Proposed bill to reform Egypt’s al-Azhar rejected

Sunday 14/05/2017
Distinguished institution. General view of al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. (Reuters)

Cairo- The speaker of the Egyp­tian parliament has re­jected a proposed bill to reform the country’s highest Islamic author­ity — before it was formally intro­duced — showing the challenges facing calls for religious reform in the country.
Member of Parliament Mo­hamed Abu Hamid proposed a bill that would limit the powers of the grand imam of al-Azhar, including his tenure to two 6-year terms. The proposal called for the establish­ment of a process that could see the grand imam sanctioned or im­peached, for four female scholars to be appointed to al-Azhar’s Com­mittee of Senior Scholars and for al- Azhar University to separate its re­ligious and non-religious faculties.
Abu Hamid is a strong supporter of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has called on al-Azhar to lead a process of religious reform in Egypt and who has lately indi­cated impatience over the pace of those changes.
“This renewal of religious dis­course must be conscious and preserve the values of true Islam, eliminating sectarian polarisation and addressing extremism and mil­itancy,” Sisi said in a January 2015 speech.
A few months later, he said he was unhappy with the pace of re­forms, a theme he has often re­turned to, particularly after terror­ist attacks targeting Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
“We need to move more quickly and efficiently because the effects of terrorism are becoming more ev­ident all over the world,” Sisi said.
However, Abu Hamid’s bill was declared dead on arrival with Egyptian Speaker of Parliament Ali Abdul Aal saying it was unconsti­tutional. Abu Hamid said the bill could not be withdrawn or rejected because it had not been formally proposed.
“This is not about the grand imam of al-Azhar because I do not bear him any personal grudge, but about the need to reform this very important institution,” he said. “Everybody wants al-Azhar to be strong.”
Law No. 103/1961, which regu­lates al-Azhar, allows for the grand imam to serve for life. It provides the mechanism for the appoint­ment of the next grand imam, who is chosen by the Islamic Research Academy and the Senior Scholars’ Authority, decision-making bodies inside al-Azhar.
Abu Hamid’s bill called on the two bodies to nominate three members, then choose one of them to head al-Azhar. Crucially, the final nominee would be subject to presi­dential approval, something that opponents of the bill say would represent unprecedented political interference in the independence of the religious body.
“Such a bill overlooks the impor­tance of al-Azhar as an internation­al centre of learning,” said Moham­ed Manna, an adviser of the grand imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. “It only wants to put al- Azhar under state control.”
Supporters of the measure say there is nothing wrong with more government oversight at a time when Egypt is facing unprecedent­ed threats from Islamist extremists and terrorists, including an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula.
Sisi called for a “religious revo­lution” when he first got to office, tasking al-Azhar with taking the lead in stamping out what he said was “radicalised thinking” tearing the Islamic world apart. Sisi has made repeated calls for the reli­gious body to “modernise” Islam and combat religious extremism, with critics of al-Azhar saying it has failed to meet the challenges of the day.
Last year, an attempt by Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments to unify and provide oversight of Friday prayer sermons was rejected by al-Azhar scholars.
Khaled Montasser, an anti-Is­lamist campaigner, said al-Azhar’s grand imam should not be beyond oversight. “He is a human being like us all and he must be brought to account if he commits a mis­take,” Montasser said.
Tayeb is viewed as a reformist by his supporters. Critics, however, say he needs to go much further.
An attempt by the Egyptian gov­ernment this year to end verbal di­vorce — a Muslim may divorce his wife by saying “I divorce you” three times — was rejected by Tayeb.
“Can’t we issue a law saying that no divorce should take place, ex­cept before a court,” Sisi asked dur­ing a speech in which he directly addressed Tayeb. “What do you think, grand sheikh? You are giving me a hard time.”
Abu Hamid has not said when he would formally submit the bill but said it enjoys support in Egypt’s parliament, despite the speaker’s rejection.