By Al-Masry Al-Youm
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s latest statements to Egypt’s Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb have publically revealed disagreement and tension between him and Al-Azhar, especially with regard to the so-called “renewal of religious discourse”.
The Egyptian president has called on Al Azhar — the foremost Muslim Sunni institution around the world — in numerous speeches to reform the religious discourse and dogmatic edicts (‘fatwas’) it emits, in order to meet the needs of our times; because of its importance in facing extremist fanatic Islamist rhetoric in the ongoing security confrontation.
“You wear me out”; “Each time I see the grand sheikh, I tell him: you are tourturing me”; and “I will argue with you about it before God”; are some of the reported comments which Sisi said to Tayyeb at various religious ocassions over the past three years.
Al-Watan newspaper on Tuesday quoted Sisi as telling Tayyeb: “You wear me out”, during a celebration held on National Police Day; refering to Tayyeb’s resistence to pass a law restricting verbal divorce among Muslims.
This latest statement by Sisi highlights the ongoing rift between the presidency and the Al-Azhar institution, whose response to the president’s calls for religious reform is seen as lukewarm.
Call For ‘Religious Revolution’
In earlier meetings, Sisi called on Al-Azhar scholars to develop the religious discourse, which would contribute to the intellectual fight against extremism as another means of support for the ongoing fight against terrorism led by the security apparatus.
Sisi has repeatedly called on Al-Azhar, to lead a “religious revolution” that is not intended to take violent action, but rather to bring Islamic legislation into harmony with the current modern era.
Another call made by Sisi was during the 2016 Mouled celebration (Prophet Mohamed’s Birthday). He directed his words to Tayyeb, saying that Al-Azhar scholars are currently responsible for the “threat of total loss of the nation” due to slackened efforts in the renewal of religious discourse.
During the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2015, Sisi invited Al-Azhar scholars to alter the wrong beliefs of people through a religious revolution. “It is unbelievable that the [religious] ideology we have been cherishing over hundreds of years could be the cause of the whole Muslim nation’s (Umma)anxiety, danger, death and destruction,” he added.
In his speech at the Egyptian Military Academy in April 2015, Sisi referred to his idea about the development of religious discourse, saying it would be in favor of Islam and the homeland, as it would change the wrong impressions about Islam around the world. He called on “enlightened scholars” to carry out the task.
Dar Al-Iftaa, an Egyptian governmental educational institute that emits Islamic religous opinions or fatwas, launched in 2014 a Fatwa-Monitoring Observatory to confront extremism.
According to Al-Watan, Al-Azhar has called on Dar al-Iftaa to shutdown the observatory and has launched its own monitoring entity instead, affiliated to Al-Azhar, which allegedly adopts a more conservative religious approach.
Roots of Discord
The roots of the dispute between Sisi and Tayyeb date back to the era of the interim president Adly Mansour, when Sisi was appointed as Defense Minister. According to Al-Watan newspaper, Tayyeb refused to announce support at the time for the dispersal by force of the pro-toppled President Mohamed Morsi sit-ins at Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda squares.
Tayyeb disagreed as well with Sisi about his stance toward the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Muslim Shiites, and the “Islamic State” (IS) terrorist organization.
Prominent journalist and writer Lamees Gaber told Al-Watan that Al-Azhar’s problem lies in “second-row leaders”, not in Tayyeb himself. She described Tayyeb as a “very enlightened, moderate scholar”.
Former Culture Minister Gaber Asfour, meanwhile, said Al-Azhar did not meet the call of Sisi and Egypt’s intellectuals for the development of religious discourse; adding that the Islamic institution has rather become an antagonist to intellectuals, as it seeks to control their opinions.
The religious researcher Hussein al-Qady echoed Asfour’s opinion when he said that the conferences and seminars organized by Al-Azhar on the development of religious discourse had become a waste of time and public funds, because of their total lack of vision.