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Egyptian Parliament reopens debate on Quran's place in curriculum

When the Egyptian Parliament recently considered a bill intended to support the use of Standard Arabic, the discussion grew heated between a a representative of Al-Azhar and a parliamentarian who objected to provisions about Quran memorization in primary school.
Al-Azhar students

Modern Standard Arabic is the formal dialect of the wider Arabic language, which there are now many dialects across the Arab world. On Nov. 30, the Egyptian Parliament discussed a bill containing measures to support of the arguably archaic literary dialect that included a language exam for applicants for government jobs, obligating shops to post their names in Standard Arabic and forcing advertisements and television programs to broadcast their content in Standard Arabic. The bill includes penalties of up to a year in imprison and fines of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,175).

In the session, a representative of Al-Azhar suggested students be required to memorize more Quranic verses, but parliamentarian Youssef Al-Husseini objected to provisions in the bill that retain Quran memorization in primary school.

“There are non-Muslim students like Copts who should not be forced to memorize the Quran,” argued Husseini, who is deputy chairman of parliament’s media and culture committee.

In a Dec. 2 statement, Al-Azhar commented, “The call to remove Quranic texts from the Arabic language subject is an explicit call to distance students from their religion and values and to cut them off from their language, culture and identity, as it opens the door to destructive ideas and interpretations.”

Al-Azhar claimed that the Quran was the first text to establish the "principles of freedom and respect for religions" and call for "human fraternity and equality without discrimination on the basis of religion, color, race or language.”

While many scholars would point out that his statement is problematic, few would do so publicly as the issue is so sensitive. 

Husseini insisted Dec. 1, “There is no relationship between strengthening the Arabic language and imposing a holy book on all Egyptians regardless of their religion,” pointing out that there is plenty of literature and poetry that can be used in teaching.

Husseini added, “There are still some hard-liners within Al-Azhar, and it is necessary to call and insist on establishing a civil education system, not a religious one.”

Speaking to the press on Dec. 2, dean of the Faculty of Arabic Language at Al-Azhar University Ghanem al-Saeed said, “I know many people of other religions who teach their children the Holy Quran to introduce them to the basics of reading, language and rhetoric. This is normal.”

Saeed explained, “People of other religions know the Holy Quran and its status. The main goal is to develop students' language abilities.”

The Egyptian government has made previous efforts to combat extremism in the school curricula. In 2015, the Ministry of Education formed a committee to review the religious education curricula and submit its findings to the Ministry of Endowments and Al-Azhar for revision to avoid violence, extremism and fanaticism.

On Feb. 14, the Ministry of Education approved a parliamentary proposal to teach the common values among the Abrahamic religions as a subject, including the principles of tolerance, citizenship and coexistence.

Deputy Minister of Education Reda Hegazy stated during his meeting with the parliament’s defense and national security committee on Feb. 14, “The subject of common values between the three religions will be added to the exam subjects due to its importance."

Isaac Hanna, journalist and head of the Egyptian Association for Enlightenment, told Al-Monitor, “Quranic texts are not the only way to teach Arabic in schools. There are other methods such as literature, poetry and rhetoric.”

He stressed, “Separating students in the religion class is [a] form of discrimination that divides society,” and called for removing religion from the curricula and replacing it with a course on morals and citizenship.

Hanna pointed out that extremist groups have convinced Egyptian society that teaching Quranic texts in schools is a religious necessity and noted, “The government always backs down from any removal of Quranic texts in school curricula or the subject of religion, fearing attacks and criticism by extremist groups.”

Previously in February, a similar controversy followed statements by Deputy Education Minister Reda Hegazy, who announced that the ministry would create a new subject on citizenship. There was an outcry by Islamic groups, who said that the ministry was trying to abolish the subject of religion and remove Quranic texts from the curricula.