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A freeze of thinking
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 08 - 2016

For the third successive week, prepared texts of the Friday sermon written by the Ministry of Endowments continued to trouble a majority of Muslim clerics. Al-Azhar, Egypt's top Islamic institution, announced on 26 July its rejection of the idea which was recently proposed by the Ministry of Endowments. “The written sermon would freeze clerics' thinking and hinder any renewal of a religious dialogue,” a statement issued by Al-Azhar's Senior Scholars Council said. “Instead of agreeing to a written sermon, and to guarantee the effective combatting of radical ideas, the ministry should have better organised training courses to upgrade the scientific and cultural level of its preachers,” the statement added.
Responding to Al-Azhar, a large number of mosque preachers launched a campaign via social networking sites with the hashtag #we_are_all_al-tayeb to show solidarity with Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb.
But in what was viewed as a direct challenge to Al-Azhar, Endowments Minister Mokhtar Gomaa said on 28 July that his ministry will go ahead with the idea of advanced text sermons which he said would “filter out extremist thinking and lead to enlightened religious discourse”. Gomaa held meetings with ministry officials to discuss how to apply written sermons. He also told the ministry's employees not to speak to the media about the issue without the official approval of the head of its religious sector Sheikh Gaber Tayaa.
In July, Gomaa gave the first written sermon in an attempt to present a model to the country's clerics.
By law, the ministry is the body entrusted with supervising and administering mosques, estimated at around 120,000 across Egypt. However, Al-Azhar remains the sole religious authority regulating dawa (issuing a summons) and preaching affairs.
Concern over the repercussions of the current clash between the two Muslim institutions has been widely addressed. “Such a clash is not in the interest of the Muslim discourse. I think it would be better to close such a heated file until a consensus between the two sides is reached,” said Abdel-Aziz Al-Naggar, head of Al-Azhar Dawa Department.
The parliament's religious committee is due to hold a meeting next week to discuss sermons written in advance.
Last Friday at noon prayers, under the theme “Cleanliness a civilised behaviour”, mosque imams were divided over their compliance with a written sermon. Taking the side of Al-Azhar, a high percentage of clerics were reported to have turned down written sermons and started to give extempore speeches. Some abided by the theme of the sermon while others preferred to tackle Al-Azhar's topic dealing with national unity and the rights of Christian Copts.
A decree unifying the theme of the Friday sermon across Egypt's mosques came out in 2014. The aim, according to the Ministry of Endowments, was to keep mosques away from politics following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. While committing to the main theme, every imam is free in presenting his sermon in his own style. Moreover, should sectarian strife or other pressing events in his community flare up, the mosque imam sometimes finds himself obliged to change the topic and deliver another sermon that would help calm things down.
Objection to the decree was limited when compared with the outcry sparked three weeks ago in the wake of the ministerial plan to give written sermons in mosques.
Gomaa previously said a senior committee combining the ministry's top officials would write sermons covering 52 weeks, in addition to religious holidays. There is a long-term plan to write 270 sermons covering five years. Each sermon would be posted prior to Friday prayers on the ministry's website. The imam should read the sermon word for word, not only to ensure he will not speak off the cuff but so as not to exceed the 20 minutes he is allotted. Inspectors from the ministry will be assigned with monitoring mosques to report on the performance of imams and their compliance with written sermons.
Talking to Al-Hayat satellite channel on Saturday, Sheikh Tayaa said that the written sermon does not in any way violate Islamic law and that it will help end the “chaos” of the current religious discourse. According to Tayaa, around 60 per cent of mosque imams abided by the written sermon during last Friday's prayers. “If the percentage reached 90, the proposal will be generalised in all mosques,” Tayaa said. “However, if we fail to convince imams and preachers with the importance of the idea, the ministry will back off from its decision.”
Azharites argue that the plan would waste the imam's talents and annul his role. “The imam would do nothing more than read from a ministry-scripted sermon. Hence, anyone with limited knowledge of reading can do the job of the imam,” Al-Naggar said, adding that worshippers themselves can read sermons at home on the ministry's website.
Besides Al-Azhar's opposition, the idea has been publicly criticised as a government attempt to tighten state control over religious discourse. “While appreciating the scientific and historical role of Al-Azhar, the state is not expected to stop backing the Endowments Ministry, one of its executive tools in controlling religious thinking,” said Amr Ezzat, researcher of Islamic affairs at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Ezzat views written sermons as an attempt by the Endowments Ministry to gain the upper hand in controlling religious thinking. “This explains the current harsh stance adopted by Al-Azhar, fighting to keep its leading place,” Ezzat said.
Before becoming minister in July 2013, Gomaa worked as a member of Al-Tayeb's technical bureau. It was reported that Al-Tayeb supported Gomaa's nomination for the post. Since Gomaa's appointment, several rows have been reported between the two institutions, reflecting perhaps a covert power struggle.

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