September 6, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 734

Egypt's Islamic Camp, Once Suppressed By Regime, Now Taking Part in Shaping New Egypt – Part I: The Al-Azhar Document

September 6, 2011 | By L. Azuri*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 734


Post-Mubarak Egypt is experiencing intense political competition over the shaping of the new regime. In this political climate, presidential candidates, political parties and movements, and various public figures have all been publishing manifestos setting out their vision for the post-revolution era, with each hoping to take part in the creation of the new constitution.

The most significant documents to emerge from Egypt's liberal-secular camp were the "Declaration of Rights of the Egyptian People," drafted by Dr. Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, leader of the Democratic Front party and former editor of the magazine Al-Siyassa Al-Duwaliyya; the "Bill of Fundamental Rights and Principles," by former IAEA director-general and presidential candidate Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei; and a memorandum submitted by Judge Hisham Al-Bastawisi, deputy of the chief justice of Egypt's Cessation Court and presidential candidate, addressed to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and proposing constitutional principles for redefining the military's role in the country. Deputy Prime Minister Dr. 'Ali Al-Silmi also made headlines recently with a proposal that a committee be formed to outline a new constitution based on all the other documents published to date. This latter initiative sparked opposition among Egypt's Islamist streams, which were not made party to its drafting and which fear that its proposals will contradict shari'a.[1]

This series of reports will present the views of Egypt's Islamist camp, which, with the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, underwent a dramatic shift from an oppressed group to an active partner in the country's political life. Since the revolution, Al-Azhar, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other, more extreme Islamist streams have regained political legitimacy, and their voice is no longer absent from the public sphere, as was largely the case during the Mubarak era. While Al-Azhar had often served as a "rubber stamp" for Mubarak, lending legitimacy to his policies and political decisions, since the revolution there have been demands, by this institution and by the Egyptian public, that Al-Azhar's independence from the regime is assured, and that its role as the supreme religious authority in Egypt and the Islamic world be restored.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was suppressed and politically persecuted by the previous regime, it has since the revolution entered a new phase, manifested by its establishment of an official political party (the Freedom and Justice Party), by its establishment of centers in Egypt's larger cities, and by the strongly felt presence of Brotherhood members in the media and in decision-making forums. Likewise, Egypt's Salafi streams, silenced under the previous regime, now freely participate in Egypt's public discourse and are jockeying for a place in the political sphere.

The first part of this series will present the Al-Azhar Document and some of the reactions it evoked in Egypt. The document, published June 21, 2011, by Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb, seeks to define the status of religion in post-Mubarak Egypt. It calls for Egypt to be reshaped as a modern democratic nation-state that respects the separation of powers, guarantees equal rights to all citizens, upholds human rights, and guarantees freedom of worship to followers of the three monotheistic faiths. The document states that Islam does not approve of theocratic states, though the principles of shari'a law should remain the primary basis of legislation. Most political elements in Egypt have accepted the document, though it has some opponents.

The second part of the series will address the status of the Muslim Brotherhood and its activity in preparation for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. The Brotherhood has endorsed the Al-Azhar document as well as another document drafted by the "Democratic Alliance for Egypt" – a coalition of 28 parties, including the Al-Wafd and Freedom and Justice parties – which outlines principles for a new constitution. They have expressed opposition to Al-Silmi's proposal for an inclusive document combining the various suggestions.

The third part of the series will be devoted to the Charter of Honor on Da'wa and National Activity, drafted by 36 prominent clerics from several Islamist streams, which specifies ground rules for the cautious and limited participation of Islamist organizations in Egyptian politics and public discourse in the post-Mubarak era. The document attempts to outline a political plan that will yield maximal results in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and aims to identify common ground among the Sunni Islamists that will enable them to conduct a joint elections campaign or, at least, to avoid undermining each other and to promote the gradual establishment of a state based on shari'a law.

The Al-Azhar Document – Rejecting the Establishment of a Clerical Regime in Egypt

On June 20, 2011, Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb published what has been called the "Al-Azhar Document" which seeks to define the status of religion in post-Mubarak Egypt. The document, drafted in meetings between Al-Tayeb and senior Al-Azhar clerics with prominent Egyptian intellectuals and ideologues, calls for Egypt to be reshaped as a modern democratic and constitutional nation-state with separation of powers, equal rights and responsibilities for citizens regardless of their religion, and the protection of human rights. The document emphasizes that the laws and history of Islam do not sanction theocratic states, but are, rather, in line with the modern model of parliamentary pluralism and regime change through free, democratic elections. It specifies that the principles of shari'a law must remain the primary basis of legislation, but that the state must guarantee freedom of religious worship for all three monotheistic faiths and must let each religious community apply its own personal status laws. The document also supports the independence of Al-Azhar from the regime.[2]

The Egyptian and Arab press hailed the document as one of historic significance, as it marked the entry of Al-Azhar – Egypt's supreme religious authority – into the vigorous sociopolitical debate on state-religion issues that has preoccupied Egypt since its revolution.[3] In the document, Al-Azhar clearly opposes the establishment of a religious state, in the sense of a clerical state after the model of Iran – a stance shared by most of Egypt's political elements and one which Al-Azhar had also expressed under the Mubarak regime.[4]

However, the Al-Azhar Document has not settled the argument between Egypt's liberal-secular circles, which demand the separation of religion and state, and the Islamist streams, which call for the implementation of shari'a law in Egypt, whether immediately or gradually, once the ground has been prepared.[5] Egypt's previous constitution, suspended following the revolution, defined shari'a as the primary basis for legislation, and religion-based personal status laws have likewise been in place for many years. Therefore, the Al-Azhar Document does not represent a significant departure from the status quo prior to the revolution.[6]

On the other hand, the document does represent an effort by Al-Azhar to propose an agreed-upon social contract with hopes of bridging the widening rifts in Egyptian society, not through extreme measures but by a pragmatic and adaptive approach aimed at affording the various social groups a modus vivendi and, most importantly, creating stability. As such, the document does not focus on specific and urgent problems, such as the ban on building churches that for years has fueled conflicts between Copts and Muslims, but rather employs a general and cautious tenor which is open to interpretation, an indication of Al-Azhar's desire to attain the broadest possible legitimacy.

Indeed, unlike the numerous other documents recently published by various political elements, outlining the path the country should take following the revolution, the Al-Azhar Document was signed by most of Egypt's political forces (in an August 17, 2011 meeting with Al-Tayeb) as a charter of honor that should inform the drafting of the new constitution. Senior government officials welcomed the document and even proposed to append it to government papers as "one of the important documents in the history of Egypt's ideological, political, and social life."[7] The Muslim Brotherhood too endorsed it as a "clear declaration of the stance of the veteran Islamic academic institution, and the supreme [authority] in the Islamic world, which clears up confusions in numerous lingering questions."[8] Additionally, 16 Islamist parties, including the Al-Wasat and Al-Nahdha parties, supported it as a basis for the new Egyptian constitution.[9]

In contrast, some of the Salafi movements and parties signed the document with reservations, such as a request that Egypt be defined as an Islamic, rather than secular, state and that shari'a as a whole, rather than its "general principles," be defined as the primary basis for legislation. Some demanded that the term "non-Muslims" be replaced with the expression "members of the monotheistic faiths," in order to prevent the introduction of personal-status laws for the Baha'i and Buddhist faiths.

Some articles in Egypt's government and independent press expressed support for the document, while others opposed it. Its supporters regarded it as a road map that all Egypt's sectors should follow, or saw it as heralding the restoration of Al-Azhar as a beacon of moderate thought and religion in Egypt and the world. In contrast, some Islamists called it "ideological terrorism," stating that it imposes secular, liberal, and leftist ideals on the whole of society, while some in Egypt's secular camp claimed that Al-Azhar had no right to shape the country's identity.

The following are excerpts from the document and from a number of reactions to it:

An Agreed-Upon Strategy for Establishing a Modern State

The Al-Azhar Document's opening statement reads: "Upon the honorable initiative of Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb, a select group of Egyptian intellectuals from various ideological and religious streams met with several of Al-Azhar's senior clerics and ideologues and discussed, in a series of meetings, the needs of Egypt in the historic and decisive period since the January 25 Revolution, and the importance of steering Egypt's future toward the noble goals [of this revolution] and toward [attaining] the rights of the people to freedom, dignity, equality, and social justice. The deliberators agreed on the need to pave the way for the homeland's [future] based on general principles to be discussed by the Egyptian public... aimed ultimately at formulating the ideological frameworks underlying the foundations of society and its proper path... and at defining principles for understanding the relationship between Islam and the state at this sensitive stage. All this, as part of the framework of an agreed-upon strategy for shaping the longed-for modern state and its regime...

"[This must be done] while preserving the Islamic principles that have taken root in the nation's consciousness and in the conscience of the clerics and ideologues [as a safeguard] against neglect, deviation, radicalization, false interpretation, and exploitation at the hands of various errant streams – [whose] religious, sectarian, or ideological slogans are distant from the basic principles of our faith, deviate from the moderate and middle path, contradict the essence of Islam (freedom, justice, and equality) and distance [Islam] from the tolerance of all the monotheistic faiths.

"We deliberators herein declare our agreement over the following principles as defining the nature of enlightened Islamic authority, as manifest in several general issues that arise out of shari'a texts that are absolutely clear and valid and which reflect a proper understanding of the religion. We will summarize them in the following points:"

Democracy, Freedom, Human Rights, and Equality Among Monotheistic Faiths; Al-Azhar To Be Authority on Matters of Islam

"1. Support for the establishment of a constitutional, democratic, and modern nation-state based on a constitution agreed upon by the nation that maintains the separation of the state's [executive] and judiciary institutions; defines the framework of government; and ensures the rights and responsibility of all [citizens] on the basis of equality. The state's legislative authority is to comprise representatives of the people, [a principle that is] sanctioned by the correct understanding of Islam – for [Islam], in its rulings, culture, and history, never recognized what is known in other cultures as a clerical regime, of the sort that controlled the public and caused much suffering to humanity in various periods of its history. [Islam] allowed people to run their own societies and choose the apparatuses and institutions according to their interests, on the condition that the general principles of shari'a [remain] the primary basis for legislation, and in a way that allows the members of the other monotheistic faiths to follow their own religious laws in matters of personal status.

"2. Reliance on a democratic regime based on free and direct elections, which is the modern way to implement the Islamic principles of shura, which include pluralism, peaceful government turnover, [clearly] defined [domains of] authority [for the various state institutions]; oversight of the conduct and duties of senior officials, who are accountable to the people's representatives; striving to [serve] the general interests of the public and to promote the general good; conducting all state affairs in accordance with the law; eliminating corruption; and achieving full transparency and freedom of information.

"3. Upholding all basic freedoms of thought and opinion, with complete respect for human, women's, and children's rights; regarding [the right to] citizenship and the absence of discrimination on the basis of religion, race, sex, etc. as a basic obligation and responsibility [of the state]; emphasizing pluralism; and respecting all three monotheistic faiths.

"4. Full respect for the ethics of debate and dialogue, while avoiding accusations of apostasy and treason and the exploitation of religion to cause schism, hostility, and enmity among civilians; regarding incitement to religious discrimination and to sectarian and racist tendencies as a crime against the homeland; and basing the relations between various groups in society on dialogue among equals and on mutual respect, without any discrimination in citizens' rights and responsibilities.

"5. An emphasis on upholding international treaties and resolutions; a commitment to achievements in culture and human relations, which are in line with the tolerant heritage of Islamic and Arab culture and which suit the Egyptian people's vast cultural experience throughout various stages of history, [experience] that set an example to mankind as a whole of peaceful coexistence and of striving for the [common] good.

"6. Utter diligence in defending the honor of the Egyptian nation and its national glory; full protection and respect for the houses of worship of the three monotheistic faiths; and ensuring the free practice of all [monotheistic] religious rituals without any obstructions, and respect for all forms of worship... Likewise, utter diligence in defending freedom of expression and originality in artistic and literary works, within the general framework of our steadfast cultural values.

"7. Regarding education and scientific research as the responsibility of the state; launching Egypt into an era of knowledge and [rendering it] the vanguard of cultural progress, while increasing efforts to catch up where we have fallen behind in these fields; harnessing all public energy to overcome illiteracy; and utilizing [Egypt's] human resources to realize the great projects planned for the future.

"8. Setting priorities for achieving social development and justice; combating tyranny and corruption; eliminating unemployment and bringing society to [a state of] economic, social, cultural, and media revival, such that programs in these fields will constitute a first priority for our people in its current revival; and regarding medical treatment as a duty of the state to all its citizens.

"9. Building up Egypt's relations with it sister Arab [states], its Islamic surroundings, its African circle – especially with the countries of the Nile Basin – and with the rest of the world's countries, based on cooperation in [working for] the common good and striving for the interests of the peoples, in the framework of reciprocity and complete independence; continued cooperation in the noble human effort to advance civilization, protect the environment, bring about just peace between nations, and bridge their various interests, while supporting Palestinian right[s], preserving the independence of the will of the Egyptian [people], and restoring [Egypt] to its senior historic role."

"10. Supporting the independence of the Al-Azhar institution; the election of [the Al-Azhar sheikh] by the Senior Clerics Council; developing Al-Azhar's curricula to restore it to its original role in the realm of ideology; emphasizing Al-Azhar's international role, which is respected worldwide; and appreciating [Al-Azhar's] effective efforts toward rapprochement between the various Islamic schools.

"11. Regarding the honorable Al-Azhar as the authorized body to be consulted in matters of Islam, [including] Islamic studies, heritage, and innovations – without infringing upon anyone's right to express his opinions, provided he has the requisite knowledge, that the etiquette of dialogue is maintained, and that respect is accorded to what the clerics of the ummah have agreed upon.

"Al-Azhar's clerics and the intellectuals who took part in preparing this document call upon all of Egypt's political parties and streams to continue working towards Egypt's political, economic, and social progress, within the framework of the fundamentals specified herein."[10]

Responses in Favor of Al-Azhar Document

The Al-Azhar Document – A Constitution All Societies Should Adopt

'Adel Al-Sanhouri, columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', wrote: "The document... is a true road map for society, and a constitution all sectors in society must agree on. This revolutionary document has summarized the demands of the public and its vision of Egypt's future after the January 25 Revolution.

"The document has restored Al-Azhar to its revolutionary role of active and significant involvement in matters of society, and has restored its splendor as a beacon of Islamic knowledge and faith in its moderate and tolerant form, both in the Islamic world and elsewhere... Al-Azhar is now breathing new life into the revival generation and experiencing its second revolution, after the first developmental revolution [when then-president Gamal 'Abd Al-Nasser nationalized Al-Azhar University and rendered it independent] in 1961. But another revolution remains to be staged in the development of [Al-Azhar's] curricula, in renewing religious discourse, and in teaching the books and ideas of the pioneers of reformism..."[11]

Deputy Leader of Muslim Brotherhood's Political Party: Al-Azhar – An Agreed-Upon National Authority

Dr. 'Issam Al-'Arian, deputy leader of the Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, praised Al-Azhar for publishing the document, and called to submit it for approval by the Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research so that it would garner broader support: "The significance of [this document's publication at the present time] is that Al-Azhar is now strongly present on Egypt's post-revolution scene, and represents the public national source of authority which all agree upon, regardless of their political, ideological, and religious differences. Al-Azhar has regained some of the prominence it requires in order to restore its longed-for role and become an influential force – as [an institution] above all political disputes, ideological struggles, and social tensions.

"I hope that the honorable [Al-Azhar Sheikh] Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb will present this document in a special session of the Academy for Islamic Research, so that it will be more broadly discussed and receive the general support of the prominent and honorable clerics... [I] praise the great Al-Azhar and its national role in all matters, which is above being dragged into party life and partisan tendencies – as the national, ideological, and cultural source of authority that embraces all: Muslims and Christians, Islamists and leftists, liberals and socialists..."[12]

Responses Against Al-Azhar Document

Al-Azhar Has No Right to Shape Egypt's Future

Dr. Manar Al-Shurbagi, an Egyptian researcher on U.S. affairs and a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, opposed the document: "The Al-Azhar document, which was grandly welcomed by our political elite, was drafted by a few intellectuals and Al-Azhar [clerics] and published in the name of Al-Azhar. With all due respect to the honorable Al-Azhar – the exalted religious institution that continues to be a beacon of enlightened Islamic thought, and which is held dear by all of us and by Muslims worldwide – shaping the Egyptian state is not the role of Al-Azhar, nor should it be.

"As individuals, Al-Azhar's clerics have the right to participate, alongside other Egyptians, in all aspects of shaping this nation's future, including its political [future]. But that is one thing, while publishing this document in the name of Al-Azhar is another thing entirely... Al-Azhar has no legitimate [right] to determine the nature of the state and define the rules of its political game, for the people is the sole source of authority and, as such, it alone has the right to define the political path [Egypt is to take] – without the patronage of anyone, especially the religious institutions, unless we wish to establish a religious state in Egypt..."[13]

The Al-Azhar Document Opens the Door to Secularism and Atheism

Egyptian researcher Khaled Saqr, a guest lecturer from the Malaysian University of Technology, criticized the document from a completely different angle. He wrote in the Islamist daily Al-Misriyoun: "A number of days ago, the Al-Azhar Document was published, and touted, by Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb as the basis for defining the role of Islam and the shari'a in shaping Egypt's political future. This document includes, amazingly, an unprecedented number of elements of 'ideological terrorism'... The main reason behind this ideological terrorism... is the [identity of] those who took part in drafting the document, who were chosen exclusively from the most extreme secular and leftist streams. This matter shocked all the Islamic groups, which were almost entirely excluded from the discussion about the document...

"The first instance of the 'ideological terrorism' that is so sorely prominent in this document is the characterization of all the Islamic streams active in Egypt as extremist and deviant streams... This generalized description of the ideology of the Islamic streams in Egypt raises a number of questions regarding Al-Azhar's political role...

"The second instance of 'ideological terrorism'... is [the document's] recognition of a principle that completely contradicts the fundamental principles of all four schools of Sunni Islam, namely [the notion] that the shari'a is limited only to 'texts that are absolutely clear and valid.' By recognizing this destructive notion, the Al-Azhar Document opens the door to several tragic disasters: firstly, the destruction of what is still left of the authority of the four schools [of Islam]; secondly, the dissemination of modern Mu'tazila[14] [ideology] and aesthetic thought; and thirdly... the promotion of secularism, opening the door to the rejection of all texts on the laws of Islam and of the rulings of all the Muslim clerics throughout history, on the claim that they do no constitute 'texts that are absolutely clear and valid'...

"The appearance of this document is significant in a number of ways. Firstly, [it shows that] Egypt's secular stream has undergone a fundamental change, aimed at combining secular thought with some principles and ideas of the modern Mu'tazila stream represented by Muhammad 'Abdo, [Gamal Al-Din] Al-Afghani[15] and others mentioned in the document... Secondly, [it shows] that the secular leaders maintain a sort of ideological hold over Al-Azhar... Thirdly, [it reflects] a sort of discourse among the Azhar-secular alliance directed at the West, for this document [is meant to] signal to the U.S. that there is yet hope that Egypt's next political regime will maintain the ideological vacuum and backwardness, and the cultural Westernization, that have existed in Egypt for the past six decades."[16]

* L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 11, 2011.

[2] The document specifies that this is to be achieved via the restoration of the Supreme Clerics Council, whose members appointed the Al-Azhar sheikh until its disbanding in 1961, following which the Al-Azhar sheikh was appointed by Egypt's president.

[3] Al-Azhar did not previously take part in this debate, which aroused public as well as internal criticism. On this and on calls for reform from within Al-Azhar, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.684, "In Egypt, Protests and Demands for Change Reach Al-Azhar," April 15, 2011, In Egypt, Protests and Demands for Change Reach Al-Azhar.

[4] See Inquiry & Analysis No.341, "As Part of Its Struggle Against the Muslim Brotherhood, The Egyptian Regime Comes Out Against the Concept of a Cleric-Led State," April 13, 2007, As Part of Its Struggle Against the Muslim Brotherhood, The Egyptian Regime Comes Out Against the Concept of a Cleric-Led State.

[5] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3896, "Egyptian Islamist: The Egyptian People Want an Islamic State," June 7, 2011, Egyptian Islamist: The Egyptian People Want an Islamic State; MEMRI Special Dispatch No.3969, "Article on Muslim Brotherhood Website: Implement Shari'a in Phases," June 5, 2011, Article on Muslim Brotherhood Website: Implement Shari'a in Phases.

[6] It should be noted that Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Al-Tayeb took a more explicitly liberal stance towards non-Muslims – particularly Christians and Jews – in an article he published in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram on June 23, 2011, several days after the publication of the Al-Azhar Document. In the article, which received little attention in the press, Al-Tayeb drew a distinction between the fundamentals of the faith and the details of religious law. That is, he opined that Islam, Christianity and Judaism are alike in the fundamentals of faith, worship and morals, but differ in their religious laws, because such laws change from place to place and from time to time. In taking this stance, Al-Tayeb also implicitly legitimized the various interpretations of shari'a within Islam, i.e., in Shi'ite Islam and the four schools of Sunni Islam. The Al-Ahram article will be presented in a separate MEMRI report.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 23, 2011.

[8], June 29, 2011.

[9] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), July 21, 2011,, July 20, 2011.

[10] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 21, 2011.

[11] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), June 23, 2011.

[12] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), June 27, 2011. It should be noted that the Muslim Brotherhood's Office of the Supreme Guide instructed the movement's mufti, Dr. 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Bar, to write an informed article on the matter, which has yet to be published. Likewise, the movement's shura council called on its preachers to praise the Al-Azhar Document. Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), August 9, 2011.

[13] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), June 29, 2011.

[14] An Islamic stream of the 9th and 10th centuries. The Mu'tazila advocated free elections and strove for a model of Islam based on justice and rationalism. The writer here uses the term disparagingly.

[15] Late 19th-century scholars, considered by some to be founders of the reformist movement in modern Islam.

[16] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), June 23, 2011.

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