(Ahlul Bayt News Agency) - The draft bill proposed by leaders of Al-Azhar to reform the oldest Sunni Muslim institution has sparked controversy among some young preachers, who dismiss it as a move by the old guard to tighten their grip on power.
Nevertheless, the draft law has delivered on the persistent demand of most religious leaders and observers in ending the tradition of having the Egyptian president appoint the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar.
It will retire the state-controlled Islamic Research Academy which now appoints the Grand Sheikh, and re-instate the traditional Senior Scholars Authority, which had been abolished in 1961 by Egypt's then president Gamal Abdel Nasser in order to bring the religious establishment under his direct control.
According to Nasr Farid Wassel, a former Mufti and member of the Islamic Research Academy, the restored Senior Scholars Authority is expected to have the final say on controversial public matters that require a religious opinion.
One of the main points of contention deals with the age of eligibility and the age of retirement for the Grand Sheikh and for membership in the Senior Scholars Authority.
The eligibility conditions for members of the revived authority is that a candidate should be known for his piety, hold a PhD, be well-published and at least 60 years old.
According to Rabei Marzouq, a 36-year-old Cairo-based preacher, the age requirement is meant to facilitate the nomination of incumbent Islamic Research Academy members, who are mostly over 60, to the new body.
"They make laws that suit them exactly as [toppled President Hosni] Mubarak did when he amended [the constitution] to cede his place to his son," contended Marzouq, adding that the minimum age should go down to 45. He shrugged off the current academy as "a shelter for the elderly".
Another issue was retirment age for the Grand Sheikh, which was set at 80.
"The retirement age for the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar cannot be 80. This does not conform to divine norms," complained Marzouq. "When a person gets older, he does not maintain the same concentration span. He loses the ability to administer matters."
For his part, Mohamed Raafat Othman, who has been part of the Islamic Research Academy for over ten years, argued against Marzouq's views on age limits. “Up to the age of 80 years, he [the Grand Sheikh] would be able to make fatwas and administer the big institution,” he said.
He also dismissed as "unacceptable" Marzouq’s claims that old religious leaders are tailoring laws to serve their own interests.
"The older religious leaders get, the more scientifically mature they become. They also become more capable of understanding Sharia injunctions," he added. "Religious leaders never lose the skill to make fatwas, no matter how old they get."
After Mubarak's ouster, different groups echoed demands to reform Al-Azhar and liberate it from state control, but each group had its own motives. Liberals contended that the empowerment of Al-Azhar, which has been known for its moderate interpretation of Islam, might eventually weaken the growing power of the Salafis. In the meantime, some Islamists, namely Salafi parties, have expressed their vehement support of granting Al-azhar full independence and empowering it, in the hope that they might eventually win it over to a more conservative and strict interpretation of Islam.
The current grand Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, who is famous for his moderate views and Sufi leanings, appointed a commission of religious scholars and legal experts in March to come up with amendments to the Al-Azhar law, inherited from Nasser's time. According to Mohamed Fathy, a public relations officer with Al-Azhar, the Tayyeb-appointed commission has finished its work and the draft is now being discussed with senior religious scholars.
Meanwhile, hundreds of young preachers launched their own initiatives and put forward a draft bill of their own. Many of them held that al-Tayyeb could not be entrusted with spearheading a genuine reform process, given his ties with the old regime and his initial opposition to the revolution.
Marzouq is a representative of the Coalition of Revered Al-Azhar Pundits, one of the loose entities formed after Mubarak's fall to reform Al-Azhar. Over the last year, the group called for rallies to pressure the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to adopt a six-page draft bill that it had designed to revamp Al-Azhar. Besides stressing the need to revive the Islamic Scholars Authority, the proposal holds that all endowments should be brought back under Al-Azhar's control, as opposed to falling under the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which falls under the control of the executive branch of government.
According to the proposal, the ministry should cede control of nearly 110,000 mosques to Al-Azhar to ensure the independence of their religious discourse from government meddling. Further, the Islamic institute Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, which issues religious fatwas under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, should be brought under Al-Azhar's ambit, the preachers' draft bill suggested, in a quest to unify the source of fatwas under the umbrella of Al-Azhar.
"Al-Azhar can become powerful when its children are invited to give their opinion on how to achieve renaissance. But having a shelter for the elderly come to us with a law is no different from what Nasser did in 1961," complained Marzouq.
It remains unclear whether Tayyeb's draft bill touched upon the expansion of Al-Azhar’s mandate. According to Wassel, the Islamic Research Academy discussed the idea of annexing Dar al-Iftaa to Al-Azhar, but members did not support it. As to bringing the endowments under Al-Azhar guardianship, Wassel said the matter was not even discussed.
For his part, Othman expressed his vehement opposition to such proposals.
"Al-Azhar has a lot of responsibilities in different social, political and religious realms. We cannot overload it with the endowments and Dar-al-Iftaa," said Othman. "We should be seeking decentralization in administration," he added.
According to Fathi, no decision has been made on whether this draft bill will be sent to the SCAF for endorsement as legislation or to the newly-elected People's Assembly, which will convene for the first time on 23 January.