Al-Azhar reform draft law stirs controversy

News article, posted 01.10.2012, from Egypt, in:
Noha El-Hennawy
Al-Azhar reform draft law stirs controversy (Photo: Al-Masry Al-Youm)

Media sources in Egypt revealed information on major articles from the new proposed al-Azhar law proposed by a committee headed by the Grand Imam Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, Sheikh of al-Azahr. The new law includes major changes that would create a revolution in the structure of al-Azhar.  The most change is the re-establishment of the Senior Scholars Authority, which has been abrogated since President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time. During Nasser’s time, he replaced the Senior Scholars Authority with the Islamic Research Academy in order to bring the religious authority under his control. Under the new law, the Senior Scholars Authority will have higher status and authority than the Islamic Research Academy. “It is expected to have the final say in controversial public matters that require a religious opinion,” said Naser Farid Wassel, a former Mufti and member of the Islamic Research Academy. According to the law, the newly formed authority will include 40 members. Each one of them should hold a PhD degree, be known for his piety, be at least 60 years old, and be committed to the doctrine of the Sunnis and Jama’a. The proposed law also will set the retirement age of the Sheikh al-Azahr at 80 years rather than allowing the position to be held for life. Based on media reports, it is unclear whether the proposed law will include mosques and Islamic institutions under al-Azhar’s authority. 

The new law will end the old system of having the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar chosen by the president. He will be elected by the Senior Scholars Authority with no involvement from the state’s authority. The proposed retirement age and the process of electing the Grand Imam have angered some young Imams at al-Azhar. Rabei Marzouq, a 36-year-old preacher from Cairo, said “the retirement age for the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar cannot be 80. When a person gets older, he does not maintain the same concentration span. He loses the ability to administer matters.” Marzouq accused the committee of adapting former president Hosni Mubarak’s politics when he revised the law to concede his place to his son. He added that “the minimum age [for the members of the Senior Scholars Authority] should go down to 45,” calling to the current academy "a shelter for the elderly.” The committee is preparing to send the bill to the military council for approval.  

The first rejection of the new law by Islamists came from Dr. Abdul Rahman al-Birr, the Mufti of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Dean of the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University. Dr. al-Birr said, “I see no reason for the bill of law to the military council, since its mission is close to the end.” He added, “We were expecting that the proposed materials would be discussed with all of al-Azhar members and, by not doing that, the whole process is illegitimate.” Dr. al-Birr said that al-Azhar should not rush in implementing the law before the Egyptian parliament starts its work because it is against the law. 

Dr. Yousry Hammad, the media spokesman of the Salafi party, al-Nour said, “All the state agencies should wait on issuing new laws until the parliament has its first meeting, and that includes al-Azhar.” Hamaad said that al-Azhar should not fear that the Salafists and the Brotherhood will delay implementation of the law because during this period al-Azhar seeks to regain its leading role in the society.    

The reform draft came out after a major demonstration by a thousand Imams and preachers of al-Azhar calling for the full independence of al-Azhar, financially and administratively, from the government, and for the Grand Imam of al-Azhar to be elected by al-Azhar scholars. The demonstrators marched on February 27, 2011 from al-Azhar Mosque to the Military Headquarters in Cairo.