The will to reform religious discourse in Egypt is lacking

Sunday 16/07/2017

Calls to renovate religious discourse in Egypt have emanated from the political, cultural and intellec­tual elite and are repeated whenever events make it necessary. A political void in general and among youth in particular has made it possible for violent extremist ideologies to take root and spawn terrorism and other destructive beliefs, all under the cover of conservative religious discourse, which is stagnant and resistant to critical inquiry.

The task of revising religious discourse has fallen to relevant institutions but they have done nothing more than produce boring sermons and hollow scholarship. They have relied on high-flying speeches and rhetorical decorations, as well as questionable and obscure references.

Plans to revise religious discourse lack proper vision and training. Non-qualified people have jumped on the bandwagon and done more harm than good. They have brought back to life religious stories and events proven false by most Muslim scholars. They have given their two cents’ worth on how to interpret sacred text.

These people are completely off the mark because they lack the qualifications to engage in interpretation. They have shown an abysmal lack of competence in language and jurisprudence, as well as ignorance of longstanding traditions in the science of Quranic interpretation. Instead of guiding people, they confuse them.

For the sake of fame and fortune, these charlatans have not hesitated to denigrate companions of the Prophet and a host of other significant figures in Islamic tradition. Perhaps the recent phenomenon of youthful proselytising is a typical embodiment of the shortcomings described above.

To seriously revise political discussion, the institution responsible for the preservation and reproduction of traditional religious discourse — al-Azhar mosque and its numerous schools — must undergo reforms that include rehabilitation and retraining of its scholars.

The rehabilitation campaign must include scholars working for Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments, who are responsible for overseeing Friday sermons across Egypt, as well as the teaching staffs of al-Azhar elementary and secondary schools. These people have been schooled to favour memorisation and reproduction in their religious approach and are hopeless when it comes to critical thinking.

Those people are charged with revising and innovating religious discourse but we know they have not been trained to do that. They are the ones who rejected calls for innovation in religious thinking and discourse when it was issued in the 1980s. They refused to see the call as a much-needed national project to free people and open their minds.

People have had enough of the bland, non-innovative and purely traditionalist discourse spewing from al-Azhar and the ministry’s mosques. There is nothing new in this discourse just as there is no innovation in religious scholarship.

I am convinced that the call to reform religious discourse unwittingly inflicted further disasters and tragedies. Those directly tasked with reforming religious discourse are simply not qualified to do it. Worse, they do not wish it and refuse to do it. They relish wallowing in tradition, imitation and mystification. Let’s not forget that they are the ones who, since the 1970s, have thrown the floodgates open to the systematic invasion by fundamentalist and extremist groups belonging to political Islam.

They have turned Egypt into a virtual playground for fundamentalists from India, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. They have allowed millions of copies of books preaching extremist ideologies to be sold cheaply or even given away. The result is that those books exist all over Egypt and extremist ideologies are alive and well in the minds of average Egyptians.

To reform religious discourse in Egypt, all institutions involved in the reproduction and dissemination of traditionalist rhetoric must be renovated and rehabilitated. The same applies to connected institutions and systems, such as education. To my knowledge, the Ministry of Education has no plans to eradicate rote learning and to ingrain critical thinking in school curricula. The same can be said of the Ministry of Culture.

When there is the will to reform religious discourse, there will be concerted action in that direction but this will is sadly absent. What we have are simple attempts by officials to clear their names in case they are asked to account for their actions.