever the Egyptian presidency demanded the introduction of modern visions adapted to reality and the needs of society, especially in the context of the challenges facing families and women.

There are many examples that confirm al-Azhar’s contradictory stances. Look at what happened to revolutionary Azhari scholar Abdul Mu’tal al-Saidi, who studied and discussed hudud — punishments — and defended the view that they can be adjusted according to social developments and historical conditions.

In 1937, Saidi published six articles in the weekly newspaper Al-Siyasiah explaining that corporal punishment, such as lashings and amputation, need not be enforced literally. As was customary with those who argue for religious reform, Saidi was tried internally by al-Azhar and deprived of promotion for five years.

Paradoxically, there are instances in which al-Azhar scholars have defended the state. Scholars such as Jad al-Haq Ali Jad al-Haq, Mohamed Metwally al-Shaarawy, Mohammed al-Ghazali and Yusuf al-Qaradawi issued in 1989, during the heyday of the confrontations between the state and jihadists, a statement defending the state’s position regarding the application of sharia and offered a flexible view of the issue of punishment in Islam. Ghazali and Qaradawi belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Azharis justify their silence on the issue of corporal punishment by saying those rulings concern specific criminal acts and are limited in scope, which is not the case of the question of inheritance, which affects all of society. Therefore, they place the rulings on inheritance on a par with obligatory duties, such as fasting and prayer.

Islamic hudud are directly linked to the security of the community and the executive authorities were clearly ordered by the Quran to enforce them. Most Islamic jurists see them as divine rights. Family jurisprudence, on the other hand, is seen as linked to human rights and therefore can be optionally enforced by individuals, not the ruler.

By downplaying its position on the question of hudud, al-Azhar aims to impede the innovative efforts that touched that same question from contaminating the domain of family legislation, which logically has less importance than hudud, contrary to the claims of al-Azhar’s scholars.

Yet, the motivation for reform and revision in the questions of hudud and inheritance are the same. Those who have studied both questions with fresh eyes say the traditional rulings were appropriate for the social models and conditions of the past and should be revised to suit today’s changes in social conditions.

Modern day innovators did not contradict the Quran in either case because it allows for the freedom of the person to enact appropriate legislation. Their view is that the ruling should not be the purpose of jurisprudence; it is rather the general principle of any matter.

So, reformers are calling for equality between men and women because they believe the overriding purpose of Islam is to achieve the general principle of social equality, as long as there is no evidence that the progress achieved during the life of the Prophet was in fact the end of efforts to achieve the purpose of those principles.

The verses related to inheritance are of an optional character since man has the right to distribute his legacy by will in a manner contrary to what is specified in the jurisprudence. This aspect gives reformists the chance to establish the legitimacy of the wills of those who wish to treat their offspring equally without gender discrimination.

In contrast, the religious establishment is following the path of radical currents by introducing rulings on principles. This is what the Muslim Brotherhood did during the year of its rule, by including in the paragraphs regarding women’s rights in the 2012 Constitution the famous condition that there shouldn’t be any contradiction with the “rulings of sharia.”

The choice of Islamists and of al-Azhar for rulings rather than principles is intended to manipulate the restrictions established by the law on divorce, polygamy and minimum age for marriage, as well as dealing with family legislation, including inheritance, in obedience to literal interpretation of the text.

The alliance between the political authority and the religious establishment has led to the inability of the existing political system to move towards expanding the circle of innovation and pushing for enlightenment projects outside of al-Azhar. This situation might hasten the fall of the serious innovation projects that displease al-Azhar and do not find the right support from the state.

Al-Azhar habitually targets and marginalises those from within the institution who make a remarkable contribution in the field of innovation and ijtihad. In addition, it does all it can to maintain and shore up the authority and influence of the conservative current inside it composed of Salafist and “Ikhwani” scholars.

Al-Azhar continues to battle for the preservation of its religious influence over Egyptian society by adhering to traditional jurisprudence and forbidding any innovative efforts. The religious establishment is scared stiff that it will lose its power if it refrains from using religion to control society.