Since the arrival of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a (never totally extinguished) debate has flared up again in Egypt regarding Islam and its role in society and the state
Last update: 2022-04-22 09:23:57
Since the arrival of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a (never totally extinguished) debate has flared up again in Egypt regarding Islam and its role in society and the state. Whilst al-Sisi is asking – not without ulterior motives – for a “religious revolution,” al-Azhar sees, rather, the need to correct the interpretations adopted by extremists and terrorists. Certain intellectuals, from differing fronts, are putting forward bolder proposals for a reason-based re-evaluation and radical revision of Islamic law’s traditional methodology.
Since Isis ceased being a “paper emirate” and began presenting itself as the body that would restore the Caliphate, words such as “reform,” “renewal” and even “revolution” have once more started to ring out loud and clear in the Islamic world.
The debate about Islamist terrorism, the degree of its connection with the Islamic tradition and the best ways of fighting it has found a particularly fertile ground in Egypt, a country that has periodically gone back to discussing Islam’s role in society and the state for over a century now. In this context, the speech made by the President, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi on 1 January 2015, in which he invited the official Islamic authorities in his country to undertake a genuine “religious revolution,” has received widespread comment. President al-Sisi’s initiative has been interpreted in various ways: there are those who have not hesitated to call him “Islam’s Luther” and those, on the other hand, who have pointed out how his words “were nothing new for the top leadership of al-Azhar,” whilst recognizing that it was remarkable that “a president with a military background was publicly lecturing al-Azhar and its sheikh on their mission.”
So how are the Egyptian president’s words to be assessed? And, more generally, what has been and what can be the outcome of the Egyptian debate on religious reform? In order to be able to answer these questions, it is necessary, on the one hand, to observe the conduct of the individual actors involved in the debate at close hand and, on the other, to place that debate within the broader context of the relations between state and Islamic institutions in contemporary Egypt.
Let us consider the role of al-Sisi, first of all. The President’s legitimacy is, to a large extent, founded on his opposition to the regime of the Muslim Brothers and President Morsi, against whom millions of people took to the streets in June 2013. In this perspective, since his election, al-Sisi has frequently emphasised the need to protect the state’s institutions from the Brotherhood’s attacks and from its influence more generally. But even before al-Sisi became president, the government that was formed after Morsi’s removal from office had adopted a series of measures directed at bringing the religious institutions under tight state monitoring. It had purged them of the Brotherhood’s members who had been appointed to key positions within the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqâf) during Morsi’s presidency, in an evident attempt to secure control of the mosques. President al-Sisi’s rhetoric on the need to reform, or even to “revolutionize,” Islam (which, moreover, is not limited to the speech he made on 1 January 2015) must therefore be read primarily in the context of the fight both against the Muslim Brothers, whom he himself has called the “godfather[s] of all terrorist organizations,” and against the groups now linked to the Islamic State that are threatening Egypt from Sinai or Libya.
The whole of the religious establishment that, in various ways, is subordinate to the state has mobilized (or has been mobilized) to carry out al-Sisi’s “revolution”: the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the Grand Mufti and al-Azhar mosque, whose exposition through the media and activism in the communications field have seen a sudden rise since the presidential speech. Up until now, the most zealous interpreter of the Egyptian president’s thinking has been the Minister of Religious Endowments, Muhammad Mokhtar Gom‘a. On 7 March 2015, the ulama who had participated in the conference held by the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, one of the ministry’s affiliates presided over by the same Gom‘a, sent al-Sisi a letter which stated, inter alia, “your call for a real renewal in religious discourse has not fallen and will not fall on deaf ears.”
The Republic’s Grand Mufti, Shawqi ‘Allam, has adopted a slightly lower profile although it is to him that we owe the definition of the Islamic State as a “satanic shoot.” As of January this year, the Mufti has a regular column in one of the main Egyptian daily newspapers, the Al-Masrî al-Yawm. The Mufti uses it to promote a particular idea of Islamic reform that is tied to Sufi spirituality, but without scorning more directly political interventions, including curious “theological” justifications both of the Egyptian army’s role in the fight against terrorism and of the Arab coalition involved in Yemen.
Explicitly entrusted by al-Sisi with the mission to renew Islam’s image and discourse, the al-Azhar mosque and its Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, deserve a separate treatment. Even before the president’s intervention, al-Azhar had committed itself unstintingly to condemning the Islamic State’s crimes and promoting reflection within the Muslim world about the factors that have fostered that group’s success. On various occasions, the Grand Imam has said that he is very worried about the endemic spread of extremism. Nevertheless (and unlike the other Egyptian Islamic authorities), al-Azhar’s most senior figures do not seem to see the need either for a renewal, or for a reform and least of all for a revolution. These are concepts for which they make little room in their public speeches. The basic idea is – rather apodictically – that “violent terrorist groups are extraneous to Islam in their dogma, law, ethics, history and civilization.” Thus the issue would not be Islam’s renewal or reform but, rather, the need to oppose and correct the distorted interpretations that have been introduced by “extremists” and “terrorists.” The keystone of such a project is condemnation of the practice of takfîr (anathema), which the Islamists use to disgrace and eventually eliminate “deviant” Muslims or ones who are too lukewarm.
The Intellectuals’ Criticism
It is precisely this approach that has been heavily criticized by some intellectuals, who consider it insufficient to declare that extremism is extraneous to Islam. In their opinion, there is a need to recognize that the violence being used by groups such as the Islamic State is rooted in certain elements that are, in actual fact, traceable to the Islamic tradition. Thus the reform or renewal under discussion cannot be limited to a piecemeal correction of some particularly problematic elements but requires a far wider and more radical reform.
One such intellectual is the analyst ‘Adel No‘mân, who regularly discusses religious issues from the pages of the Al-Masrî al-Yawm and Al-Watan newspapers. According to No‘mân, the most urgent task is that of subjecting the entire tradition to the test of reason and science. More specifically, there is a need to clean up the enormous mass of hadîth (prophetic traditions) that, during the course of Islamic history, have been sacralized and elevated to the status of revelation, with the result of impeding rather than aiding a correct understanding of the Qur’an’s content. No‘man maintains, for example, that the figure of the prophet Muhammad that emerges from the Qur’an is substantially different from the one derived from a reading of the tradition’s books, particularly Bukhârî’s collection of hadîth that, together with that of Muslim, is considered canonical par excellence by Sunni Muslims. This approach is fairly common amongst Islamic modernists: in Egypt, it had already found illustrious exponents in Muhammad Husayn Haykal (d. 1956) and Mahmûd Abû Rayya (d. 1970).
No‘mân is not asking that it should be the religious institutions to take the renewal upon themselves: historically, they have been incapable of such an undertaking. Renewal would lie, rather, with the state and the intellectuals. The institutions, and al-Azhar in particular, ought to concentrate instead on purifying the textbooks of methods that are “‘takfirist’ and contrary to reason and science.” Here, No‘mân has certain specific cases in mind:
Take the Book of Persuasion by Ibn Abî Shajjâ‘, for example. This is taught during the second cycle at al-Azhar. There you will find that the penalty to be applied to apostates or those who do not fulfil their prayer duty is death and that it is possible to eat both categories without having to cook their flesh. […] In the exams, students are required to give the correct answers about these things, no matter how much they may conflict with their own convictions or with logic. […] Let us return to what Muhammad ‘Abduh used to say: the road to success and progress is reason.
The argument put forward by the historian Sherif Younis is more structured. This he has developed in his twice-weekly column in the daily newspaper Al-Ahram. It operates on two different planes: on the one hand, Younis maintains that the whole of the Islamic tradition’s methodological system is problematic, particularly the legal part. Basing itself on an inequality between Muslims and others (and, within the Islamic universe, between men and women), it cannot fail to be in conflict with one of modernity’s cornerstones, namely, the universality of human rights, regardless of distinctions drawn on grounds of gender, race or religion. On the other, Younis sees the Islamist awakening of the 1960s and 1970s as the origin of the violence perpetrated by terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State. This reawakening, in its turn, would – partly – be one of the unexpected results of the antinomies caused by reformist thought at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, starting with its great protagonist, Muhammad ‘Abduh. In both cases, the explosion of fundamentalist violence today would only be the macroscopic and terrifying symptom of Islam’s deep malaise and its inability to renew itself. One may note a major difference between No‘mân and Younis on this point. For the former, as for various other intellectuals, Muslims can find a way out of the crisis by re-establishing the ties with the early twentieth-century reformist season that the various fundamentalisms and traditionalisms have severed. For Younis, on the other hand, that season is an integral part of the crisis.
To the voices and reflections of these intellectuals, the even more vehemently caustic criticisms and accusations of certain well-known television faces such as Ibrahim ‘Issa and Islam Beheri are to be added. Challenging the Islamic tradition, these intellectuals and commentators are also more or less directly criticizing those who, like al-Azhar, would see themselves as the guardians of that tradition. Thus not only do they not accept the image of the middle road, through which the mosque tends to represent itself, but they also accuse al-Azhar of complicity in the current crisis.
Al-Azhar’s Response. Back to the Past?
Naturally, the mosque’s most senior figures have not accepted these attempts to delegitimize it with particularly good grace. In a note issued last January, the Grand Imam al-Tayyeb denounced
the violent campaign against the noble al-Azhar’s methods and tradition […], conducted by representatives of those currents that would seek to transform the East into a bit of the West, making it conform to the latter’s civilization and values that are so disrespectful both of morality and of religion.
The “campaign” has nevertheless met with some (albeit minimal) success: it has convinced al-Azhar to undertake a partial revision of the textbooks used in its institutions. At the same time, however, the mosque has also taken steps to rebut the accusations made by the “Westernized” intellectuals. For example, its weekly, Sawt al-Azhar (“the Voice of al-Azhar”), dedicated a special supplement to a detailed refutation of the criticisms levelled against the Islamic tradition.
The clash between the mosque and intellectuals over Islam’s interpretation is nothing new, however. Something similar occurred during the period bridging the 1980s and 1990s, when al-Azhar’s ulama had re-found a certain freedom of expression after the long silence into which Nasser’s regime had forced them. Exploiting the wider room for manoeuvre that Mubarak’s regime had granted them for anti-Islamist purposes, the religious dignitaries therefore sought to exercise “a power of censorship that the law [did] not grant them […] but that they exercise[d] in fact, thereby providing evidence of a growing interventionism in the context of intellectual and artistic output.” Called to act as the arbiters between the Islamists and the secularists, the Cairo mosque’s ulama ended up finding against the latter. The most dramatic event from those years is linked to the name of Farag Foda. In 1986, this multifaceted intellectual and activist (he was an agronomist, journalist and human rights militant) ended up being targeted by al-Azhar for having come down in favour of the secular state. The religious figures’ growing opposition culminated in the refutation of his thinking by an informal group of ulama, the nadwat al-‘ulamâ’ (the ulama’s seminar group) and, ultimately, in his assassination on 7 June 1992, at the hand of militant Islamists. The nadwa (to whom the secularist intellectuals attributed moral responsibility for the murder) condemned the assassination but declared at the same time that Foda deserved to die (even if not in that way) since he was an unbeliever (kâfir) and an apostate (murtadd). The sad story of Nasr Hâmid Abû Zayd, who was forced into exile after his condemnation for apostasy, also began with al-Azhar’s criticisms of his publications about the Qur’an.
Not a Muslim Luther, but……
So is there a risk of this history repeating itself? Not necessarily, because al-Sisi is not Mubarak, today’s al-Azhar is not the al-Azhar of the early 1990s and both the Egyptian situation and the international one have changed. It is true that Mubarak, too, had pitted the official religious authorities against the Islamists, but he had at the same time carried out an unscrupulous policy of “divide and rule,” with the aim of acting as mediator between Islamists, ulama and secularists. Thus, whilst he was mobilizing the ulama against the Islamists, he was at the same time facilitating the entry of many Islamists within the ranks at al-Azhar. Al-Sisi seems much more determined to keep the Islamist forces under tight control, even if his relationship with the Salafis who supported Morsi’s removal cannot fail to have an impact on his political actions. Furthermore, no one can rule out the possibility that the President has an interest in keeping alive a nucleus of Islamist contestation that is sufficiently lively to provide him with permanent legitimation as guarantor of the state’s security.
So far, the “al-Sisi doctrine” has been working at two levels: on the one hand, a minimal modification of some of the particularly thorny teachings of the Islamic tradition and, on the other, a greater co-ordination between the institutions that have the power to influence the content of religious discourse (al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti and the Ministries of Awqâf, Education, Information and Culture, respectively). Under Mubarak, conversely, these institutions had acted in a piecemeal fashion and with very different stances and goals on a spectrum that ranged from liberalism to Islamism.
Al-Azhar, for its part, is maintaining a conservative position that is resistant to any and every truly incisive form of reform. Nevertheless, its commitment to fight the takfîr ought to prevent it playing the role of censor with the same rigidity and intransigence it has shown in the past. The recent case of Islam Beheri constitutes an important testing ground from this point of view. In April 2014, Beheri ended up at the centre of an extremely heated debate because he had criticized al-Azhar and the Islamic tradition in his television programme “With Islam”. Beheri’s arguments are not very different from those expressed in the press by intellectuals such as ‘Adel No‘mân, but his polemical tone is much more extreme. Al-Azhar responded first by agreeing to two of its university professors debating publicly with Beheri and then by asking the competent authority to suspend further broadcasting of Beheri’s programme. But if the mosque has reverted to resorting to the old censorship system, probably interpreting very broadly the role of “fundamental point of reference for the religious sciences and Islamic issues” accorded it under article 7 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014, it has also been very careful not to cross the anathema “Rubicon”: it repudiated a Sufi sheikh who had in fact been calling for Beheri’s death sentence. Al-Sisi, on the other hand, has declared that reform is the responsibility of institutions, not individuals; thereby implicitly revealing the limits of the “revolution” he himself has called for.
What al-Azhar’s real influence may be remains to be assessed, moreover. It is true that its institutes and university train imams who subsequently preach in mosques throughout the world. At the same time, however, it is subject to the competition from other – frequently less “moderate” – voices, that seem to have a far greater following than its own.
In short and pace those observers who are enthusing over al-Sisi’s words, Islam still has not found its Luther. But are we so sure that it really is a Luther that Islam needs? The idea was launched by al-Afghânî over a century ago and many candidates have come forward since then. Not one of them seems to have met the requirements, however. Well then, if we want to continue the parallel with Christianity, why not hope for the appearance of a Newman (the tradition as a living reality and therefore capable of developing whilst remaining faithful to its origins) or a Maritain (the possibility of distinguishing, without nostalgia, the religion from its historical forms)? In this sense, there are very many “germ ideas” that are offering themselves to Islamic religious thought and to an interreligious dialogue that aspires to something more than mere declarations of principle.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
 See Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate. The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Analysis Paper n. 19 (March 2015), http://brook.gs/1wXBrI0.
 For an opinion on the scope and limitations of this approach, see Martino Diez, “Terroristi o miscredenti: la vera trappola dell’Islam,” Avvenire, 28 February 2015.
 See the article by Sherif Younis in this same edition of the journal.
 Malika Zeghal, Gardiens de l’Islam. Les oulémas d’ Al Azhar dans l’Egypte contemporaine, (Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 1996), p. 306.
 Ibid., p. 330.
 There is a striking difference between the number of fans on al-Azhar’s Facebook page (almost 24,000 as of mid-April this year) and those on the pages of the World Union of Muslim Ulama (more than 1,200,000). The latter is presided over by al-Qaradawi, ideologist of reference for the Muslim Brothers and sworn enemy of the Grand Imam al-Tayyeb ever since the latter supported Morsi’s removal. The data does not constitute scientific evidence, but it is significant.
To cite this article
Michele Brignone, “In Search of a Reformer for Islam”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 75-82.
Michele Brignone, “In Search of a Reformer for Islam”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/search-reformer-islam.