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Sermon settlement
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 08 - 2016

After almost a month, the crisis between Al-Azhar and Ministry of Endowments over the controversial measures to standardise Friday prayer sermons is apparently on its way to being resolved. On 3 August, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called on the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb to discuss with him a way out.
After leaving the Presidential Palace, Al-Tayeb held an urgent meeting with officials from Al-Azhar's grand committee, Minister of Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa and the country's Grand Mufti Sheikh Shawki Allam.
“Al-Azhar's Grand Imam has instructed all religious institutions to work together to improve the capabilities of preachers in order to cope with today's challenges that the nation is facing,” said a statement issued by Al-Azhar after Al-Tayeb's meeting with Gomaa and Allam.
The statement also added that Al-Azhar has proposed establishing an academy that specialises in training preachers and will be under the direct supervision of Al-Azhar's Grand Imam.
In another statement issued on Friday 5 August, Gomaa said that the unity of the religious institutions is his ministry's top priority in the face of terrorism and radicalisation.
“The unity of Egyptians and religious institutions demands collective effort from all sides. The ministry will support every decision calling for unity. There is no time for divisions,” Gomaa said.
Gomaa added that the Ministry of Endowments “will not let the Friday sermon be a tool of division amongst Muslims”, explaining that it will gather with leaders of all religious institutions in Al-Azhar to discuss the issue.
“Under the sponsorship of Al-Azhar's Grand Imam, we will work on what serves our religion and our nation,” Gomaa added.
The crisis erupted early in July when the Ministry of Endowments issued a decision requiring preachers to read identical, pre-prepared scripts in their Friday sermons in a bid to crush radical ideas. The decision has since been a source of discord between the ministry and Al-Azhar, the country's top religious bodies.
Responding to the decision, the Al-Azhar Scholars Council issued a statement on 26 July rejecting the idea of pre-prepared scripts on Friday.
“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.
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 summons) and preaching affairs.
Al-Sisi's meeting with only the Al-Azhar Grand Imam sent a clear message that he supports Al-Azhar's position in the crisis. The presidency statement on Al-Sisi and Al-Tayeb's meeting did not mention that the ongoing crisis was discussed.
On Sunday parliament's Religious Committee members announced their support for Al-Azhar. Some members of the committee called to transfer the authority of mosques from the Ministry of Endowments to Al-Azhar.
However many members rejected the proposal and said that crisis should be solved through dialogue between the two institutions.
The decision to have pre-prepared scripts on Friday follows a string of other measures that the Ministry of Endowments has undertaken over the past three years to tighten its grip on religious discourse in Egypt, in an attempt to regulate it.
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.
Gomaa announced early in July that all preachers must read the same script in Friday's sermons across Egypt. A senior committee combining the ministry's top officials would write sermons covering 52 weeks, in addition to religious holidays. According to Gomaa 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 also 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.


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