Islam and the State under Sadat

When Sadat came to power, he had to deal with Nasser’s continued popularity, which persisted despite the defeat of 1967. In order to counterbalance the influence of Nasserist and leftist groups, Sadat moved toward encouraging Islamist groups, from the Muslim Brothers to other radical groups. In Islamist circles, the 1967 defeat was portrayed as God’s punishment for the departure from religion, the secularism of Nasser’s regime, and the persecution of Islamists. Sadat put on a public front of religiosity calling himself “the pious president” and his state “the state of religion and science.”

Unlike the numerous constitutional declarations of the Nasser era, Sadat issued one constitution in 1971, which became the permanent constitution during his era and that of his predecessor Mubarak, with only a number of amendments. In the original Constitution, Article 2 stated: “Islam is the religion of the state, the Arabic language is its official language, and the principles of Islamic Shari’a are a main source of legislation.” This article was amended on May 22, 1980 to become: “Islam is the religion of the state, the Arabic language is its official language, and the principles of Islamic Shari’a are the main source of legislation.” Now the principles of Shari’a became the main source of law, instead of one among a number of other main sources.

Like Nasser, Sadat made use of the state’s dominance over al-Azhar to justify his policies; he secured fatwas to justify overturning his predecessor’s land reform policies, the infitah (open door) policy, and the Nasr-era peace treaty with Israel. He further increased the influence of the state over the religious establishment by setting up a network of district offices in all governorates to select imams for state mosques and monitor their activities. The committees were composed of local directors of Al-Azhar Institute and the Ministry of Endowments, and the director of education and social affairs, selects. These committees were responsible for selecting imams from among candidates aspiring for this post. Those who are approved by the committee are granted a license to preach and are assigned to a specific mosque. Preachers of all private mosques are similarly required to gain a similar license from the Ministry of Endowments. The High Council for Islamic Preaching has the right to decide on topics to be covered in state-controlled mosques. This council is a district committee composed of the under-secretary of the Ministry of Endowments, the director of mosques, the Director of Fatwa in al-Azhar, and senior ulema.

In the early 1970s, Sadat released political prisoners and opposition parties were allowed to operate beginning in 1976. However, tensions between the state and religious groups mounted. Sadat deposed and exiled Pope Shenouda and clashed with a number of Muslim scholars. In September 1981, a month before his assassination, he rounded up and imprisoned more than 1500 intellectuals, journalists, Muslim and Coptic figures, and politicians from all ideological camps.

Next: Islam and the State Under Mubarak