Al-Azhar works to end blood feuds in Egypt

Egypt's top religious institution Al-Azhar is stepping up efforts to stop traditionally long-lasting feuds via local councils and reaching out to the new generation to end the practice.

al-monitor People are seen at Al-Azhar mosque before a protest in support of the Islamic institution's assertion of independence from the Muslim Brotherhood, in old Cairo, Egypt, April 5, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Aug 13, 2019

CAIRO — Egypt will step up efforts to battle blood feuds and vendettas — a remnant of tribal traditions — through a series of awareness campaigns around the country, especially in the villages and rural areas of Upper Egypt.

Last month, Al-Azhar’s Higher Committee for Blood Feud Reconciliation called on the Islamic Research Complex, a powerful institution whose mission extends from conducting studies on Islamic culture to reviewing publications for their adherence to Islamic principles, to come up with a large-scale awareness program.

 Al-Azhar, the revered, 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islamic learning, is already involved in local efforts to end vendettas, but this is by far the largest national effort to stop this type of crime. A common saying in Upper Egypt goes, “Vendetta is better than shame,” meaning that a family that does not observe a blood feud loses its honor, so it is not easy to persuade families to end them. Even if a killer is sentenced for his crime in court, the family of the victim will seek vengeance by killing a member of the murderer’s family. Though blood feuds and vendettas often make the local and international press, there is little official data on them.

One of the existing methods to end blood feuds is through committees made up of local politicians and elders — also known as customary reconciliation courts — in Egyptian villages and towns. These committees work with the families to bring an end to vendettas that often drag on for years and cause many deaths on all sides, mostly by paying “blood money” to the family of the victim. Scholars of Al-Azhar also attend the meetings, but they now want to step up their presence and influence.

“The Islamic Research Complex is intensifying its efforts through the customary reconciliation courts. We have an office in every governorate in Egypt and they aim to raise awareness of social problems that are related to divorce, inheritance and revenge from an Islamic perspective,” Nazir Mohammad, head of the Islamic Research Complex, told Al-Monitor.

Mohammad explained that the customary courts meet with the feuding parties to try to persuade them that vendettas go against the values of Islam, which focuses on forgiveness. They also want to nip feuds in the bud by teaching young people that shedding blood is not the way to settle a dispute.

“Al-Azhar preachers have daily meetings with the public in youth and cultural centers, coffee shops, government departments, schools, universities and communities,” he said. “We have successfully ended 38 vendetta cases and stopped bloodshed between families over the past three months.”

Saad Al-Gamal is a member of the Egyptian Parliament as well as a member of the local committee of the Giza governorate. He has talked several families out of blood feuds, he told Al-Monitor.

“Every police station has records on vendettas. We know which ones are ongoing and which are over. The security apparatus takes precautionary measures to prevent the occurrence of crimes of vengeance,” Gamal said, adding that the local committees, on the other hand, explain to the families "that they should work to stop the bloodshed and achieve social peace.”

Sheikh Ahmed Karima, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University and one of the members of the customary courts in Upper Egypt, explained how the courts work in southern Giza. “Our task begins upon receiving complaints about a vendetta between two families. We gather information about the case and then send mediators to both sides to raise religious awareness, especially in the family that had one of its members killed. A session is then held in the presence of both families’ elders as well security to prevent any further bloodshed or reprisals.”

Karima explained that most of the time, the end of the feud means money is exchanged between the families — the family of the killer to the family of the victim, so that they would not claim a life for a life.

The discussions of how much money will be given can be very complicated. “The blood money is estimated at the price of 4.25 kilograms of 21k gold according to the price of gold at the time of the feud. The payment is paid in one batch without any installment if the killing was deliberate, but in case of manslaughter, the family of the killer can take up to three years to pay,” Karima said.

Karima explained that once the two families decide to end the feud, a ritual called the "quda" must be carried out. A member of the killer’s family carries a white shroud and presents it to the other before the court in a festive scene. Then the two sides offer their condolences. Once this is done, the blood feud is officially over.

The quda is one of the most important rituals in Upper Egypt and often carried out with the presence and blessing of the customary court. “Although this rite is not within the Islamic Sharia, [we do not oppose it] because it helps prevent bloodshed," Karima said, adding, “Sometimes the customary courts banish the killer’s family from the area of the victim’s family to prevent any retaliatory actions or reprisals — especially in vengeance cases between one Muslim family and another Christian, to prevent the feud from taking on a sectarian aspect."

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