Unified or dictated? New constraints on Friday sermons anger imams
Imams to read from pre-written sermon distributed by the Ministry of Endowments
Courtesy: www.shutterstock.com

Last Saturday the Ministry of Endowments announced the formation of a committee to draft Friday sermons that will be distributed to imams across the country.

The decision is another step in the ministry’s ongoing attempt to unify its control over sermons. It had previously moved to unify the topics of each sermon but left the articulation of their particular points to individual imams.

In its statement, the ministry said the decision aims to facilitate imams’ work and guarantee the optimum delivery of the salient points of the unified topics the ministry dictates. The statement also strongly criticized imams’ performance in delivering Friday sermons, using this to justify the new decision.

“Some imams can’t handle themselves well at the altar, either by prolonging the sermon in a way that doesn’t follow the example of the prophet or by deviating from the main topic to other scattered and irrelevant issues, in a way that confuses and distracts the listener, and hence the intended meaning gets lost, or by going into political or partisan issues that are irrelevant to the topic of the sermon,” it said.

In a statement published on the ministry’s website on Monday, Endowments Minister Mokhtar Gomaa said the decision to unify sermon content is not politically motivated but aims to ensure a spiritually enlightened and methodological delivery. Gomaa stated that he would meet with leading figures representing imams to emphasize the importance of the decision.

The ministry also announced that the new decision would not be absolutely binding, however: Its local directorates will prepare lists of distinguished imams who will be allowed to draft their own written versions of the unified topic.

The move to unify Friday sermons dates back to 2013 when the Endowments Ministry was a principal player in the struggle between the post-June 30 regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, following the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi. The ministry was working toward controlling the religious sphere in order to disarm the Brotherhood of one of its strongest weapons: religious discourse.

A kind of a war of the altars was started when Gomaa announced that around 50,000 imams would be dismissed from their positions in September 2013. He justified the decision as “an attempt to prevent the politicization of the altar.” Prayer corners and mosques smaller than 80 meters were also banned, ostracizing Brotherhood affiliated imams who had established a presence there. The ministry also limited the right to deliver sermons to ministry-certified imams through a law decreed by interim President Adly Mansour shortly before he left his position.

When the ministry moved to consolidate sermon topics under its direction in 2013, Gomaa held a press conference and stated that the move was not intended to constrain religious freedom but to keep mosques from falling into political struggles.

But the ministry’s latest decision to distribute and mandate adherence to already written sermons has been met with anger and criticism from a large sector of imams working in the ministry, who sarcastically created the term “the imam with the paper.” For them, the scene of an imam reading a sermon from a piece of paper written by the government would make them a laughing stock.

A ministry imam who preferred to remain anonymous said that there’s a general rejection of the decision within the larger community of imams. They have criticized Gomaa, blaming the new decision on “his failure to make a real plan to renew religious discourse in Egypt,” adding that instead, “he’s trying to please the political leadership by any means.”

While the rollout of the new decision wasn’t met with consensus from many imams, there was greater coordination within the government. The decision’s announcement coincided with a meeting between Gomaa and President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, in which the former presented the ministry’s plan for training imams. Gomaa also presented Sisi with a strategy to “reframe and elevate the correct and enlightened understanding of religion,” as reported by the state-run Middle East News Agency. Sisi was reported to say that he supports the ministry’s efforts.

But for the ministry imam, the new decision’s focus on consensus will turn imams into “parrots on altars,” stifling invaluable diversity. The nature of Egyptian society is different from Arabian Gulf countries, which follow a similar system of unified sermons, he said, adding that Egyptian society’s diversity requires that imams have more freedom and flexibility to pick topics that suit their constituents. Gomma’s statement that imams had agreed to give up this freedom by consenting to the decision misled politicians, the imam said.

“The minister claims in all his decisions that he consults the imam community, but that’s not true. Every time, he meets with selected imams who are prohibited from discussing the ministry’s problems with the minister,” he said.

Gaber Taye’, the head of the ministry’s religion sector, told Mada Masr in a phone interview that Gomaa met with him and representatives of various sectors in the ministry on Monday and convinced them that a unified written sermon is in the best interest of Islam. He said the minister would hold a larger meeting on Tuesday with ministry officials across the country to explain the decision in preparation for nationwide implementation.

But the decision will be difficult to enforce at such a scale if imams don’t willingly adhere to it, according to the anonymous ministry imam who pointed to the ministry’s failure to impose similar decisions, such as prohibiting prayer in small mosques and banning non-certified imams, practices that continue despite new regulations. He also said the exceptions to be given to select imams will open the door for discrimination and preferential treatment.

Even if consensus can be imposed, there is still the question of whether such homogeneity can speak to Egypt’s many communities, the ministry’s imam argued.

Mohamed Sobhy, a ministry-certified imam in Beheira Governorate, also highlighted this issue, telling Mada Masr that the decision’s main problem is that it doesn’t account for the different needs of Egypt’s diverse society.

“As an imam working in rural areas, the unified topics aren’t always suitable for the rural communities,” he said. “This will be more problematic with written sermons. If there’s a death, I can’t discuss something that doesn’t correspond with the state of grief and sadness. The sermon has to respond to reality and the needs of the community. I abide by the unified topics just to avoid harm but not out of conviction. If the state aims to control the religious sphere, I don’t mind, but there has to be consideration for the needs of the community as well.”

And if enforcement will be an issue for the ministry at large, the problem will be more acute in rural areas, according to Sobhy, as these remote areas are often neglected by a ministry which often trains its focus on prominent mosques.

“Since the imposition of a unified sermon in 2013, not a single Endowments Ministry inspector has shown up in my mosque,” he said.

Responding to some of these criticisms, Taye’ told Mada Masr: “We will not solve all of Egypt’s problems over the phone.” Instead, he expressed faith in the rungs of Egypt’s religious bureaucracy, stating that the minister has succeeded in convincing senior ministry officials, who will in turn convince imams in governorates of the importance of executing the decision.


Translated by Heba Afify

Mai Shams El-Din 

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