There have been news reports that Al-Azhar University and Dar Al-Ifta Al-Misriyyah [Egyptian Islamic Research Centre] have prepared a list of about 50 scholars and clerics permitted to issue fatwas [religious verdicts] on Egyptian satellite channels. In another version of the story, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council for the Regulation of Media, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, agreed with Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta after several meetings to “limit the fatwas issued via satellite television and media to only 50 clerics.” This measure, apparently, aims to limit the issue of fatwas on Egyptian television and to put an end to the “massive chaos caused by unusual religious edicts issued by imams on satellite channels.” That’s according to a member of the Council, Hatem Zakaria.
The list is more or less limited to Al-Azhar shaikhs and scholars, with a few not affiliated with the institution, such as the Salafist and independent shaikhs. Some from Al-Azhar who are not closely tied to the current government, such as the well-known head of the Academy of the Arabic Language, Shaikh Hassan Al-Shafei, are also included.
It seems ironic that the list does not include some of the scholars and clerics known for their support of the current government, including the comparative jurisprudence Professor at Al-Azhar University, Dr Saad Al-Din Al-Hilali, who once compared General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and his former Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim to prophets; a member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, Shaikh Khaled Al-Gendy; Al-Azhar comparative jurisprudence Professor, Mabrouk Attiyeh; and former Dean of Al-Azhar University Girls’ College, Suad Saleh. Nor does it include the dozens of Salafist shaikhs who have supported and still support the current government, even as it marginalises and excludes them, and limits their activities.
This news is in line with the new draft bill being discussed in the Egyptian parliament regarding public fatwas. It was prepared and approved by the Religious Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives. The bill limits the issue of fatwas to four parties: the Council of Senior Scholars, Dar Al-Ifta Al Misriyyah, Azhar Islamic Research Academy and the Fatwa Department in the Awqaf Ministry. No one working outside of these four institutions can issue a fatwa; if they do, they will be imprisoned and fined.
The organising of fatwas in Egypt seems to be important and necessary, especially in light of the chaos that dominates the religious and satellite sectors in Egypt. However, determining who is and is not entitled to issue a fatwa, especially in the public arena, is considered another stage in the state’s attempt to control, not only the religious sector generally, but also the scholars and shaikhs. While this issue has been existing and known for a long time, especially after President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised Al-Azhar and took control of its endowments, it has become more apparent in the past few years. Perhaps the tension between the current Shaikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi reflects the tension between the state, rather the political system, and the university.
Since the establishment of Dar Al-Ifta Al-Misriyyah in 1895, fatwas have never been limited to the institution or its shaikhs; it is true that it has become the official body to issue fatwas, but it has always been one of many sources in this regard. Al-Azhar’s scholars and shaikhs have historically had the right to issue fatwas freely, not least due to the diversity of its doctrines and approaches, which have been and still are a characteristic of the university’s jurisprudence school.
As is the case in many official Egyptian institutions, the “list of 50” must have passed through the “security filter” and the loyalty of those chosen would certainly have been tested in order to reveal their political backgrounds and positions. This confirms that the issue is not related to the fatwa chaos and the desire to limit and organise such verdicts, as much as it is related to controlling the fatwas and guiding them, as well as those issuing them. This is not the first time that the government has interfered in such matters, as many clerics and scholars have been arrested after issuing unusual opinions about religious affairs.
Furthermore, Al-Azhar and the Awqaf Ministry both possess administrative authority allowing it to stop some shaikhs and clerics not only from issuing fatwas, but also from preaching in mosques and commenting on certain issues. However, this is the first time that the right to issue a fatwa has been given exclusively to specific, named shaikhs, while anyone else doing so is criminalised.
The problem here is not only the security and political control over the issue of fatwas, but also the criteria for choosing the shaikhs and scholars entitled to do so, which is not without the application of the “carrot and stick” logic. Hence, the basis is not the nature of the fatwas being issued, but rather how supportive those issuing them are of the government. The problem becomes worse when the issue is used to settle professional and functional scores within religious institutions, which appear to be in competition with each other.
In other words, determining the number of those who have the authority and right to issue fatwas is not only a violation of the concept of jurisprudence and religious renewal, which the current government claims to have adopted and defended, but is also the establishment of a new religious level and group based on allegiance and subordination to the state. This creates a new priesthood tailored to the government and in service of its interests.
This article first appeared in Arabic on 20 November 2017 on Al-Araby Al-Jadeed