In a press conference held at the Egyptian Supreme Council for Media Regulation, a list of the names of 50 scholars authorized by al-Azhar, Egypt’s top religious authority, to issue religious edicts fatwas in Egyptian media outlets was released.
According to the council, this step aims at putting an end to a series of groundless fatwas issued by unqualified preachers who appear on TV shows until a legislation is issued to regulate religious discourse in the media.
The council, which in charge of monitoring the content of media outlets on both the professional and moral levels, threatened to penalize channels and anchors that do not abide by the list it provided. While this decision was met with relief by most Egyptians who have for a long time been complaining of fatwas they labelled “sick,” many were taken by surprised since a number of prominent religious scholars who made frequent appearances on TV were not part of the list. This, consequently, raised questions about the criteria based on which the selection was made in the first place.
Veteran journalist and chairman of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation Makram Mohamed Ahmed said that the decision came in response to the recommendations of the International Conference on Iftaa, held in Cairo in October 2017, and which included the regulation of fatwas to make sure they have scholarly basis.
“We have especially seen a number of abnormal fatwas that tarnish the image of Islam,” he said in the press conference held at the council headquarters to announce the release of the list.
“Following negotiations between the council and both al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti we came up with a few decisions including the necessity of issuing a legislation to regulate the issuing of fatwas and the compilation of a list of names of trustworthy scholars who can issue fatwas in the media.”
Ahmed said that all scholars are permitted to discuss different religious issues in the media, but only fatwa is restricted to the 50 on the list.
“Scholars are free to talk about religion as long as they are qualified, adopt a moderate discourse, do not deride religious symbols, or incite violence.” Ahmed added that until the law is issued, violators will be penalized in accordance with the council’s rules.
Professor of comparative jurisprudence at al-Azhar University Souad Saleh expressed her disappointment in the list, from which she was excluded. “I have the highest degrees in jurisprudence that enable me to compare between all schools of thought in order to reach the proper fatwa, I wrote several books in this field, and I have been an expert in religious edicts for the past 30 years during which all TV channels hosted me,” she said.
“I’ve also had my own religious TV program for the past seven years.” Saleh also noted that the list only has one woman out of 50, which is not practical for women who seek fatwas and also signals a decline in the role of women in religious affairs. “Women are more comfortable seeking advice from women, especially in private matters, and this has been the case since the time of Prophet Mohamed. Now, you are forcing women to ask around in the mosques near them instead of qualified scholars.”
Saleh argued that she does not see the point of appearing on TV at all if she is not to issue fatwas. “What if people call and ask for a fatwa. Shall I just deny it to them?” she wondered, adding that in all cases women from all over the Muslim world call her to seek her advice on different religious matters.
Abdel Ghani Hindi, member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, argued that the list is not the right way to deal with problematic fatwas, which need to be addressed directly instead. “The list is not going to put an end to those fatwas that will still keep coming through the internet anyway,” he said. “Actually, what the list did is excluding a number of moderate preachers that were quite popular in the media and could’ve helped a lot in countering any extremist discourse.” Abdel Galil al-Sharnoubi, researcher in Islamic movements, said that al-Azhar is repeating the mistake of making procedural changes and not addressing the core of its discourse.
“If al-Azhar wants to modify the religious discourse as it keeps saying then there is a serious need for producing a new form of jurisprudence that suits the present time like what the four Imams did back at their time,” he said. “Al-Azhar has for years been assigning itself the responsibility of safe-guarding Islamic heritage rather than adding to it.” Sharnoubi noted that several of the controversial fatwas that this list aims at curbing were, in fact, issued by Azhar scholars.
According to journalist Moussa al-Utaibi, the list might be a form of compromise between the presidency and al-Azhar, whose relationship has not been at its best in the past couple of years. “This particularly started when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wanted al-Azhar to issue a fatwa that verbal divorce is not valid and the latter objected and several fatwas were issued at the time to back al-Azhar’s position,” he wrote. “There were also many times when several al-Azhar scholars issued fatwas that angered the authorities.” That is why, Utaibi added, the two parties could have decided to issue a list of scholars they both approve. Utaibi also noted that the list excluded many scholars who are known to support the regime and the president and saw this as a possible change of strategy on the part of the state. “The state could have realized that those pro-regime scholars are no longer popular, possibly for their obvious bias, and was worried that youths would instead start resorting to Salafi channels so decided to give them new faces.”