April 12, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series 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 12, 2007 | By L. Azuri*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 341


In recent months, as the Egyptian regime has been taking action against the Muslim Brotherhood, various spokesmen for Egypt's religious establishment – the sheikh of Al-Azhar, the Mufti of Egypt, Egypt's minister of religious endowments, and the vice-president of Al-Azhar University – have unanimously rejected the concept of a religious state headed by clerics, saying that this concept is incompatible with the principles of Islam. They have argued that Islam has from its outset decreed that there should be a civil democratic state with man-made laws, and that these laws may be based on Muslim religious law.

Columnists in the Egyptian government press also expressed objections to a state headed by clerics. Gaber 'Asfour, lecturer at Al-Azhar University's faculty of literature and head of Egypt's Supreme Cultural Council, even depicted a cleric-led state as the tyrannical state longed for by Islamists, which would abolish civil liberties and endanger all humanity with jihad and a new form of Nazism.

This firm public statement by the Egyptian establishment against the idea of a state headed by clerics is apparently driven by several developments in Egypt and in the region. The first of these is the Egyptian regime's fear of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt gaining strength. For several months now, the regime has been engaged in a campaign against the movement, including extensive arrests and interrogations, shutting down the places of business, publishing houses, newspapers, and websites of those close to the movement, and engaging in an anti-Muslim Brotherhood media campaign.[i]

Further, due to the Egyptian regime's wish to show the West, and particularly the U.S., that it is in the midst of processes of reform and democratization, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak declared constitutional reform, which was brought to a referendum on March 26, 2007 and passed by a large majority. One of the amendments that was approved was a ban on religion-based political activity, along with declarations that religion and politics must be separated. [ii]With this, Egypt is looking to dispel any image it may have as a regime opposed to authentic movements, and to show that its fight against the Muslim Brotherhood is a fight for liberal civic values.

The Egyptian regime is likewise seeking to end the debate that has been going on in Egyptian society in recent weeks, over Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution, which defines Islam as the state religion and shari'a as the main source of legislation, and was not included in the referendum. The country's Coptic Christian community and also parts of the intellectual community are in favor of amending Article 2, but the regime has clarified that Article 2 will remain as is. The regime also stressed that this does not mean that Egypt is either a religious state or a secular state, but a democratic civil state that respects all its citizens and their religion, as Islam commands.

I. The Egyptian Religious Establishment Comes Out Against a Religious State

Al-Azhar Sheikh: The Religious State is an Illusion and a Myth

Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi wrote: "Personally, I do not know of [any] country in the world called [a religious state], but I do know that they say 'the African, Asian, or European states,' or 'the Egyptian, French, Indonesian, Malaysian, or Iraqi state.' I read the Koran and I find that Allah the Supreme sent 25 messengers to [various] peoples... some of these peoples believed the call of their messengers and benefited, while others denied them, and lost. I did not read that the believers called [for] a 'religious state.' Furthermore, in the time of the Prophet, in the days of the Righteous Caliphs, and in the days of the Umayyad and Abbasid states... I never read or heard of a state called a 'religious state.' What I have read and heard is that one state [may] draw much of its legislation from religious law, while another state [may] do so to a lesser extent; that in a particular country, most residents are Muslim, while in another, most are non-Muslims... The religious state is an illusion and a myth that does not exist, and bringing up [this matter for discussion] is in itself [aimed at] inciting a feud."[iii]

In Islam, the Ruler is Not Appointed by Divine Decree – Islam Commands That There Be a Civil Government

In a speech marking the opening of the cultural season of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Egyptian Minister of Religious Affairs Dr. Muhammad Hamdi Zaqzouq said that Islam did not recognize a government of clerics, but wanted rulers who were chosen, and who had the capabilities to establish justice, freedom, and equality in accordance with the Islamic principles.

On the same occasion, Egyptian Mufti Dr. Ali Gum'a said: "Islam gave precedence to laws and pacts legislated by human beings when they come to establish the principles of citizenship, human rights, and religious and civil freedoms. The Al-Madina pact was the civil constitution that regulated relations between the Muslims and everyone else. This constitution recognized religious and cultural pluralism in society, with all the various beliefs and hues of its members." [iv]

On another occasion, Gum'a said: "In Islam, government is civil. Religion commands this. [However,] the religion does not define the form of this government, which can be [made up of] ministers or advisors, in the form of a people's council or a Shura council. Islam has never recognized religious government [in the sense of a government of clerics]."[v]

The "Rule of the Imam" is Not a Principle of the Faith

Al-Azhar University Vice President Dr. Muhammad Abd Al-Fadhel Al-Qawsi explained why a state headed by clerics was incompatible with Islamic principles: "A religious or theological state is [one] whose ruler draws legitimacy from a divine metaphysical source, by means of which he can supervise his subjects..."

Al-Qawsi added that the rule of the imam is not one of the [primary] principles of the [Muslim] faith. Rather, it is one of the branches of Islam, and as such it can legitimately be disputed. He further argued that, when the 'rule of the imam' exists, "it is based upon consent and choice..."

Al-Qawsi also quoted a hadith, according to which the First Caliph Abu Bakr rejected the religious state in his very first speech. Al-Qawsi wrote: "Can there be in Islam a state [headed by clerics] when in his first speech the first ruler of Islam, Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq, stopped this dispute at the very outset by setting out principles of democratic rule based on the ruler's civil responsibility [towards his subjects]? [He did this by saying:] 'I was appointed [governor] over you, but I am no better than you. So if you find my deeds good, help me; if you find otherwise, correct me'..."[vi]

II. The Egyptian Government Press Comes Out Against a State Headed by Clerics

In Islam, There is No State Headed by Clerics

Dr. Abdallah Al-Nagar, daily columnist for religious affairs in the Egyptian government paper Al-Gomhouriyya, wrote that Islam does not recognize a religious state: "There is no connection between Islam and the concept of a religious state [headed by clerics]... because Islam regulates matters of individual life and behavior in accordance with known rules of legislation. The recognized principles of religious law include sense and logic, reality and life, and develop with changes in season and changes in location... Therefore the idea of [the ruler's] divine right based on the caprices of those who are called 'clerics'... does not exist in Islam, and it cannot be compared with the Islamic laws legislated by Allah to guide the people on the righteous path and to improve their situation in this world and in the world to come..."[vii]

A State Headed by Clerics is a Danger to Humanity

Gaber Asfour, lecturer at the faculty of literature at Al-Azhar University and head of the Egypt's Supreme Cultural Council, sees a state headed by clerics as a tyranny that involves the abolition of freedoms and potentially the rise of a new Nazism. In a series titled "The Danger of a Religious State" in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, Asfour wrote:

"In modern Arab culture, the calls are increasing to establish a religious state, whose rulers represent a particular school of religious thought, or are clerics, or are an extremist religious clergy that will bring us back to the period of the Inquisition courts and lead us to destruction and fanaticism that are another aspect of political tyranny.

"It was in this culture that the concept of a 'civil state' began to take on a meaning as the opposite of a 'religious state.' The slogans of a religious state, for which the propagandists yearn, continue to serve as a cover for purely political aims..." [viii]

"A religious state is the goal and the slogan of political Islam groups. These groups agree that all solutions to society's problems depend on the establishment of this state, which will carry out justice among individuals, rule honestly, and put an end to oppression and violence...

"However, [these groups] have caused catastrophes in the countries where they have spread. It is enough to point to the massacres in Algeria, and to the spread of the assassinations of Muslims accused of heresy merely because they did not accept the idea of a religious state... "[ix]

"If a religious state arises, it will not be ruled by the law of Allah, but a group of people who pretend to be His proxies, who pretend to have a monopoly on knowledge of God, and who are against sharing the [divine] power, [divine] inspiration, and divine knowledge with others... The result will be the spread of violence and oppression in society... All [members] of society become [either] oppressors or oppressed..." [x]

"The danger [of a religious state] lies not only in the abolition of freedoms, but in the abolition of the meaning of citizenship determined by nationality, making it determined by faith. This means a transition from an atmosphere of tolerance and the principle of equality and non-discrimination among religious communities, social groups, and political streams... to a principle of extremism... In such an event, the religion will not belong to Allah, and the homeland [will not belong] to everyone; instead, the homeland will be, first and foremost, the right of a particular group that sees itself as the supreme and most deserving group and sees others as inferior [and thus as having fewer] civil rights..."[xi]

"The religious state is based on extremism – not only in the state's treatment of its citizens, but also in its treatment of [other] states.... If such a state exists... we will face a new kind of Nazism, or a new kind of jihad against all humanity, as long as humanity continues [to be perceived by the religious state] as infidel and as dar al-harb,[xii] which permits it to be subject to [conquest] by the armies of the religious [Islamic] state..." [xiii]

The Time Has Come to Reestablish a Civil State

Director-general of the Arab Journalists Union and Al-Ahram columnist Salah Al-Din Hafez wrote: "Today, more than in the past, we must reestablish a civil state, after [the utter failure] of previous attempts, and after the calls attacking the establishment of a religious state have become widespread... Because we stand before a great opportunity for the biggest constitutional amendment in the past half century, because we are at the height of a recurring and renewed discourse on democratic reform, and in light of the fear of the religious streams' rise to power, we must reformulate the doctrine of rule so as to reestablish a modern civil state and to define its identity and its belief. [This state is to be] a democratic state, that draws its legitimacy from the people and from the voters, and whose treatment of its citizens is based on a modern socio-political [contract] that preserves public freedoms and the political, civil, economic, and social rights of the citizens, without discrimination due to religion, belief, color, or gender..."[xiv]

III. The Muslim Brotherhood: The Islamic State is Not a State of Clerics; Statements by Egyptian Regime Spokesmen Indicate a Secularist Trend

Dr. Muhammad Marsi, member of the office of Muslim Brotherhood General Guide Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef and supervisor of the movement's political and parliamentary activity, argued that the Muslim Brotherhood's attitude towards a state headed by clerics in Islam is similar to that of the Egyptian establishment. Marsi told the Muslim Brotherhood website: "The concept of a 'religious state,' in its mistaken theocratic meaning, refers to a Western attempt that oppressed other peoples...– while in Islam there is no perception of such a state.

"The Islamic state is fundamentally civil, with all that this implies, with regard to the three independent authorities (executive, legislative, and judicial) and to how its Islamic administration [is run], within the main context of Islamic shari'a and its principles... In our view, the Islamic state [does not mean] a state of clerics, or a state of one who rules by divine command. In our view, and according to the historic experience of the Righteous Caliphs and the Muslim rulers that came after them, the [Islamic] state is civil in all its activities..."[xv]

While the Muslim Brotherhood maintains that Islam demands a civil state, it also maintains that the Egyptian regime's position against a religious state and against religion-based political activity indicates a secularist trend. Dr. Hamadi Hassan, spokesman of the group of 88 MPs from the Muslim Brotherhood in the People's Council, told the Egyptian weekly Akher Sa'a that the Muslim Brotherhood might form an alliance with the Popular Movement for the Struggle against Secularism – a movement led by MP Muhammad Al-'Amda.[xvi]

"Al-Amda explained that the Muslim Brotherhood intended to make the ruling party stop using [anti-religious] slogans, such as the its calls to separate religion and politics. He said that these calls reflect the regime's intention to adopt a secularist path, since they contradict Article 2 in the Egyptian constitution that sets out religious law as the main source of legislation. He added that the goal of his movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, was to oppose secularism in Egypt, and in no way to allow Egypt to become a secular state..."[xvii]

*L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[i] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 321, "Relations Worsen Between the Egyptian Regime and the Muslim Brotherhood," February 2, 2007, Saudi Government Daily: The Jews are Taking Over the World

[ii] Al-Gomhouriyya (Egypt), December 27, 2006, January 27, 2007.

[iii] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 21, 2007.

[iv] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 20, 2007.

[v] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 10, 2007.

[vi] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 12, 2007.

[vii] Al-Gomhouriyya (Egypt), February 26, 2007.

[viii] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 26, 2007.

[ix] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 15, 2007.

[x] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 22, 2007.

[xi] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 29, 2007.

[xii] According to Islamic religious doctrine, the world is divided into the region under the rule of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the region that is not under the rule of Islam (dar al-harb) that must be fought.

[xiii] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 5, 2007.

[xiv] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 3, 2007.

[xv], January 28, 2007.

[xvi] Akher Sa'a (Egypt), March 7, 2007.

[xvii], February 28, 2007.

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