An Egyptian intellectual prepared a document for al-Azhar on the renewal of religious discourse, a debated subject in Egypt. The text tackles sensitive issues and, partly for this reason, has not been made public

This article was published in Oasis 25. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:57:30

After the 2011 Revolution, al-Azhar produced a series of documents: On the Future of Egypt (2011), On the system of fundamental freedoms (2012) and On women’s rights (2013). Edited by a group of intellectuals and ulama, the documents address some of the keenly debated questions of Egyptian society, and outlines a consensus between religious institutions and secular thinkers.


In January 2015, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi vigorously called for the reform of religious discourse. From the end of 2015 on, a group of intellectuals and ulama gathered at al-Azhar to produce a new document devoted to this question. However, despite three re-draftings of the text, the consensus needed for its publication has not yet been reached. In January 2017, Salah Fadl, an intellectual who had been commissioned to produce the first draft of the document, decided to force the issue, and published the text in a book under the title The al-Azhar Documents. What was published and what was not.


Below we give a translation of the latest version of the document. It offers a lucid and courageous diagnosis of the current state of society in Egypt. The solution offered in the document follows the line of reasoning pioneered by Muhammad ‘Abduh at the end of the nineteenth century, according to which Islam is perfectly compatible with modernity because it anticipates the latter’s values. As Abduh’s position remains controversial, it is no surprise that the document has failed so far to win the necessary consensus. The deeper question, however, is whether the search for certain aspects of modernity in early Islam can really resolve the religious and theological crisis Islamic societies are currently grappling with [M.D.]



The Renewal of the Religious Discourse – Third Draft


With reference to the foundations of the Islamic middle-path (wasatī) thought which al-Azhar has adopted as a method and a goal, respectful of the civilizational achievements that modern Arab culture has actively advocated, and being aware of the need to encourage critical and scientific thinking and to promote the development of a system that is predicated on noble spiritual values, a group made up of leading ulama and highly eminent intellectuals came together at al-Azhar at the kind invitation of the Grand Imam, Shaykh al-Azhar. The group set itself the task of examining the contemporary problems whose destabilising effects the Arab Islamic umma needs to confront. A number of challenges stand out as particularly noteworthy:


- The legitimising of killing in the name of religion and the perpetration of terrorism by casting anathema and inciting popular panic on the basis of deliberately misconstrued ideas, whose real but hidden purpose is to perpetuate a campaign of destruction that seeks to drive a wedge between the peoples and dissipate their energies through devastating sectarian civil wars.


- A backsliding from the civilizational progress achieved by the Islamic world and humanity and an attempt to return to times when slavery was practised, human beings were considered as spoils of war, human trafficking was practiced and innocents were lashed and slaughtered in order to terrorise people whose only desire is for peace.


- The dissemination of slogans from the pseudo-caliphate, the aim of which is to sow discord (fitna), tear countries apart and label as Islamic realities that are contrary to the values of brotherhood, equality and democracy.


- The exploitation of certain elements of the Islamic legal tradition, which dates back and properly belongs to ancient times, with a view to deforming the religious discourse, deflecting it from its supreme goals (maqāsid ‘ulyā) and misappropriating it for anti-Islamic purposes.


Ulama and intellectuals have engaged in constructive dialogue in a bid to forge a common and principled point of reference for the renewal of the religious discourse. The renewal will enable Islam to tackle the challenges it is facing, and protect Islamic thought from dangerous outcomes. It will revamp the creative power of Islam, which in the past has contributed so much to the development of human civilisation, and will help build the future for new generations. At the conclusion of their dialogue and exchange of ideas, the scholars and intellectuals issued the following recommendations.


1. The concept of “renewal” should be regarded as in keeping with divine law (sunnat Allāh), which God decreed for mankind when He made mankind His vicar on earth, and entrusted mankind with the task of inhabiting the earth and building civilisation. This truth is clearly stated in the Holy Qur’an: “He has raised you from the earth and settled you in it” (11:61). It is a truth that is also confirmed by the noble prophetic tradition that refers to the “Renewer” of the religion whom God sends at the beginning of each century,[1] for renewal is intrinsic to the very nature of life, which is the opposite of sterility, immobility and death. Islamic thought, in all its manifestations, has always honoured renewal, so much so, indeed, that renewal and Islam can be considered coterminous – always on the understanding that renewal by no means signifies the renunciation of the solid and unchanging foundations of the faith, as some conservatives mistakenly believe. Quite the contrary, renewal leads to a deepening of our consciousness of the universal goals and the principles inspiring the rules that regulate our mutable lives. Renewal also means deriving the maximum benefit from the historical experiences of Islamic peoples and from the cultural bounty produced by their ingenuity that, in Renaissance times, served as a beacon to the world, and left traces in the material and moral heritage of humanity that are visible to this day.


2. Since renewal cannot be achieved by breaking with the past, we need to make good use of the accomplishments of the great renewers of Islam, especially those of the modern era, starting with the pioneering sheikh Rifā‘a al-Tahtāwī[2] and his wise approach to absorbing the shock of modernity. We should also refer to other figures such as imam Muhammad ‘Abduh,[3] who underscored the universality of Islam and pointed out how the latter anticipated the contemporary era in affirming its core values. Likewise, we should attend to the thoughts of the great sheikhs Mustafā and ‘Alī’ Abd al-Rāziq,[4] to ‘Abbās Mahmūd al-‘Aqqād,[5] Taha Husayn[6] and sheikh Shaltūt,[7] heed the advice of other chief exponents of Islamic faith, thought and culture, and open our minds to the thinkers, both past and present, of the intellectual renaissance (Nahda). The results of this recent constructive approach to the religion should be seen as a step towards development and modernisation. The aim is to consolidate the unchanging dogmatic elements of the faith while at the same time effecting needful changes to the mutable legal norms. Our purpose is to delineate new guidelines that are appropriate to the spirit of the age and capable of responding to the upheavals of our time. Through renewal, the supreme interests of the umma, as determined by the Islamic community itself, can prevail in accordance with the accumulative nature of knowledge. With the exception of the teachings of the early imams [the rightly guided ones], the interpretative efforts (ijtihādāt) of past centuries should not be considered as binding for modern thinking, for they are limited by the historical circumstances in which they were framed and by the specific needs of their day. Each age has its own gnoseological paradigms through which it understands and interprets the holy texts, and strives to apply them both in the interests of and for the good of the umma.


3. The fundamental principles set forth in the al-Azhar Documents that have been jointly drafted in recent years by the ulama and intellectuals of the umma should be considered as the latest link in this chain of renewal. The documents identifies civil (madanī) constitutional governance as the essential principle of a state that cherishes justice, freedom and equality, supersedes the idea of the historical caliphate, and embraces the concepts of citizenship, social justice, care for the marginalised, and policies conducive to growth. The same is true of the document that deals with the system of freedoms, which includes the freedom of belief, opinion and expression, the freedom to pursue scientific and academic research, and the freedom of literary and artistic creation. The documents, which have met with unanimous appreciation in the Arab world and internationally, should be seen as a step in the right direction. Throughout the entire process of discussion and debate, we should remain mindful of the content of these documents, which seek to create a climate favourable to the renewal we so badly need.


4. We must resolutely resist the senseless waves of indiscriminate excommunication (takfīr), which allow anyone to accuse of apostasy those with whom they happen to disagree and to justify the spilling of their blood and the confiscation of their goods. This practice contravenes the fundamentals of the religion and its reliable texts; it is an attack on the rights of citizens, and it gives succour to deviant groups hungry for power and keen to spread corruption on earth. The time has come to declare the age of takfīr (anathema) closed and to usher in the age of tafkīr (thinking) in its stead, according to a principle enshrined in Islamic law, affirmed by great legal scholars, and invoked by imam Muhammad ‘Abduh. This principle requires us to respect diversity of opinion, even when an opinion seems to contain a large share of unbelief. It implies acceptance of international agreements and treaties that recognise the existence of a plurality of beliefs and inclinations and reject the practice of instituting inquisitorial courts to rule on matters of dogma and conscience. This can thwart the ambitions of those who have appointed themselves as protectors of the people, those self-declared censors of others’ opinions, who exploit the sacredness of religion to violate human freedom. Indeed, long before the appearance of any international documents to this effect, Islam identified participation with one’s own fatherland, the embrace of equality and the rejection of ethnic, religious, sectarian and gender discrimination as being among the most constant and vital elements of its message, as attested by the Qur’anic texts and by the noble prophetic tradition. For Islam, the violation of these principles constitutes an attack on the true religion, and is a crime to be punished under civil law.


5. It is necessary to organise academic conferences dedicated to the study both of the legislative systems of Arab Islamic societies and of how these systems developed in such a way that they could give rise to civilised societies. We need to begin from a comprehensive understanding of root causes, identify the conditions that we want to see realised and the obstacles that need to be removed so that we may rebut the arguments of the preachers of excess and extremism who accuse us of not enforcing sharia, particularly as regards certain forms of corporal punishment (hudūd). These preachers ignore Islamic philosophy and Islamic philosophy of law, and disregard the difference between the unchanging principles of sharia affirmed by the texts and objective acts of judgement that take account of the economic and social conditions of the umma and the aims and objectives of the law. Already in the early Islamic period, acknowledgement of this difference led to the renunciation of corporal punishment in dubious cases, to the suspension of some forms of this punishment and, except for murder cases, to their replacement with imprisonment or other discretionary penalties imposed by the judge. These reforms were designed to preserve human dignity in accordance with those international agreements whose provisions Islam anticipated and was the first to adopt. These agreements prohibit slavery in all its forms. They forcefully repudiate the actions of extremist groups that take women as slaves, slaughter children, enforce exemplary punishments, and pursue ethnic cleansing, and they reject their claims that these practices are derived from Islamic laws and customs. The ulama of the Muslim community need to champion the concept of creative interpretation and defend the principles of tolerance in religion and mercy in legislation. They need to be keenly alert to the developments taking place in the contemporary world and be prepared to adapt as necessary to its realities, without repudiating the sacredness of the texts or the legitimacy of exegesis, and without renouncing our belief in the need for a renewal of understanding. It is a matter of pre-eminent necessity that we elevate the condition of the Islamic peoples by channelling their energies into growth and development in the sciences, arts and literature. We must make a serious effort to participate in the scientific competition between civilisations, and enter the age of knowledge, production and progress. By such an approach can social justice be achieved, and the poor freed from the grip of hunger and deprivation. In this way, our societies will be in a position to set themselves strategic goals such as quality education, effective health care and lower unemployment, rather than trading in religion and competing with one another to see who is most extreme, and thus causing our people to believe that they have strayed from the path of their faith and its rules. Whatever Muslims find good for elevating their status and for progress is good also in the eyes of God, as long as it does not trespass beyond the unchanging fundamentals that He has decreed.


6. The renewal of religious discourse requires an overhaul of Egyptian educational curricula so as to unify, to the extent possible, the diverse elements of reason and the moral pillars of the Egyptian personality. We need to organise conferences, carry out research and propose measures if we are to cure ourselves of the schizophrenia caused by the mutual estrangement between our teaching methods, with religious institutes on one side and civilian schools and foreign institutions on the other. Each of these schools engenders a very different sort of thinking. It is therefore essential to minimise the differences between the teaching methods by gradually integrating them into a comprehensive and homogeneous system of instruction that, without erasing pluralism, ensures some degree of harmony and consistency in the way the basics of language, scientific thinking and culture are taught. We need to decide upon which common denominators are necessary for the preservation of our national identity. We must give free rein to the creative energies of our students, set spiritual values on a firm footing, and open up to the new technologies of our day and to the tools of success. Serious measures and sincere efforts are needed to raise the level of education, improve the organisation of our centres of learning, offer our students the opportunity to acquire the scientific and practical skills that they need, and open up a productive channel of communication with the worlds of science and academia.


7. It is also necessary to renew the religious discourse and to re-educate preachers, or anyone who delivers sermons in mosques, by enrolling them in specialised faculties where they can learn to take a sound scientific and methodological approach to their work, and to ground their discourse on solid foundations. They should be regularly instructed so that they adhere to a middle-path religious thought and steer clear of extremism, excess, and fanaticism. Their horizons need to be broadened through dialogue with sociologists, economists, writers, artists and people of culture so that they can digest the fruits of cultural development and cleanse their discourse of dangerous myths and ideas that threaten security and social peace. They should be encouraged to engage in scientific research into Islamic cultural history and to protect the idea of coexistence and the spirit of citizenship, along with the values ​​that necessarily flow from these. Nor should we overlook their material condition, for we need to make sure they can resist the siren song of extremist organisations. Contests should be organised to test and recognise excellence in the reading of the most important renewers of religious thought. Such contests could spread a positive spirit of competition and facilitate receptiveness to the ideas of these thinkers. Aspiring preachers should be encouraged to write and publish the best of their research and conference papers, and steps should be taken to favour the circulation of these publications among all their peers.


To reach the goal of developing and renewing the religious discourse, the following steps are indispensable:

a)      The fruitful collaboration between the great ulama and the intellectuals needs to continue. Scholars need to set up scientific and academic bodies that will be responsible for countering discourses that deform Islamic concepts and technical terms such as jihad, “the Abode of War” (Dār al-Harb) and “caliphate”, so as to refute the jurisprudential legitimacy of barbarism and destruction, and expose their methodological and scientific vacuity.


b)      The media must be invited to present an accurate and objective view of matters relating to the religious discourse through reasoned debate. We must put an end to the antagonistic mode of argument that involves accusations of apostasy and leads to the heightening of tensions, and make sure that political differences are not allowed to interfere with issues of faith, thought and culture.


c)      Textbooks in every subject and of every level need to be thoroughly and comprehensively reviewed so that they comply with these guidelines. This will entail introducing new methodological approaches that narrow the gap between religious, civil and foreign-based schooling, particularly at elementary level.


d)      Al-Azhar must renew its efforts to encourage rapprochement between the various Islamic legal schools and establish a common set of ground rules and principles among the various sects to prevent conflict. The way to do this is through the organisation of academic conferences among the religious leaders of various communities, also with a view to depriving the enemies of the Islamic community of one of their weapons of attack.


e)      We should exhort the Ministry of Culture to publish easily accessible sets of works of the pioneering authors of religious renewal and hold symposia on the subject, while steering clear of controversial issues. The umma must speak out with one voice against deviant extremist tendencies.


 (Taken from: Salah Fadl, Wathā’iq al-Azhar. Mā zahar minhā wa-mā batan, Dār badā’il, al-Qāhira 2017, pp. 122-129)


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] According to some hadīths, God sends a “Renewer” of Islam at the beginning of each century. [This and the subsequent notes are from the editor].

[2] Rifā‘a al-Tahtāwī (1801-1873), a student at al-Azhar, was sent on a mission to Paris between 1826 and 1831. Deeply impressed by French civilisation, he wrote about his time in Paris, and sought to introduce many European ideas to Egypt, notably through the translation school of which he was the director.

[3] The great innovator of Egyptian Islam, who lived between 1849 and 1905. One of his famous texts on reform was translated in Oasis No. 19 (2014), pp. 72-75.

[4] Mustafā ‘Abd al-Rāziq (1885-1947), a disciple of Muhammad ‘Abduh, was an Islamic philosopher who became Shaykh al-Azhar from 1945 until his death. His brother Alī ‘Abd al-Rāziq (1888-1966), also a former student at al-Azhar, was removed from his duties for arguing that the caliphate was not religiously necessary and for advocating the separation of politics and religion.

[5] An autodidact, Abbas al-‘Aqqād (1889-1964) was an intellectual and a successful writer. He developed his own peculiar vision of religion as being essentially a spiritual matter, and outlined his position in a series of well-known books, among them The Genius of Mohammed and The Genius of the Messiah.

[6] Taha Husayn (1889-1973) was the leading Egyptian intellectual of the twentieth century. Originally enrolled in al-Azhar, he left the institute to attend the newly founded University of Cairo. After receiving his doctorate from the Sorbonne, he returned home and became a firm supporter of the “Europeanness of Egypt’s”. As Minister of Education, he introduced compulsory schooling. An excerpt from his autobiography is reproduced in Oasis No. 9 (2009), pp. 58-63.

[7] Mahmūd Shaltūt (1893-1963) was Shaykh al-Azhar from 1958 until his death. A reformer, he tried to heal the schism between the Sunnis and Shi’ites.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Salah Fadl, “The Unpublished Text on Islam’s Reform”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 63-69.

Online version:
Salah Fadl, “The Unpublished Text on Islam’s Reform”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: