CAIRO — Al-Azhar Mosque and the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) have been at odds over which institution should determine the content of Friday sermons. Now the tension is growing, as the ministry has officially declared itself in charge.
Without consulting the mosque, on Jan. 10 the ministry officially declared that, beginning in March, it will be determining Friday sermon scripts for the next five years as part of its plan to reform religious discourse in Egypt. The ministry is responsible for organizing religious discourse inside mosques, while Al-Azhar is responsible for Islamic outreach in the world.
According to the ministry's official statement, the new initiative aims to develop awareness of the different issues in Egyptian society, consolidate a national sense of belonging, correct misconceptions, uphold and consolidate moral values, and build decent and conscious personalities capable of achieving peaceful coexistence with others.
Minister of Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa stressed that the outreach plan is based on diversity and imposes topics in advance. According to Gomaa, the imposed topics are more general than those currently addressed in sermons and are designed to develop positive awareness of public issues. He urged scholars, imams and other interested parties to keep an open mind while considering the plan.
The new initiative includes a short-term plan with 54 topics for the first year and a long-term plan with 270 topics for the next five years. The sermon topics are based on 13 axes: morality; national values; extremism and issues related to terrorism; work and production; transactions; family building; youth; women; the role of people with special needs in community building; education; faith; religious events; and public issues.
Al-Azhar scholars strongly attacked the ministry for excluding Al-Azhar from the committee that developed the sermon plans. The committee began meeting Dec. 8 and continued until the announcement of the final plan Jan. 10.
The committee included representatives of various public figures, psychologists and media professors. However, the committee did not consult the Council of Senior Scholars or Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy. There is speculation that Al-Azhar was excluded to ensure the plan would pass without any objections, as Al-Azhar had already criticized scripted sermons.
The ministry appointed Ahmed Ali Agiba, secretary-general of the ministry’s Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, to head the committee. Members included Abdallah Mabrouk al-Najjar, former dean of Al-Azhar's Faculty of Graduate Studies; Sami al-Sharif, former dean of the Faculty of Information at Cairo University; Nabil Samalouti, former dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Al-Azhar University and a sociology professor; and Magdy Ashour, scientific adviser to the grand mufti.
Samalouti did not represent Al-Azhar in the committee, as he no longer works there. He was invited to the meetings in his personal capacity.
On Jan. 19, Maj. Gen. Mohamed El Shahat, a member of the Center for Islamic Research of Al-Azhar, said in a statement, “The Ministry of Endowments should have briefed Al-Azhar about the nature of the committee's work because Al-Azhar is primarily responsible for outreach in Egypt and the world, and the Friday sermon topics set by the committee failed to take into account the concerns and problems of Egyptian society.”
The ministry's plan comes in response to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call for the need to renew religious discourse. In his Dec. 8 speech at the celebration of Prophet Muhammad's birth, Sisi called for formation of a committee of senior sociologists, ethicists, psychologists and scholars to prepare a road map for the next five years with the aim of developing religious understanding of the various intellectual issues across Egypt.
This is not the first time a conflict has erupted between Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments over the Friday sermon, as the ministry had announced July 23, 2016, the application of a unified mosque sermon across Egypt with the aim of correcting misconceptions among Muslims.
Three days later, with one voice, members of Al-Azhar's Council of Senior Scholars renounced scripted sermons.
“In fulfillment of Al-Azhar’s constitutional role as responsible for the Islamic outreach, the council unanimously decided to reject the scripted sermons as such a move only aims to freeze the religious discourse rather than develop it," the council said in an official statement.
“The imams need serious training to cope with extremist and anomalous ideas through science and correct ideas. Scripted sermons will only rid the sermons of their depth and ability to discuss the deviant thoughts and misguided groups that use religion as a cover.”
Ahmed Ban, a researcher on Islamic movement affairs, told Al-Monitor, “The conflict between the Islamic religious institutions in Egypt is complex and not new. Al-Azhar is responsible for the Islamic outreach in Egypt and the world, according to the constitution, while [the Ministry of] Endowments is responsible for Islamic outreach and the religious discourse inside mosques — hence the conflict. Also, they both want to control the scene and demonstrate their ability to influence citizens."
He said, “Before we talk about reforming the religious discourse in Egypt, we must first talk about the reform of religious institutions. Both Al-Azhar and [the Ministry of] Endowments need internal reform that rids them of the grip of the executive branch and gives them financial and intellectual independence. Everyone is aware of the executive branch dictations and insistence on the application of its agenda in the renewal of religious discourse, not to mention the Ministry of Endowments’ pursuit to apply them, which affects the feasibility and effectiveness of the religious discourse.”
Religious institutions also need to be free from the influence of "radical religious discourse adopted by other Islamic movements," he said.
“There is no doubt that the focus on the renewal of the religious discourse through the Ministry of Endowments’ initiative alone, without consulting Al-Azhar or any other institution, will lead to a growing extremist ideology within the community and to acts of violence in the street."
Orators who do not respect the scripted sermons will be held accountable. Even in situations when orators feel it's necessary to address a specific topic, the ministry said it will issue instructions for a mosque orator to tackle that subject at a specific time based on its importance.
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