Anger over the decision to unify the Friday sermon throughout Egypt’s mosques has extended from the ministry to imams to the leadership of Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar, whose deputy last week said that the directive to imams to read ministry-issued sermons does not apply to Al-Azhar preachers.
“Al-Azhar was not officially notified about what is being reported on the written sermon,” Abbas Shouman wrote in a statement on his Facebook page last week. “It is not binding to Al-Azhar preachers, who are provided with a library enabling them to pass on their knowledge. This is apart from the fact there is a careful process through which the preachers were selected and the experience most of them have gained through preaching locally and internationally.”
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Endowments announced the formation of a committee to draft Friday sermons to be distributed to imams across the country, after 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 assigned topics. The ministry justified its move with harsh criticism of imams’ delivery of Friday sermons.
A member of Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars told privately owned Al-Watan newspaper that the minister is attacking Al-Azhar scholars and lamented the ministry’s position.
“The ministry’s position saddens me,” Mahmoud Mehanna said. “Engaging in conflict with Al-Azhar will negatively affect the country. Egypt is worth nothing without Al-Azhar, it is what brought Islam to the six continents.”
Mehanna raised questions over the source from which the minister receives orders, implying security involvement.
He added that Al-Azhar’s preachers might abandon the Endowments Ministry’s mosques if they are bound by the decision to unify the sermons.
Head of the ministry’s Quranic affairs department in the Qalyubiya directorate, Mohamed Nassar, explains that the ministry uses to 3000 Al-Azhar preachers to give Friday sermons on a bonus system. The preachers also regularly give lessons in ministry mosques.
Nassar says that the ministry took this decision on its own without consulting with Al-Azhar, since it sees itself as a superior ministry that can take decisions independently and enforce them on whoever preaches in its mosques.
“The point of contention is that Al-Azhar sees the written sermon as a step backwards with regards to religious discourse in Egypt. Al-Azhar leaders believe that educating imams is the right step towards renewing the country’s religious discourse.”
Nasser expects the conflict between Al-Azhar and the Endowments Ministry to escalate, until Al-Azhar preachers are banned from preaching in the ministry’s mosques unless they adhere to the unified sermon.
Amr Ezzat, religious freedoms researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says that both sides are competing over control over the religious scene in Egypt.
“Al-Azhar’s Sheikh has the scientific and religious status, but the control over the religious space is in reality and administratively in the hands of the Endowments Ministry,” he adds.
Ezzat explains that the conflict dates back to Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb’s participation in the June 30 alliance that ousted former President Mohamed Morsi and paved the way for his control over the religious space after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Gomaa, the current minister, used to work in Tayeb’s office and Tayeb is the one who recommended him for the Endowments Minister position, but the competition between them intensified after that,” he said.
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. It was one of Gomaa’s first moves, made minister in July 2013.
The ministry was working toward controlling the religious sphere in order to disarm the Brotherhood of one of its strongest weapons: religious discourse.
Ezzat suggests that the diversity of Al-Azhar preachers’ political ideologies might be the reason behind the state’s mistrust in them, as opposed to the Endowments Ministry imams who are under its administrative control.
The common idea that Al-Azhar represents moderate Islam, at the top of which is the Council of Senior Scholars, with Tayeb at its head, is misleading, he says.
“The Council of Senior Scholars is a minority who are carefully picked,” Ezzat explains. “The majority of Azharis belong to Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood groups, some of whom have opposing positions to Al-Azhar and are thus not in line with either the state or the leadership within Al-Azhar.”
Translated by Dalia Rabie