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Will Egypt put term limits on Al-Azhar grand imam?

Proposals to amend Al-Azhar University's internal regulations are angering senior scholars who might be replaced if the plans are approved.
General view of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, April 17, 2016. To match Special Report EGYPT-STUDENTS/    REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany  - RTX2F3OM

CAIRO — New sources of friction keep heating up the conflict between Al-Azhar University and those outside the school seeking to influence the way it's run.

Yasser Kouraa, assistant to the Wafd Party’s head of political and parliamentary affairs, recently suggested amending the university's internal regulations. His proposals would affect the way senior scholars — including Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb — are selected and dismissed, in the name of renewing religious discourse. The proposals have sparked debate and angered Al-Azhar scholars, who see it as an attempt to undermine their roles.

Kouraa said that's not the case.

“The proposal to amend Al-Azhar internal regulations does not downplay the importance of the institution. No one dares offend an institution like Al-Azhar, and I highly appreciate and respect Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb," Kouraa told Al-Monitor.

"Yet, if we really want to renew religious discourse, keep pace with changes all around us arising from the extremist current, and counter all forms of terrorism … we need to give up the idea that the grand imam should remain in office as long as he is 'qualified for the post,' and have Al-Azhar's Council of Senior Scholars limit his term to either eight or 10 years to avoid an endless or indefinite term in office,” Kouraa said.

Keeping pace is important because the rise of terrorism "threatens Arab and Islamic societies and gives the West the wrong idea about the correct Islamic faith and moderate Islamic principles," he noted.

Kouraa said his proposal doesn't contradict the constitution, as some have claimed. Though the constitution protects the grand imam and says he shall not be dismissed from his post, the constitution also states that parliament is entitled to determine the length of his term.

Parliamentarian Mohammad Abu Hamed, a member of the pro-regime majority Support Egypt Coalition, also suggested March 8 an amendment to the law that regulates Al-Azhar’s affairs. The proposal would address how Al-Azhar councils are formed, including the Council of Senior Scholars.

The council now consists of 40 members headed by the grand imam. Each member holds a doctoral degree or is a professor of Islamic studies or language sciences from Al-Azhar University, and must be committed to Al-Azhar’s religious teachings and conduct. The grand imam appoints qualified council members. The Council of Senior Scholars in turn elects the grand imam when the post is vacant.

Under Hamed's draft law, the Council of Senior Scholars would expand, adding secular scholars and specialists to provide different points of view before any fatwa is issued. The proposal would entitle the president of the republic, rather than the imam, to choose council members. Thus, the president will be indirectly controlling the method to appoint the grand imam. This has ignited fears about the executive branch tightening its grip over the religious establishment.

Hamed's proposal comes after other recent problems between Al-Azhar and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi​. In a Jan. 24 speech, Sisi said Egypt's divorce rate has been rising significantly to the point that 40% of all marriages in the country end within the first five years. Sisi demanded that new legislation be enacted to invalidate orally declared divorces. Currently, such divorces are valid under Sharia before they are officially documented.

Less than two weeks later, the Council of Senior Scholars rejected Sisi’s demand, stressing that orally declared divorces have been undisputed since the days of the Prophet Muhammad, and do not need to be documented to be considered valid.

Commenting on the issue, Sabri Abada, a professor of Islamic studies at Al-Azhar University, told the press March 6 that people hostile to Al-Azhar are planning to bring down and dismiss the grand imam.

“They are taking advantage of the crisis over orally declared divorces to stir strife between Al-Azhar and the presidency. Nevertheless, they are unaware that the constitution safeguards the independence of Al-Azhar institution and its exclusive [control] over its own affairs, considering it to be the first reference for Islamic affairs in Egypt and the whole world," Sabri said.

"Al-Azhar and the Council of Senior Scholars will continue to fight destructive, misguiding and extremist ideas, and will not give in to some opinions and issue laws that contradict the Sharia law,” he added.

Another decision that doesn't sit well with Al-Azhar came in January, when the Ministry of Religious Endowments announced it will be determining the topics of the imams' weekly sermons.

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