The emerging role of religion in Egypt
As Egypt moves ahead along its roadmap after the new draft constitution was brought to fruition, it is only natural to expect more changes in the near future.
But how Egypt will change? What will it develop into? One of the most important questions is what role religion and religious forces will play in the still emerging political scene. Because Egyptian society remains a profoundly religious, the burning question is who can adequately represent the religious interests of the masses and direct them towards peaceful and productive democratic ends?
These are critical questions that underscore the very large challenges ahead of Egypt. What I want to do as an Egyptian is assure the world that Egypt will indeed transform itself into a self-sufficient, democratic member of the community of nations. The events of the past few months, though they have presented their own challenges, are reasons for optimism and hope. And indeed every good believer must remain hopeful, and maintain an attitude of optimism towards both humanity and the Divine.
To achieve this, we must confront the problems we encounter with purpose and determination. The institution of the Dar al-Ifta and my office of Grand Mufti feel a responsibility towards articulating the place of religion in Egypt in the face of the new developments. This has become especially important as we have witnessed in the past few months flare-ups of sectarian sentiment and indeed violence, both of which are deeply regrettable. They run counter to the very notion of Egyptian unity and religious cooperation that both the Muslim and Christian faith encourage, uphold and indeed mandate.
In this regard, the recently drafted constitution represents an authentic representation of the Egyptian people’s attitudes towards religion. It reaffirms the centrality of religion to the Egyptian nation by upholding the role of sharia as the main source of legislation and by guaranteeing the right of other religious communities to practice their own religions without interference. It has long been the policy of the Dar al-Ifta and the office of the Grand Mufti that Egypt has a specific approach to the role of Islam in the current events which draws upon a centuries-old tradition indigenous to our lands, expressed most clearly in what we may call the Azhar paradigm.
In contrast to the political parties who seek to invoke religion to engage in party politics, the Azhar paradigm envisions a very different, moderate and reasonable view on this topic. There is no doubt that Egyptians are marked by a profound sense of religiosity. But far from being a problem, this is a characteristic in which they should take pride. Given the way Islamic social and political participation is often thought of in today’s world, the Egyptian experience with Islam has been one of great tolerance and inclusion. Infused with a deep spiritual sense, Egyptian Islam has always been one of flexibility and understanding. Islam, on this understanding, is not a static, authoritarian system unable to adapt to a changing world. It is a worldview which demands constant engagement and interaction with the world, even when it is constantly changing as it is in these days. I take this to be essential to the very understanding of Islam.
I have always been adamant that all parties must be allowed to participate fully in the political process and exercise all associated political rights. No political party should be excluded from the political landscape. This is the only way to create a truly national reconciliation. In this spirit, however, I also feel duty-bound to advise all such parties that the integrity and safeguarding the interests of our nation takes precedence over and above all other personal interests. This must be a central plank of any political participation at this sensitive juncture.
Our understanding of Islam’s role is to play in Egypt is that of a custodian and advocate of the religious and social welfare of all Egyptians. It also serves as a representative of the Muslim community at large by acting as a check on the moral conscience of political decision makers.
The process of issuing fatwas – the primary role of the Dar al-Ifta – is integral to this process of engagement with the modern world. Flexibility is an integral part of the Islamic legal tradition. Many in the Western world have come to identify the fatwa with some unfortunate pronouncements of political or self-appointed religious leaders. But fatwa-giving is in fact one of the most important institutions for properly understanding the relationship between Islam and the modern world. In an attempt to provide Muslims with authoritative guidance about their religion, muftis look not only to the vast legal tradition, but must also conduct a proper examination of the lived reality of Muslims. In effect, fatwas and muftis represent the bridge between the long-standing intellectual-legal tradition of Islam and the contemporary world. They are the link between the past and the present, the absolute and the relative, the transcendent and the contingent, the theoretical and the practical.
When each and every person’s unqualified opinion is considered a fatwa, we lose a crucial tool in our capacity to reign in extremism and preserve balanced understandings of Islam. We may point to any number of declarations posing as fatwas from extremists and terrorists as examples of how grave the consequences are of not following the historical Islamic example of differentiating between those with scholarly standing and authority and those without. In recent years, unqualified and illegitimate personalities have exploited technological means to proclaim themselves Islamic scholars and leaders, and have issued opinions to justify everything from attacking churches, exercising violence, and denigrating women. True Islamic scholarship and leadership stands firmly against such exploitative positions, which are merely politics in the guise of religion.
The Muslim world has been particularly successful at creating institutions and bodies whose long-standing service to the community confer upon them legitimacy that cannot be had simply by someone with access to modern media. This is no time to abandon that example, for it is the only vehicle by which a humane understanding of Islam – a faith opposed to terrorism, violence and discrimination – is possible. This flexibility I speak of, and its duty to engage with the modern world, is not a new phenomenon. Rather it is part of the treasures of our cultural heritage as Egyptians and Muslims. Now is the time to restore it to its proper place in the arsenal of those who are concerned not just with dogmatic proclamations but with the advancement of culture, civilization and tolerance.
Our role as religious leaders who have spent our lives carefully studying our religion and our people is to re-assert our rightful authority. I have, through my present position as Grand Mufti, set out to outline an authoritative picture of Islam. This demands a proper appreciation for the flexibility and adaptability of Islamic law, which is perhaps its greatest asset. To provide people with practical guidance while staying true to its foundational principles, Islam allows the wisdom and moral strength of religion to be applied in modern times. It is through adopting this attitude towards the sharia that an authentic, contemporary, moderate, and tolerant Islam can provide solutions to the problems confronting the Muslim world today. In this way, Islam can partner with other religious traditions and institutions to offer solutions to the many problems currently confronting Egypt, the Muslim world and all humanity.