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Push to remove Quran from Egyptian textbooks faces backlash

Egypt’s parliamentary Defense and National Security Committee is discussing a plan to remove Quranic verses from the general curriculum and limit them to religious courses, part of a plan to fight extremism.
Indonesian Muslim students read from the religious academic books in an Islamic course at Al-Azhar mosque in the old city of Cairo on December 4, 2011. Al-Azhar mosque, which was developed into one of the oldest Islamic universities, pays special attention to the Koranic sciences and traditions of the Islamic prophet Mohammed and all the modern fields of science. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS        (Photo credit should read MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

Egypt’s parliamentary Defense and National Security Committee, chaired by Maj. Gen. Kamal Amer, discussed during a Feb. 14 meeting a plan by the ministries of culture, religious endowments and education to remove Quranic verses and hadiths (the prophet's sayings) from textbooks, and limit their inclusion to books for religion courses.

The meeting was held upon the request of the committee’s member Farid el-Bayadi, who put forward the plan aimed to counter extremism, and in the presence of Deputy Minister of Education Reda Hegazy. 

During the meeting, Hegazy approved a proposal to teach the subject of religion in a book that covers interfaith shared values, the principles of tolerance, citizenship and coexistence. He noted that this subject would be added to the curriculum during the next academic year given its utmost importance.

Commenting on the presence of religious texts in nonreligious academic books, Hegazy said there are new government instructions to limit religious texts to the subject of religion.

Bayadi suggested during the meeting teaching students religion courses in order to educate them about the values that all religions share, and the principles of tolerance, citizenship and coexistence. 

He said that including religious texts in the Arabic language, history and geography subjects allows unqualified teachers to provide an extremist and destructive interpretation of these texts, explaining that a number of studies by the parliamentary Defense and National Security Committee concluded that such a practice contributes to the dissemination of extremist ideas.

Since assuming power in 2014, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has repeatedly called for the renewal of religious discourse and associated some religious texts with terrorism and extremism, as part of a broad plan to put an end to the spread of what he describes as “radical groups.” Sisi called on all religious state institutions to work to achieve that.

In his speech during celebrations for Laylat al-Qadr, the holiest night of the Muslim month of Ramadan, in Cairo in July 2014, Sisi said, “There are those killing us, and unfortunately they are among those who recite the Holy Quran. Islam is a religion of thruthfulness, perfection and tolerance. The religious discourse evolves as humans evolve, while acknowledging religious constants.” Sisi called on Al-Azhar to provide a tolerant and moderate religious discourse that truly reflects Islam and Muslims.

Speaking at the Davos Economic Forum in January 2015, Sisi expressed his readiness to clear the religious discourse from the misconceptions that have led to extremism and terrorism. 

The most recent call for renewing religious discourse and countering terrorism was made in January 2020. Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly spoke back then on behalf of Sisi at Al-Azhar International Conference on Renovation of Islamic Thought. He said religious institutions, particularly Al-Azhar, must acknowledge the importance of updating the religious discourse, because falling behind would allow those who claim having knowledge to hijack the minds of the youth, deny them the tolerant Sharia provisions and pass on to them misinterpretations of the Quran and Sunna.

Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb said at the same conference, “The topic of renewing Islamic thought and religious discourse has recently become a vague and ambiguous concept, because it has been frequently covered in newspapers by those lacking knowledge and those who talk about any subject without adequate study or previous scientific formation.”

The Al-Azhar International Conference on Renovation of Islamic Thought was held back then in the presence of fatwa foundations and Islamic councils from 46 Islamic countries. The conference focused on the mechanisms to renew religious discourse, the role of international, religious and academic institutions in this regard and eliminating misconceptions.

Commenting on limiting the inclusion of verses of the Quran and hadiths to the religion subject and removing them from the rest of the curriculum, Sheikh Salama Abdel Qawi, former undersecretary of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, warned against what he called “Sisi’s agenda.” He told Al-Monitor, “There is a plan to alter Egypt’s Islamic identity. Since he took office, [Sisi] has been calling for updating the religious discourse and has used all his media outlets to attack Al-Azhar, its grand sheikh and Islam.”

He said, “Taking Quranic verses from the Arabic language, history and geography books does not prevent sedition, but would rather stir strife. This is because Sisi upended the balance that [Anwar] Sadat and [Hosny] Mubarak pursued. He believes this would be a precedent to be added to his achievements and would resonate well with the Church, the West and his supporters under the pretext of fighting extremism.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor by phone, Sameh Askar, a researcher in Islamic affairs, praised the decision to limit religious texts to the subject of religion, and stressed that it is a good decision that would reform the array of thought. He said, “The manifestations of mixing religion and state have invaded the education system in Egypt [over the past years]. History was taught through the Quran and hadiths, and the same applies to geography and science. Thus, the state has recently decided that the science of religion should be limited to religion courses, which is the right thing to do.”