Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s official religious institution tasked with drafting edicts, held an international conference on Monday to confront the “chaos of fatwas” which, according to the institution have become a major source of religious extremism and terrorism, and to consolidate the power to issue fatwas into its own hands.
The conference, “Fatwas: the realities, challenges and prospects for the future,” brought together 50 muftis from across the Islamic world, and was held under the supervision of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who met with international delegations of religious clerics on Tuesday.
Dar al-Ifta spokesperson Ibrahim Negm said in an official statement that the conference’s recommendations revolve around drafting a code of ethics that lays down the legal and procedural foundations of confronting extremist fatwas as well as forming a committee of the institution’s religious scholars that is tasked with refuting fatwas issued by “extremist” religious clerics.
The recommendations also include launching a general secretariat gathering fatwa institutions from all over the Islamic world, which will be based in Cairo, an international center to train new personnel on issuing fatwas and an international center for issuing fatwas to Islamic communities abroad.
These new entities aim at “bringing the moderate Islamic meaning of fatwa under [the umbrella of] Dar al-Ifta,” the statement explained.
The research papers discussed during the conference tackled jurisprudence of minorities, the reasons for growing numbers of extremist fatwas, handling fatwas that confront religious extremism, confronting sectarian fatwas, moderate fatwas and religious reform in fatwas.
The papers were submitted by scholars from the Islamic world as well as Egyptian clerics including former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, Deputy to Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Abbas Shouman, Head of the School of Sharia and Law Abdel Halim Mansour, and member of Al-Azhar’s Panel of Senior Scholars Mohamed Raafat Othman.
The conference is arguably the first time Dar al-Ifta was strongly represented in the state-engineered control over the religious sphere in Egypt following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013. Since then, Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Endowments have been the main arms of the state in controlling religious discourse and spaces.
The Muslim Brotherhood that once had nearly full control over the religious discourse through Egypt’s mosques has recently been deprived of its most influential tool in controlling the practice of Islam in Egypt: its preachers in mosques.
A few months following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, the Endowments Ministry revoked the license of 55,000 imams and banned Friday sermons in mosques smaller than 80 meter-squared. The ministry also unified the topics of Friday sermons across the country.
The image of Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb standing next to Sisi as hedeclared Morsi’s ouster on July 3, 2013, showed how much political leverage the leading Islamic organization gained from the ouster. Endowments Minister Mohamed Gomaa’s ongoing efforts to enforce religious control puts him at the forefront of state religious figures.
Meanwhile, the country’s Grand Mufti Shawky Allam has been less visibly present in the state-sponsored religious scene over the last two and half years. Aside from minor fatwas condemning terrorism and bombings targeting security forces, Allam’s political presence has been minimal.
Amr Ezzat, researcher of religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) attributes this relatively small role played by Dar al-Ifta to its limited powers. With the exception of giving a consultative say on death sentences, the institution holds no power. While Ali Gomaa is popular, it is not due to his position at Dar al-Ifta, but his charisma and the strong body of followers he already had before becoming mufti, particularly from Sufi circles.
The conference also comes amid ongoing tension with the Brotherhood’s clerics and Al-Azhar. A contentious statement released this month by clerics associated with the Muslim Brotherhood group called “The Call of al-Kenana” condemned Egypt’s political leadership and accused Sisi’s government of being “killer and criminal”. The statement not only slammed Tayyeb, but also condemned Allam for approving death sentences against hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leaders and members.
In response to the statement, Al-Azhar released its own strong-worded statement, clearing Sisi’s regime of involvement in killing Muslim Brotherhood protesters following Morsi’s ouster and condemned the Brotherhood for carrying out terrorist plots against the state.
Ezzat explains to Mada Masr that the importance of the conference’s recommendations depends on whether or not they are enforced via a legal framework.
“To really control religious fatwas, the state will have to legally ban unauthorized clerics from issuing fatwas to people. Other than that, it is difficult to prevent clerics from giving their religious jurisprudence in religious matters. There is no option besides shutting them up,” he explained. He believes that these laws are likely to be put in place, given the recent crackdown.
He adds that the recommendations are not new, as similar ones were issued following similar conferences held by the Endowments Ministry and Al-Azhar. While controlling mosques and Friday sermons are clear practical steps to control the religious discourse, controlling fatwas would be meaningless without “an authoritarian legal framework,” he adds.
He also says that the “chaos of fatwas” is a misleading concept, similar to concepts used by the state to limit freedom of expression. In addition, Ezzat believes that state authorization is never a reflection of clerics’ popularity and following in Egypt.
Leading youth religious preachers like Amr Khaled, Moez Masoud and Mostafa Hosny are examples. The three preachers rose to fame, gathering huge followings through giving religious lessons in major urban mosques, before becoming television stars. Furthermore, Salafi preachers like Mohammed Hassan reach millions of Egyptians through religious satellite channels owned mostly by Salafi and Brotherhood businessmen.
He further says that the state’s logic behind controlling fatwas is based on two propositions: the first is that religious people in Egypt are not mature enough to reject extremist fatwas, and that issuing fatwas is a technical science that can be mastered only by state-authorized officials.