Islam and the State under Nasser

After a brief period of power contestation, Gamal Abdel-Nasser emerged triumphant and assumed the presidency in 1954, announcing that Muhamed Naguib was relieved from the post. The Free Officers moved quickly after the revolution to establish their authority. The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) served as the executive body of the government in the immediate aftermath of the government. The monarchy and the 1923 Constitution were abolished, the parliament dissolved, and political parties banned. The RCC established a mass party that it called the Liberation Rally, which was replaced later by the National Union, followed by the Arab Socialist Union.

The various constitutions and declarations issued during the Nasser era, as accessed on the website of the Information Center of the Shura Council, initiated some revolutionary changes which including abolishing the monarchy and banning political parties. Nasser’s regime also employed religion as a tool for mobilizing domestic and regional support for his Arab socialist agenda and foreign policy endeavors. Overall, Nasser’s regime had a nuanced perception regarding the role of Islam in the state. On one hand, the regime wanted to centralize power and protect the revolution from potential adversaries, including the Muslim Brothers. However, Islam remained an important source of identity for mobilizing the masses behind the Arab Socialist project domestically and regionally.

Nasser used the official religious establishment, Al-Azhar, as a vehicle to legitimate Arab socialism. For instance, in his The Philosophy of the Revolution, published in 1955, Nasser referred to Islam more in the context of Egypt’s Islamic heritage than as a foundation for law and government. However, he chose Al-Azhar’s pulpit to address the Egyptians during the Tripartite Invasion against Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel in 1956. Although Nasser’s policies put the religious establishment under the direct control of the state, he used both the Arab and Islamic elements of Egypt’s heritage for mobilizing support for his policies and leadership, domestically and regionally.

One of Nasser’s first steps to undermine the independence of Al-Azhar was through the 1952 land reform laws. These laws put all the waqf lands, which grew since the time of Muhammad Ali to represent some 12% of all arable lands, under the control of the new Ministry of Endowments (Wizaret Al-Awqaf). The Ministry of Endowment gained control over mosques, a practice which continued since Nasser’s time until the present. Law 462 of 1955 abolished the Sharia Courts, along with all other Christian ecclesiastical and Jewish rabbinical) communal courts (milliyah).  While the law moved matters of personal status to civil courts and out of the hands of religious courts, personal status law in civil courts remained grounded in religion and there was no secular personal status law in Egypt.

Law 103 of 1961 reorganized the institution of Al-Azhar. The law placed Al-Azhar under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Endowments. Under this law, the President of the Republic came to control important appointments in the institution, including the appointment of the Grand Shaikh of Al-Azhar. Furthermore, the High Council of Al-Azhar was reorganized to include three government-appointed "experts in university education" and repre-sentatives from the ministries of Endowments, Education, Justice, and Treasury. Finally, the law expanded Al-Azhar to include more secular colleges such as medicine, law, and engineering.

Next: Islam and the State under Sadat