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Egypt's Blurred Lines: Religion and Politics

By Johana Bhuiyan

In the weeks following the ousting of Mohammad Morsi, military-backed violence against Morsi supporters and a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood ensued. The military has made it a priority to silence these supporters by any means necessary. According to an article in The Guardian, though the death toll is unknown, the number detained is approximately between 1,000 and 8,000. Perhaps most telling of the military’s persistence to end pro-Morsi protests is the recent enlisting of religious clerics. In a video made by the military’s Department of Moral Affairs, former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa was seen delivering a fatwa to soldiers commanding them to take action against anyone who opposes them.

According to an article in The New York Times, Gomaa said to the soldiers, “When somebody comes who tries to divide you, then kill them, whoever they are.” Gomaa further compares pro-Morsi forces to a past Islamic sect of whom the members were considered infidels.

Following the surfacing of this video, Egyptian-born, Qatar-based, prominent Sunni cleric, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi criticized Gomaa’s fatwa, calling him a “slave of the police,” during a weekly program on Al Jazeera. “Those giving permission to kill innocent people cannot guide the nation,” he goes on to say. Qaradawi’s outrage comes as no surprise. Immediately following Morsi’s ousting, Qaradawi issued a fatwa denouncing the removal of Egypt’s elected president.

“The people of Egypt lived for 30 years—if not 60—deprived of the right to elect their own president …” Qaradawi says. “All sectors of society including the civil and military sectors submitted to [Morsi’s] rule, foremost amongst them being Abdul Fattah as-Sisi … until we saw him change suddenly and transform himself from being a minister to becoming a supreme ruler.”

Egyptians, unsurprisingly, were outraged at Qaradawi’s criticism of the former leader of Al-Azhar University. This disagreement adds another layer of confusion and instability to the Arab world. Questions of political leaning and biases taint these leaders’ religious authority. Yet, in this pro-Morsi, anti-Morsi context, Muslims in the region are quick to choose sides and are fervent in their support. Fatwas, when used in this context, lose their religious value and simply become political tools. In this case, they are used as a utility of aggression. In a region that has suffered its fair share of violence, it is perhaps wise, if not necessary, for religious leaders to use their prominence to promote a greater good – the safety and well-being of their own people. The process of delivering fatwas– much like the religious leadership itself– has become highly politicized and thus less transparent.

This back and forth between two prominent leaders in an already tense Arab world begs the question: who should Muslims follow?

To further explore the politics behind fatwas and its continued relevance, I spoke to Saiyad Ahmad, Professor of Islamic Studies at American University in Cairo and author of Fatwas of Condemnation: Islam and the Limits of Dissent.

WPJ: In general, what is the process for issuing a fatwa?

S.A.: Before answering your questions it is imperative that key terms be defined. I have defined a fatwa [in my book] as “a non-binding, advisory opinion of Islamic law (Shariah) issued by an expert scholar with specialized training, known as a mufti, usually―but not necessarily―upon the request of one or more questioners, known in the singular as a mustafti, about a real or hypothetical situation. “ [The process] is dealt with in great detail in my book.

According to Ahmad’s book, muftis must consider not only the Qur’an but also hadith–traditions or the collection of deeds or sayings of Prophet Muhammad, sunnah–the routine actions and behavior of the Prophet, and the “context of earlier juristic opinions.”

WPJ: What are the religious obligations in regards to a fatwa?

S.A.: As indicated in my definition, a fatwa is an advisory opinion. Thus, there can be no coercion involved, mind you this has not stopped rulers from imposing views they liked.

WPJ: There have been news articles about a back-and-forth between the two aforementioned figures or their organizations. What happens when two fatwas conflict, or two religious leaders disagree?

S.A: Generally speaking, nothing happens. Sharia as a system of sacred law recognizes that there are some questions that do not have a clear answer. The reason for this is that the texts of the Qurʾan and Sunna themselves lend themselves to nuances of interpretation. Moreover, the corpus of hadith texts that purportedly tell us what the Sunna is are subject to analysis and criticism... However, the existence of different views does not mean the absence of controversy, often very heated, among scholars and their followers on such issues.

WPJ: Can this be dangerous? If so, how and why?

S.A.: Yes, such difference of opinion when it reaches the level of heated controversy can result in conflict between people leading to violence. In the immediate context which led to your questions, you can clearly see this in what has been happening between the pro-Morsi and pro-Military factions in Egypt. However, a much more serious situation, in my opinion, is when things get to the point of takfir, that is to say when a scholar or scholars of one group or tendency go so far as to label those of another opposing tendency as kafirs (unbelievers, out of Islam)... The most striking cases of this in modern times are the fatwas of Salafi (also known as Wahhabi) leaders against Shiite Muslims. The direct result of such fatwas can be seen in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bahrain, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and even Egypt. Although, by all accounts the Shiites are a tiny minority in Egypt this did not stop several Salafi leaders from loudly proclaiming the Shiite more dangerous to Islam than “the Jews” and called for them to be killed. This took place at a public gathering in Egypt... where Morsi was present. Some weeks later this led to the brutal murder of several Egyptian Shiites along with their leader, one Hasan Shehata, outside of Cairo. They were dragged out of a private residence and beaten to death with staves while large crowds watched in the street and from rooftops. The whole thing was filmed and uploaded to YouTube.

WPJ: You said [in a previous conversation] these two figures (Qaradawi and Gomaa) are simply weathervanes and opportunists, care to explain and expand?

S.A: The two above-mentioned persons are far from being profound speakers or erudite scholars despite any claims or appearance to the contrary. They are those who possess the trappings of scholarship and erudition and are willing to do whatever it takes to curry favor with the powers that be because their true goal is simply worldly success. Thus, we see a figure like Gomaa urging people not to go Tahrir Square...and yet urging them to demonstrate against Morsi. Qaradawi is no different in his opportunism. The Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally been opposed to secular nationalism, especially Arab nationalism. They were sworn enemies of Nasser and similar Arab nationalist leaders and movements such as the Baʿath Party (both its Syrian and Iraqi factions) and Saddam. Yet, Qaradawi is on record saying that Saddam was in heaven. You should also understand that both figures were appointed to their respective positions by rulers. In the case of Qaradawi, by the absolute monarch of Qatar and in the case of Gomaa, by the absolute dictator, Mubarak. At any rate, I think you get the point.

WPJ: Qaradawi invokes Shariah when delivering his fatwa to support Morsi. He said that all believers should pledge allegiance to the elected president. Is this accurate according to Shariah?

S.A.: Not exactly. Here the Sunni and Twelver Shiite Muslims completely part ways. The latter have almost exclusively always regarded those in power to be corrupt and to be avoided taking a thoroughly quietist position... Moreover, they consider all governments and rulers before the appearance of the 12th Imam (a descendent of the Prophet) to be illegitimate. The Sunnis took the view that whoever is in power, no matter how he comes to power and regardless of his piety or lack thereof, he must be followed. Of course the problem with any “might makes right doctrine” is that whoever is able to wield more might then becomes right. That is the view of Sunni scholars and that is one of the reasons why people like Qaradawi and Gomaa. are in conflict. They are backing two different claimants to power. The whole thing is quite awkward, simply because on the basis of Sunni texts they can both claim to be right. However, since Morsi has now been removed, according to the Sunni doctrine, General Sisi must be followed. The Shia consider all such texts to have been fabricated as proof-texts for the legitimation of what they would deem illegitimate rulers. So to ask if whether such a thing is “accurate according to Shariah” is really a very loaded question that goes to the very heart of a very old debate in Islam and what its history means.

WPJ: Simply stated, have fatwas become politicized?

S.A.: Absolutely. How could they not? I think that people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, invariably commit an unintentional error when discussing and studying Islam and Muslims, and that is that even with the advent of modern times the vast majority of Muslims who do not live in the West simply do not separate politics and religion. They do not consider religion to be one compartment and politics to be another. For them, religion is politics, and politics is religion.

WPJ: In Egypt and the Arab world, what role do fatwas have in society?

S.A.: Fatwas continue to play a very large role in Egypt, the Arab world, and indeed in the whole Islamic World. This has been true throughout Islamic history and this is precisely why rulers have always tried to manipulate scholars in some way or another to get the fatwas issued that favor whatever they have deemed to be strategically opportune.

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Johana Bhuiyan is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Jonathan Rashad]

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