Egyptian parliament locks horns with al-Azhar over prerogatives

Al-Azhar said formulating laws that organise the life of Egyptian families is its duty because it is part of its religious responsibilities.
Sunday 10/11/2019
Al-Azhar scholars during a meeting in Cairo. (AP)
Keeping society in line. Al-Azhar scholars during a meeting in Cairo. (AP)

Proposed legislation that would regulate marriage and divorce among Muslims is at the centre of a dispute between the Egyptian parliament and al-Azhar.

Al-Azhar’s decision-making body drafted the measure after about a year of discussion and is preparing to refer the bill to the parliament for debate. Lawmakers, however, accuse al-Azhar of encroaching on their territory and interfering with their work.

"Al-Azhar does not have the right to propose or formulate laws," said lawmaker Samir Rashad.

Al-Azhar's measure is the fourth proposed -- some drafted by parliamentarians -- that are meant to regulate marriage and divorce, custody of children and alimony. The bills look to address problems faced by Egyptian women, especially the ability to obtain financial rights, after divorce.

Courts often take years to rule on cases of women's living expenses. Divorced people also wait a long time before courts determine custody of children.

Lawmakers are especially angry because, in proposing its own bill, al-Azhar overlooks measures parliament proposed regarding the issue. They accuse al-Azhar of drafting an unbalanced bill that does men injustice and allows the marriage of underage girls.

Al-Azhar said formulating laws that organise the life of Egyptian families is its duty because it is part of its religious responsibilities.

"We have received several bills on the same issue, including from the parliament," al-Azhar said in a statement. "We drafted a bill that protects the rights of women and guarantees the presence of good care for the children after divorce."

This is less about this specific bill and more about the struggle for control between al-Azhar and the parliament, observers said.

Al-Azhar is the most important religious institution for the majority Muslim population of Egypt and hundreds of millions of Sunni Muslims around the world.

Al-Azhar has dominated Egyptian Muslims' lives for hundreds of years; however, its failure to institute reforms, the discourse of its preachers and the curricula at its schools and colleges have caused it to come under scrutiny.

Some people hold al-Azhar responsible for a surge in extremism because of its failure to dispute the ideology of terrorists. There is also a feeling in Egypt that men of religion should not be in control.

Member of parliament Mohamed Fouad said al-Azhar was turning the row over the new bill into a religious war. "It [al-Azhar] acts in violation of the secular nature of our state," he said.

The debate over the bill is the latest in a series of conflicts between al-Azhar and the legislature. The differences are caused by parliament's desire to assert itself while the religious establishment wants to control people's lives, observers said.

Parliament angered al-Azhar in early 2017 when politician Mohamed Abu Hamed, a vocal critic of the religious establishment, proposed a bill reforming al-Azhar by allowing the replacement of the grand imam of al-Azhar for the first time.

The grand imam is selected by the Islamic Research Academy and cannot be sacked by the president, the government or the parliament.

Abu Hamed's bill angered al-Azhar. An al-Azhar University professor proposed a law that would jail those who criticise the grand imam.

The latest measure widens the gap between al-Azhar and parliament. Some politicians say they will not consider al-Azhar’s proposal, known as the Personal Status Bill. However, this could lead to even more friction between the two institutions, observers said.

"Al-Azhar knows well that it does not have the right to draft laws," said Islamist researcher Ahmed Abdo Maher. "Nevertheless, it wants to control people's lives and make its voice only heard in this country."