Last June, upon initiative of the sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, some members of the famous religious university of Cairo, together with a number of Egyptian intellectuals ‘of various cultural and religious extraction’ produced a statement on the future of Egypt. The text stirred a great deal of comment in the Egyptian media above all owing to its openness towards a democratic state, but it also caused a certain amount of perplexity, especially among the few who commented on it in the West, some of whom see it only as an intervention in view of the elections.
In reality the manifesto cannot probably be reduced to a mere dimension determined by electoral considerations, nor can it be interpreted in the light of an risky comparison between the contents of the text and the real intentions of its signatories.
Even though addressed to all the Egyptian political parties so that they recognise the people’s right to ‘freedom, dignity, equality and social justice’, it must be first of all be interpreted as a programmatic document by means of which al-Azhar seeks to position itself on the Egyptian public scene after the 25th January revolution. After the initial hesitations and silences the great mosque-university takes its place at this critical historic juncture, proposing itself to direct it by virtue of its traditional role of religious, cultural, moral and civil beacon. The drafters of the communiqué ask for the mosque to regain its independence from political power, particularly as far as concerns the election of the sheikh. They are thus referring to the golden age of the university, the one of non-subordination to the Egyptian state, according to a leitmotiv of its self-understanding, not without mythical tones.
In the rereading of Egyptian history, the document makes several references to the progressive and innovative surge that in the past the mosque had managed to impress on the society and culture of the country, in the respect of its cultural and religious patrimony. Here the al-Azhar authorities ideally include themselves in the line of great protagonists in the season of Islamic reformism of the last century.
But the aspect that excited most reactions is undoubtedly the political vision contained in the declaration. The scholars of al-Azhar express themselves with no qualms in favour of the building of a democracy made and founded on the ‘separation of powers’, on ‘free elections’, on ‘rights and duties of all individuals in conditions of equality’, ‘on the ethics of dialogue’. As far as the role of Islam is concerned, there are no ‘strategic’ silences. The declaration makes explicit reference to the need to consider ‘the general principles of sharia as essential source of the legislation’ and to the duty of Al-Azhar to clarify the bases of a ‘politics inspired by the principles of sharia (siyâsa shar‘iyya)’. Of course, it does not say what these formulas really mean, but the reason for such omission must be sought in a more general uncertainty of the present Sunnite political reflections following the season of Islamist theories on the Islamic state. There are no overtures to religious freedom and the document is limited to invoking full respect for the freedom of worship.
Some ambiguities are to found in the English and French translations published on the official site of the Egyptian information agency, where the terms more specifically pertaining to the Islamic technical language are rendered with more neutral words (for example siyâsa shar‘iyya, is translated by ‘legislative policy’).
On the other hand it would be unrealistic to expect declarations from al-Azhar in favour of the withdrawal of Islam and sharia from the Egyptian public scene. The challenge that the mosque has to accept is no so much the alternative between the application and non-application of sharia, as that of explaining in what terms Islam and its law answer the desire for freedom and justice of the Egyptian people.