Calls for refining jurisprudential heritage generally dominate the constant debate on the renewal of religious discourse. Religious discourse has been the subject of many conflicts between the regime and the grand sheikh of al-Azhar, following accusations directed against the latter for failing to fulfill his role in this regard.
For decades up until the writing of this article, cultural and identity themes have shaped the perception of religious agency in Egypt. Notions of the reactionary, conservative, enlightenment, and modernity have dominated the discussion over religious actors, including the official religious institutions.
This article argues that traditional religious and theological themes, such as religious discourse, are no longer adequate to guide an understanding of ongoing religious agency in Egypt. Therefore, this article aims to shed light on the more socio-political factors that the religious map has recently begun to revolve around in Egypt.
Since 2013 onward, the official religious institutions and related actors have emerged as the dominant forces in the religious field. Hence, this piece chooses to address the positions of two religious trends with regard to their official connections and how social and political elements influence their course of actions. Although they both are affiliated to the al-Azhar school, the first one is a relatively society oriented trend, and the other is a state-aligned group.
Although both groups move in different circles and occasionally their relationship becomes tense, they hold independent positions from the state. This is true even for the state-aligned group, which holds genuine political stances that steer its alignment with the state.
Despite being socially and politically different, neither of our compared groups dissent in their discourse and references, which rely unapologetically on al-Azhar’s centuries-old conservative jurisprudential and theological heritage and Sufism. Two incidents prove this concurrence. The first was the “oral divorce” question, which caused great strife between Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb (grand sheikh of al-Azhar) and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, when the latter demanded that oral divorce not be registered as legitimate. The Council of Senior Scholars (CSC) issued a joint statement to announce adherence to the traditional jurisprudence which counts the verbal divorce. Interestingly, the council is a sub-body of al-Azhar which incorporates scholars with various affiliations, including those aligned with the state, such as Sheikh Ali Gomaa. Gomaa went public to assert this traditional insight on oral divorce. Later, in an interview, al-Tayyeb himself supported the decision of the council.
The second incident came following the amendment of the inheritance law in Tunisia, which caused a great deal of social controversy. Sheikh Gomaa made a declaration that adhered to the Islamic teachings that are articulated in Egyptian laws, an opinion that was also shared by the official Islamic institutions (Dar al-Ifta, the Council of Senior Scholars, and the Endowments Ministry).
What Comes after Religious Discourse?
The past eventful years since 2011, and especially after 2013, have delineated divisions between different religious groups. The first line of division is the relationship with the regime. Since 2013, as the head of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb and his institution preferred to remain distant from the post-2013 regime and from politics in general, by refraining from becoming involved in political events or sliding into the politicized discourse that attacks political Islamist actors, i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood. They limit themselves to national consensual issues such as combating extremism and convicting violence. This has caused tension with the regime, which does not accept such a choice. It is hard to trace any indicators that match this stance under the Mubarak regime, as Tayyeb was appointed as the sheikh of al-Azhar in April 2010, less than a year before the January uprising. The only incident which might be linked to this shift toward staying out of politics was the resignation of Tayyeb from the National Democratic Party upon his appointment as the grand sheikh of al-Azhar. This resignation was very likely an outcome of the mutual interest between Tayyeb himself and the National Democratic Party. While Tayyeb claimed that his resignation was to dedicate himself to al-Azhar’s mission, there was leaning within the party towards accepting this resignation in order to contain criticism from the opposition and, at the same time, to endorse the main claim of the NDP by splitting politics from religion.
In contrast, other official religious actors are extremely aligned with the post-2013 regime. They reinforce the regime in its battle against both terrorism and political Islam, considering them as existential threats to the state. They use Iraq, Syria, and Libya as scarecrows. Strikingly, this category is active in producing a pro-state discourse that links nationalism, populism, and religion. It is noteworthy that this category is linked more or less to Sheikh Ali Gomaa himself, who is a prominent figure of the regime, and who enjoys a great deal of leverage despite being outside the official bodies. Another of the prominent figures in this group is Sheikh Usama al-Azhari who is the advisor to the president on religious affairs and is the secretary of the religious affairs committee in the parliament. Recently, Sheikh Usama seems to be a favorite preacher on many official occasions, and he is one of Sheikh Gomaa’s disciples. Dar al-Ifta has a pivotal presence within the state-aligned grouping as well as some of Sufi orders. Sheikh Gomaa exerts a great influence over them all.
Gomaa himself enjoys a great deal of leverage and respect among the current regime circles and leadership, allowing him to continue declaring his conservative opinions and even declaring his reservations regarding certain policies and decisions without being attacked by the media or the state.
Politics, Social Position, and Class
How our examined actors perceive politics and their own social positions are key clues to interpreting their stance regarding the prevailing politics. Al-Azhar, under the leadership of Sheikh al-Tayyeb, showed inconsistency towards January uprising. At first, they condemned the January 2011 protests as sin. Later on, they accepted the protests on a limited basis. However, at the end, when the uprising was met by wide social and political acceptance and ovation, they completely welcomed it and even seized the opportunity to gain power and independence. Al-Azhar’s hesitation could be interpreted on the one hand as the fear of uncertainty brought on by acts of direct popular protest, and on the other hand as the fear of the rise of political Islam factions.
Despite the absence of any clear and mature political, ideological affiliation or democratic stance, Tayyeb has shown relative openness, with a critical and social-oriented point of view with regard to the status quo. In the “Arab Spring Document,” which was released after the 2011 uprising, al-Azhar insisted on supporting the right to protest and the illegality of using violence against protestors, even justifying the overthrow of regimes in case of deploying brutality by the latter. It is important to understand this document as part of the al-Azhar strategy at that time to gain power and expansion. The rise of political Islam and al-Azhar’s attempts to secure its boundaries against this rise and find allies all influenced the document. After 2013, Tayyeb continued to express a critical point of view toward the domestic and global context. On the discourse level, in one of his interviews, Tayyeb criticized the accumulation of properties and assets, as well as luxurious lifestyles, in a country suffering from increasing poverty rates, a dire economic situation, and severe social inequalities. He also criticized the growing global trends/policies of austerity and monetary loans that result in impoverishment in the East.
There are also efforts exerted by al-Azhar under Tayyeb’s leadership to sort out the controversial relationship between religion and topics such as democracy and women’s rights through organizing specialized conferences and inviting Islamic scholars and the concerned Islamic committees from all over the Islamic world to debate and conduct relevant research on such themes. However, it too early to judge the outcomes.
In celebrating the cooperation with the Vatican under Pope Francis’ leadership, Tayyeb asserted the common interest of both institutions in poverty issues and the unprivileged around the world. On the ground, al-Azhar runs many social activities related to charity, religious education, and other societal themes. The social roles that al-Azhar carries out under Tayyeb are likely driven by the persona of Tayyeb himself and his background as a member of a Sufi family with a legacy of active roles in serving local society and the poor and resolving disputes in Upper Egypt. Despite the divisions within the institution of al-Azhar, it seems that Tayyeb is capable of both deploying the institutions’ cadres and unifying al-Azhar sub-bodies behind him in executing the aforementioned social activities and roles. Despite limitations on the social presence of al-Azhar, it seems that its presence proves sufficient to earn the institution support and a good reputation.
Yet, there are challenges for the sustainability of such brief social insights within al-Azhar and its constituency in the long-run. Among the reasons for this is the fact that divisions within a massive establishment such as al-Azhar may affect the potential for sustaining such social vision. Also, the siege enacted by the regime around al-Azhar and the public sphere will restrict any development or expansion of such a discourse which might be a potential threat in the long term.
Despite differences within Gomaa's school, a salient part of its politicized segment, including Gomaa himself, seem to be more aware of their social and political position. They resented the January uprising in the early stages, and they went on to side with the state after 2013. Under the pretext of countering terrorism and its existential threats to the state, they have continuously supported the regime without reluctance or second thoughts. This position dates from before 2011 and has to do with the group’s ability to go beyond the traditional religious institutional structures and expand its network to many political, economic, and social networks thereby making them more than a mere group of traditional clergymen.
It is difficult to trace an explicit discourse for this group about social themes; nevertheless, there are some indicators that this group has a different stance regarding class than the official institution of al-Azhar. Gomaa is a board member of the major charity and developmental entities that are associated with businessmen and the emerging regime of 2013. Ironically, these entities’ emergence accompanied the rise of the neoliberal and austerity policies in Egypt, in the aftermath of 2013 to cover the state withdrawal. Gomaa and his disciples wield influence over the new trends of Sufism emerging among the urban bourgeois and the upper-middle classes and through preaching. Consequently, they invest a good deal of effort into affecting those classes rather than lower classes.
In some of his talks, Gomaa blamed the Arab Uprisings for the current critical economic situation. He is in favor of rejecting any protest or disobedience to the ruler. He believes that the right to opposition and attempts to make a change should be exclusive to the internal layers of state institutions. Generally speaking, Gomaa is part of a broad stratum of clergymen who oppose any contest against social, class, and political hierarchies, as they are fated. They emphasize the weak effect of individuals trying to change social or historical hierarchies. Those restricted and conservative views put this current to the right of Tayyeb.
These aspects are part of a larger picture that needs further study, since it is important to thoroughly examine questions of class as well as social, economic, and networking statuses in order to understand the current religious actors in Egypt. Discussions limited to Islamic jurisprudence books and revising old texts fall short of keeping up with the current reality of the religious actors and prevent us from raising important and complex questions about the future of social changes and democratic transition in Egypt and those actors’ relationship to it.
[i] Statement of the council of senior scholars on verbal divorce: https://is.gd/GRDI4G
[ii] For further information, please see: https://www.elbalad.news/2599686
[iii] Mohamed Abdel Galil, “Ali Gomaa and the equality of men and women on the inheritance: Tunisia is not an Islamic state,” Shorouk News, 25 November 2018,https://is.gd/hLxr6A.
[v] Interview with the BBC, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1T7kxljT2Q&t=1s
[vi] Mohamed Sobry Abdel Raheem, “Sheikh Ali Gomaa: ‘I refuse taxes onassets and overburden the citizens,’”El Balad News, 12 August 2018, https://www.elbalad.news/3423365.
[vii] Shaimaa al-Qarnashawy, “Arab Spring document by al-Azhar: facing peaceful protest by violence lifting the legitimacy of the ruler,” al-Masry al-Youm, 31 October 2011, https://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/122658.
[viii] Maged Atef, “United Arab Emirates’ role in containing disputes between al-Azhar and Tayyeb,” Raseef 22, 7 February 2019,https://is.gd/IKcJ8F.
[ix] For further information, please see: https://is.gd/D41Tdb
[x] Abdel Wahab Aissy, “Al-Tayyeb: Pope Francis is an example of a tolerant religious clerk,” al-Watan, 16 October 2018,https://is.gd/Hcs8qI.