The state of the imam

Brotherhood leader Salah Soltan, who once headed the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, wrote in one of his books that the Imam of the Muslims, or the Caliph, has the supreme right of running the affairs of the Islamic religion believed by the people under his reign. Current Minister of Endowments Mokhtar Gomaa said recently that the Egyptian state is now the Imam.

This ironic similarity drove researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Amr Ezzat to coin the term “The State of the Imam” in reference to the Egyptian state’s monopoly on running the religious sphere in modern history, including the Islamic religion.

In a study titled: “To whom do the minbars belong to today? An analysis on the state’s policy in running mosques,” Ezzat argued that the way the state moderated the affairs of mosques was based on three hypotheses.

The three hypotheses state that there is a religious unity of Muslims, and claim that the state is the imam and a representative of this unified group of Muslims, as well as the “watchdog” of the limits of Islamic religious activity.

These statements have sparked mixed reactions within a diverse Islamic society, including within Islamic groups that are divided sectorally or politically, as well as various stances from the ruling regime. Many of these groups do not acknowledge the state as the supreme organizer of the religious sphere. Instead, they create their own alternatives or ignore the existence of the state altogether, the study suggests.

The third reality is that some religious activities take place outside the limits imposed by the state. This often provokes confrontation with the state, or leads to negotiations. 

The study maintains that Islamic religious groups like the Brotherhood and Salafis have been always in a state of negotiation or confrontation with the state, while other Muslim religious minorities, like the Shia, are not fully acknowledged by the state and are often oppressed by it.

The roots of the state’s hypotheses are attributed by the study to the history of Islamic Fiqh, which stipulates that Muslims are to be privileged over others and that the mosque is the center of their religious and political life. The caliph or the imam of Muslims is the political and religious leader, who exclusively runs the religious affairs of the Islamic Caliphate.

Ezzat states that the modern state in Egypt has inherited the same policy toward running the religious sphere, where the state has replaced the imam.

“During the time of [late President Gamal] Abdel Nasser, decisions regarding the appointing of Imams of major central mosques were under his jurisdiction. In this case, Nasser became the imam,” Ezzat explained.

The state’s control over mosques included appointing imams and criminalizing any religious activity that was not authorized by the Endowments Ministry, which Ezzat described as the state’s executive hand imposing its iron fist over the religious sphere. The state’s control also included the activities of individuals or NGOs, which it said should remain charitable, without any religious or political activity that threatens state control. The security apparatus had the upper hand in appointing imams of mosques, mostly reinforcing the official religious line of the state.

But the outbreak of the January 25 revolution weakened the state’s control over the religious sphere, resulting in a fluid situation in which organized and politicized religious groups like the Brotherhood and the Salafis could regain influence.

The peak of such fluidity, however, happened after the Brotherhood’s rise to power, following the election of Mohamed Morsi. A wide alliance of Islamist groups and leaders of the Brotherhood controlled key positions in the Ministry of Endowments, with imams appointed from those who were either members of the major Islamist organizations or those close to them.

This move, which the media coined as the “Brotherhoodization of the Endowments Ministry,” represented the Brotherhood’s continuation of state control of the religious sphere, with some cosmetic changes.

Following the ouster of Morsi, the state gained even stricter control over the mosques, as Gomaa decided to ban holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 meters. The ministry also decided to appoint Imams, especially in major and central mosques, and sacked those known to have affiliations to the Brotherhood or other groups associated with political Islam.

The state also unified the topic of Friday prayers, in which Imams preach to a wide segment of Muslim society.

Ezzat suggests, “The way the state controlled religion in many ways harmed Muslims themselves.” 


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