Egypt’s Top Clerics Reject Government-Issued Moderate Islamic Sermons

Awqaf Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa speaks during a conference held by the Awqaf (Religious Affairs) Ministry headquarters in Cairo, in this May 25, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY - RTX1EH2E

Earlier this month, the Egyptian government began drafting mandatory anti-extremist sermons for Muslim clerics, complete with time limits to ensure speedy delivery with minimal ad-libbing. The program has not gone over well, with Egypt’s top scholars rejecting the sermons as too superficial and restrictive.

The UK Guardian relates a statement from the Council of Senior Scholars of Al-Azhar, the most prestigious institution in the Muslim world, complaining that an imam following the government’s sermon plan would “find himself unable to discuss, debate, and respond to extremist ideas, and warn people of them.”

“Imams need serious training and knowledge… so they can be able to confront radical and anomalous ideas through knowledge and the correct intellect,” Ahram Online quotes from the statement.

Another objection from Al-Azhar’s research chief, Mohy al-Din Afifi, reported by PressTV, was that identical mandatory government-written sermons would “pave the way for underground preaching, which is believed to have contributed to the spread of extremist views.”

Egypt has an official Ministry of Religious Endowments, whose chief, Mokhtar Gomaa, tried delivering one of the scripted sermons himself, in an effort to show imams how they could use their weekly sermon to combat extremism.

“According to the plan, a committee of state-hired scholars would write each week’s sermon for clerics to read word-for-word,” the Guardian reports. “Gomaa said the government would prepare 54 sermons covering 52 weeks in addition to religious holidays, and that there was a long-term plan to write 270 sermons covering five years. A ministerial committee that inspects and monitors the mosques would report on the performance of clerics around the country.”

Until now, the government ministry has selected topics for weekly sermons, but clerics were free to choose their own words.

It seems as if the program has been significantly changed by the opposition from Al-Azhar, with the sermons becoming more “general,” and optional, in nature. Afifi stressed that there was no friction or “sensitivity” between his clerical council and the government ministry, but they have not yet “coordinated with each other” on the sermon initiative.

Ahram Online quotes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi blaming “outdated religious discourse” for holding Egypt back, and allowing radicalized thinking to spread, becoming a “source of destruction for the rest of the world.”