Articles > Religious freedom > 2012 > How, for whom and to what extent al-Azhar defends the freedom of creed and speech

How, for whom and to what extent al-Azhar defends the freedom of creed and speech

Martino Diez | 28 February 2012

Al-Azhar on the fundamental freedoms

After the last Egyptian elections, which saw victories for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Parties, the debate on the future political and social order of the country shows no signs of decreasing in intensity. Even al-Azhar, at the direct wish of the current Sheikh, Ahmad at-Tayyeb, is actively participating. A few months ago the historic mosque-university, traditional point of reference for Egyptian Islam and more generally for the Sunni world, called a gathering of intellectuals for an important declaration on the future of Egypt. After a document stating support for the mobilisation of the Arab peoples for freedom and democracy, there follows a new declaration devoted exclusively to the organisation of fundamental freedoms. For the compilers of the document, these amount to freedom of belief, of opinion and expression, and of scientific research and literary-artistic creativity.
Internal pluralism
To assess the document adequately it is necessary to remember that there are two dimensions to it, the national and the international. On the Egyptian level we can see in it a implicit critique of certain Salafi positions, in particular where reference is made to possible abuses of the principle of ordering the good and prohibiting the evil. This principle, Qur’anic in derivation, teaches that each Muslim has the task of watching over the behaviour of the community to encourage the diffusion of virtues and block the emergence of vices. The problem is that if the instruction is understood in a juridical and not an ethical manner, it easily leads to an invasive control of individuals on the part of self-elected censors (we might think of the Saudi religious police), and at the extreme end it can lead to a summary “do-it-yourself justice”, as happens not infrequently with accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan. This is the reason why the majoritarian political tradition has understood the principle in non-absolute terms, for example stipulating that “the command of good” may at a stretch also take the form of a simple interior condemnation («in the heart»). Historically moreover it has preferred to attribute the function of censorship (hisba) to specific officials rather than to the community in general.
The al-Azhar text stigmatises «attempts to search into the consciences of believers» (the term for “search into” is significantly taftîsh, which refers in Arabic to the searches of the police) and motivates this condemnation both on the basis of constitutional ordinances and with reference to sharî‘a. From here the discourse, concluding the first point (probably the passage that is conceptually the densest of the whole document), leads immediately to the permissibility of pluralism internal to Islam. This pluralism is related to the exercise of interpretation, which, as the following second point argues, is always fallible and therefore exposed to revision. No one can claim to possess the absolute truth in the religious arena, above all where there is no explicit text or long-established consensus.
In reality however in many Muslim countries the problem today is precisely that of the proliferation of conflicting juridical interpretations and opinions (fatwas). It is understandable then why the document, again in polemic with certain Salafi tendencies, declares that «no one has the right to foment confessional tensions» and specifies the conditions for engaging in exegesis: the opinion must be «scientific», «supported by proofs», produced «in specialised spheres» and «must keep well clear of tensions». In short no cyber-muftî. The implication is of course that al-Azhar itself is the most representative institution for the provision of «a mainstream and correct understanding of religion».
Religions and citizenship
There is a fairly short conceptual step from internal pluralism to freedom of religion. Here too the primary concern is to put a brake on the confessional tensions that have exploded in recent months in Egypt, and therefore the international debate on religious liberty is by implication very much to the fore. The document strongly emphasises the sanctity (qadâsa) and sacredness (hurma) of all the three monotheistic religions. The reference to verse 2, 256 («There is no constraint in faith») justifies the new interpretation of this passage from the Koran with respect to the mediaeval tradition, which tended to circumscribe it as much as possible, if not quite simply to abrogate it (cf. Ida Zilio-Grandi, Fede e libertà. Il conflitto delle interpretazioni, «Oasis» 7). It is also very important that freedom of religion (or more precisely, of creed, ‘aqîda) is formulated at the level of «each individual» and not that of communities. It is not absolute however: in fact «society has a right to preserve celestial beliefs». This is certainly the most delicate and ambiguous point, a knotty issue touched on again and in more or less same terms in the last section, devoted to freedom of literary-artistic creativity. The document refers (and there is nothing new about this) to the protection of already existing religious communities, and it hints at the possibility of an inner dissent on the part of the individual (is this also the case for Muslims? - apparently so), but this is seemingly accompanied by the maximum of discretion. When does the right of each «to follow whatever ideas he wants» become an attack «on the sensitivities of others» or on the «sacredness of the three religions?» In terms of Christian theology, the question raises the issues of the individual-community polarity and the freedom-truth nexus. It involves the individual-community polarity, because freedom of expression must take account of the sensitivities of others (a fact that the West seems to have forgotten), and at the same time it involves the freedom-truth nexus, since the one cannot ultimately be conceived without the other. On this crucial point, that every society (and this applies to the West as well) – always needs to re-discover, the al-Azhar document remains vague (which, paradoxically, may be a good thing). The question is however far from being resolved.
On the political level anyhow, religious freedom translates into the principle of citizenship (muwâtana) which involves «absolute equality in rights and duties» between all Egyptians, therefore also between Copts and Muslims. The statement of principle ought to lead to discussion of the questions of places of worship and mixed marriages which, as mentioned by Tewfik Aclimandos, are the perennial sources of tension between the two religious communities. On the first of these, moreover, there has already been a significant expression of opinion by the “House of the Eyptian Family”, immediately following the events of Maspero last October. However what is happening these days, with the repeated attacks on Coptic churches, is not at all encouraging.
What kind of reason?
As was noted by Samir Khalil Samir when analysing the document for AsiaNews, the impact that this declaration will have in the Egyptian context is far from clear. There is nothing to guarantee that the name of al-Azhar is sufficient to accredit it throughout society. This consideration does not however diminish the importance of certain positions stated in the text.
Among these, one stands out in particular and it is defined as «the golden rule» of Islamic exegesis: «When there is a conflict between reason and tradition, reason is to be preferred and tradition is to be interpreted». In what way? By constantly remembering «the goals of sharî‘a» and «the public interest» (in another passage the text speaks of the «common good»). This path is surely a promising one and many examples of interpretations of this type can be enumerated in the modern era.
A question to which it will be needful to return is however what kind of reason the text has in mind. Judging from the long third point, it seems that the absolute preeminence is given to scientific reason - if not indeed plain technological reason. And yet it is evident that, for a renewal of exegesis – and more generally for the new cultural interpretation of the Islamic faith called for by the Arab revolutions – it will be necessary to appeal to all the dimensions of human reason. It is not first of all a question of worldly success and power, as the third point might suggest, even if the political dimension is rightly included. There is a need for a conception of reason which is adequate to «increase awareness of reality, stimulate the imagination, elevate the aesthetic sense, educate the human senses, broaden intellectual capacity and deepen the experience of life and society proper to man». Here then is an outline programme for an authentic humanism. The kind of humanism that Islamic civilisation, in the shape of its most impressive figures, has already shown that it values and practises.
Martino Diez
 

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