CAIRO — The Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments has prohibited praying for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in mosques — marking the first time in its history it has taken such action. The move is part of the ministry’s plan to separate religion and politics, which was prompted by prominent Egyptian cleric Sheikh Mohammed Jibril's call July 13 for God to punish those who have "oppressed" the Egyptian people. The people, however, perceived the call as wishing bad luck specifically upon Sisi and his regime.
Prominent journalists including Ahmad Moussa, and politicians such as Mortada Mansour, in addition to clerics — mainly Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa — accused Jibril of siding with the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups. Jibril then was forbidden to practice his role as imam in all mosques across Egypt.
However, the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments had made a habit of encouraging preachers to pray for the president at the end of religious sermons because it considered praying for the nation’s guardian in line with Sharia. A prominent example of this was when the ministry issued a directive in 2010 to all imams in Egypt to mention then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in their prayers so he would recover from his illness. The ministry had stressed that it was a duty imposed by Sharia on everyone, quoting Muslim scholar Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, “If I knew my prayers were answered, I would dedicate them all to the ruler.”
But now the ministry has changed course. Gomaa justified his decision to prohibit prayer for Sisi in a July 28 interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, saying, “Legally speaking, praying for someone and wishing them good luck is pursuant to Sharia. However, at this stage, the president does not need anyone to pray for him.” Gomaa added, “I refuse to pray for President Sisi in mosques, so as not to open new doors for imams, for this might lead to exaggeration in praying for President Sisi." Political prayer in general should be avoided, he said.
In a July 14 memorandum, the ministry had accused Jibril of using prayers for political ends and forbade him to leave Egypt. Jibril had been accustomed to traveling between Western and Muslim capitals to preach in big mosques and Islamic centers in Europe and the United States.
Jibril had led prayers since 1988 for tens of thousands of believers who flock to Amr ibn al-As Mosque in Cairo during the last three days of Ramadan — until the Egyptian government banned him from doing so during the holy month in 2014. He was granted permission to resume carrying out prayers at this mosque during Ramadan of this year.
In his controversial July 13 statement, Jibril said, “Dear God, punish those who killed worshippers, those who shed our blood and orphaned our children. Dear God, punish corrupt journalists, pharaoh’s wizards. Dear God, punish corrupt politicians, punish those who oppressed us, those who assaulted our homes. Dear God, punish those who dominated by tyranny, punish the sultan’s sheikhs.”
Jibril’s use of the pharaoh’s wizards metaphor to refer to journalists is an allusion to the wizards whose assistance Egypt’s pharaoh sought to help him defeat Moses. The wizards did whatever the pharaoh asked them to do.
There was a media wave denouncing the decision to prohibit prayer for Sisi, considering the ban contrary to an Islamic norm that has been practiced for hundreds of years.
Sheikh Shawki Abdel Latif, former undersecretary of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, told Al-Monitor he opposes the prohibition. “Praying and wishing good luck, maturity and success upon the president has been a common custom since the dawn of Islamic history,” he said, adding, “We should not look at individual positions, even if some were offensive. Whether or not Jibril made a mistake doesn’t mean we should prevent praying for rulers, which is legitimate.”
Praying for the president is praying for the nation’s welfare, he said: "In our prayer for the president we say: Dear God, may he be lucky and may you point him in the right direction."
Meanwhile, Sheikh Ali Abu al-Hassan, former head of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee, believes Gomaa made a wise decision by preventing prayer for Sisi. “Although praying for the ruler is legislated in Islam, worshippers should be spared the dispute in the event that people do not unanimously support the same ruler. This way, the gap between supporters and opponents would not widen and the mosque would not turn into a place that differentiates between Muslims,” he told Al-Monitor.
In terms of the punishment of Jibril, Abu al-Hassan said, “Instead of saying his prayer out loud and letting people interpret it as they please, he should have kept it to himself. Nonetheless, he should not have been punished as long as was not referring to anyone specific.”
Latif, however, said Jibril’s punishment was justified because Jibril intended to be offensive. But on the issue of praying for political leaders, he said, “Supporting a ruler as long as he is on the right track is not wrong; it is rather a national duty."
Egyptian mosques are still a touchy subject for the Egyptian government, as they have always been used as an important card in the hands of political Islamic groups to reach Egyptians of all ages and affiliations.