Senior Al-Azhar scholars refuse to renew the religious discourse and have begun intimidating the Grand Imam
Renewing the religious discourse is no longer a matter of the well-being of rejection and acceptance; it has become personally obligatory for those who carry the banner of renewal. These are not religious scholars alone, but also thinkers, intellectuals, media, artists, politicians and everyone with an opinion and influence in society. The renewal we need must be inclusive of all aspects of life so that we succeed in rooting out the source of brutal terrorism reaping innocent lives every day. Then we must return the community to moderation and openness with the acceptance of the other. We must develop within each individual a love of work and a passion for science, modern technology, and other necessities of progress and advancement. This will only be optimally accomplished through concerted efforts.
The work is aimed at delegitimizing the terrorist groups themselves, through which they legitimize acts of violence and destruction based on misinterpretations and misunderstandings of the Quran and prophetic traditions.
In late 2015, Dr. Salah Fadl, a professor of Literary Criticism and Comparative Literature at Ain Shams University and a member of the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo, drafted a document on renewing the religious discourse, which was approved by Al-Azhar, intellectuals, authors and opinion leaders, but nothing has come to light so far despite its passage nearly three years ago.
"It is meaningless to demand a renewal of the religious discourse as long as we have a set of laws that are threatening and limiting to freedoms. Any dauntless thinker who has the ability to think and change will announce that he is carrying the banner of renewal and express an opinion contrary to the majority as much as the current situation calls for, which is reckless. His history will be exposed to ruin, his character to destruction, and his reputation to misfortune,” Fadl stated.
Fadl went on to reveal that on the sidelines of the meetings held between Al-Azhar scholars, intellectuals, thinkers and opinion leaders at the end of 2015, a document was formulated regarding the renewal of the religious discourse, which has not yet been issued despite obtaining the consensus of the community. He asserted that Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb agreed with the terms of the renewal of the religious discourse but was not very enthusiastic about it. The reason for this is that there are members of the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar Scholars who reject any change in the religious discourse that is currently in force; it is these scholars who have started to intimidate Tayyeb.
The following is a translated and edited interview with Fadl:
How do you see the continuing demands for the need to renew the religious discourse?
I see it as very good, but at the same time it is not practical.
Why is it impractical?
The reason is that there is a set of laws in force in Egypt that paralyzes the movement of religious or cultural reasoning. The most important of these laws are those issued by late President Anwar Sadat. All this legislation affects intellectuals and thinkers with cowardice and fear, for if he expresses an opinion that does not satisfy the conservatives, then he will face a professional lawyer in a case either demanding his separation from his wife or his imprisonment.
Therefore, I believe that it is meaningless to demand a renewal of the religious discourse as long as we have laws that are threatening and limiting to freedoms and the state does not act to remove them as required by the constitution.
But these laws do not threaten Al-Azhar, which is responsible for renewing the religious discourse?
Al-Azhar is not at all responsible for renewing the religious discourse. This is not within its jurisdiction, because it is a guardian of religion and its duty is to keep things as they are. It is unreasonable to ask the guard to renovate the building; it is only the owner who can renovate.
If this pivotal issue is not within the purview of Al-Azhar, then who is responsible for renewing the religious discourse?
Renewing the religious discourse is an authentic purview for real thinkers, intellectuals and scholars if they have obstacles in front of them.
What are the obstacles that prevent the renewal of the religious discourse by real thinkers, intellectuals and scholars?
How can we develop courageous thinkers who carry the banner of renewal when we are a country where philosophical study has shrunken so that those left of philosophers have virtually disappeared, instead clinging to appearances and formalities with no essence.
Any dauntless thinker who has the ability to think and change will announce that he is carrying the banner of renewal and express an opinion contrary to the majority as much as the current situation calls for, which is reckless. His history will be exposed to ruin, his character to destruction, and his reputation to misfortune.
Is the challenge of carrying the banner of renewal as difficult as you describe?
Unfortunately, yes. We have faced the shocking fact that the renewal of the religious or cultural discourse cannot be done. Even if a thinker exerts effort, his opinion will not be accepted by the society.
As long as the opinion of this thinker is considered, why did you deem that the community will not accept it?
The people are cowards. The vast majority of our society regards renewal as a disaster. Therefore I emphasize that the Egyptian environment is not encouraging. This is due to the era of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who planted fear within us. Sadat then pretended to relieve this fear while he actually doubled it. The thirty years of Mubarak let him burrow into every aspect of Egyptian life.
This is a generalization that keeps stagnation as the master of the situation. So who stands in the way of renewing the religious discourse?
It is the public mentality that rejects it, represented by the public opinion, the press and the media, the Awqaf (Endowments) preachers, those giving fatwas, and the opinion writers in newspapers. All of them stand in the way of the renewal. If you try to put forth any opinion contrary to what these people think, then dirt will be thrown on you and no one will have mercy on you.
What preceded the drafting of the Al-Azhar document to renew the religious discourse that has not yet been issued?
All of Al-Azhar's documents were the result of the "outburst of the January 25 revolution". This revolution shook the Muslim women and authorized radical changes that helped us pass the first document on state citizenship, entitled "The Future of Egypt Document", which was issued in mid-2011.
The January revolution also helped us pass the second unknown document, “The Right of Muslims to Revolt against Tyranny”. It was very important at the time because it stood in the face of authoritarian regimes that used religious discourse as a means of suppressing revolutions in their infancy. As participants in the drafting meetings of this document, we wanted the intellectuals and scholars of Al-Azhar to prove the right of the vulnerable peoples in the revolution to obtain their freedom and democracy. We then found out that this right is a serious threat to some stable societies, when we saw that religious groups seized the revolutions in order to impose their power and to tear their countries apart.
Why do you call it "unknown document" if it has already been approved and announced?
Because I forgot it. I published the documents in my book, but it appears they have been erased from Al-Azhar.
Didn’t Al-Azhar already announce it under the title “Document to support the will of the Arab peoples”?
The original texts of this document have been erased, and you will not find them, because they provoke, annoy and hurt some of those who reject the revolutions.
Then what came after the document “The Right of the Muslims in the revolution against tyranny”?
Then came the third document on freedoms, which is the culmination of this wave of optimism and the progressive human and civilization perspective, and this has already been acknowledged and passed.
Then the Brotherhood and the Salafis took control of the parliament when I finished writing the fourth document on women's rights.
Why couldn’t Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam announce it?
Because some Azharis that attended the closing session with us for the approval of this document included about 40 women Brotherhood members and Salafis. They did not come only to oppose the document regarding the courageous items defending women's rights, but they also wanted to review all the existing laws on women.
These women told the Grand Imam: “How are you silent about these laws that have destroyed the religion?” It is strange to me that they are women and yet deny the rights of women, and more precisely they want to return to the age of the harem.
These women were members of the parliament at the time?
Yes, they were Brotherhood members and Salafis. When a woman hates women obtaining their rights and opposes their freedom, she definitely wants to become a “slave girl”.
What items were contained in the "Women's Rights" document?
When I wrote this document, I realized that the situation of women is more subject to the structure of societies and the nature of their structure, traditions and local culture than to theoretical principles. Therefore, invoking some of their rights acquired today based on some jurisprudential views influenced by different environments in the past eras is a waste of basic principles of Islamic law and human rights together.
I would like to recall that the most important items included in the "Women's Rights" document include the recognition of full equality between men and women, independent personality, and the right of full citizenship without any discrimination based on the jurisprudence of imams and thinkers from the dawn of the Arab Renaissance until the date of writing the document, in addition to their liberation from the shackles of the restrictions and traditions that they have endured throughout unjust ages.
Among the important items approved by this document are the equal rights of women to men in public and private circles, particularly political and social rights regarding learning, employment, health, reproductive health, family formation, free will, explicit consent, and other things that fully guarantee women their rights.
Did Al-Azhar initially approve the "Women's Rights" document according to the items that you mentioned, and then it unable to announce it following the position of the Muslim women and the Salafis with Sheikh Tayyeb, as you mentioned earlier?
Al-Azhar did not agree to the document “Women's Rights”. There was a consensus in the beginning until the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis and they denied it and wanted to issue another false document that differed completely from what we had agreed. At the time I told Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, "If you issue a document other than the one we agree with, we will announce at a press conference our, the intellectuals, disagreement with you."
Did you as intellectuals gather in other sessions with the scholars of Al-Azhar, especially since the break seemed apparent between you caused by the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in gaining a parliamentary majority and seizing power?
Yes, this happened two years after the draft of the “Women's Rights” document was thwarted and the days passed to the revolution of June 30, 2013 against the fascist religious state that the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to establish. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a renewal of the religious discourse. We were scheduled to hold our meetings at the end of 2015 and there were three or four lengthy meetings that lasted for almost a year.
As always, there were meetings to discuss the set of basic principles that I wrote in the document and they made their observations. Then, we take these observations to support the basic idea and leave what is not supported.
Who from outside Al-Azhar was present at the meetings to draft to the religious renewal document?
A very large number of intellectuals and intellectuals, but I will not mention their names now. Perhaps the reason for this is that the document was not published, because we were told that it would be issued shortly after that, but Al-Azhar has delayed it issue, which is still delayed.
Personally, I do not understand and do not know why the Grand Imam does not relieve himself and issue this document and respond, even late, to the president's request. Why does he put himself and Al-Azhar in this embarrassment?
The Grand Imam was in agreement with the terms of the document and eager to issue it?
He agreed to its terms but was not very enthusiastic about it. I know members of the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar Scholars reject any change in the religious discourse that is in place now, and they have begun to intimidate Tayyeb, whom I testify to be a man of great goodness, morality and gentleness.
I waited a lot for Al-Azhar to initiate and publish document on the renewal of the religious discourse that we had agreed to, but it did not, so I had to publish it in full in my book.