Egypt watchers were briefly all a-twitter yesterday about the appointment of the country's first post-revolutionary mufti. With rumors widespread that a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, Abd al-Rahman al-Barr, would get the nod, concerns that the "Brotherhoodization" of the Egyptian state was soon to spread to the official religious establishment. In the end, al-Barr was passed over, but the brief kerfuffle obscures the real long-term struggle likely to take place over Egyptian religious institutions.
Instead of al-Barr, the designee is Shawqi Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Karim, a scholar of Islamic law teaching in Tanta. ‘Abd al-Karim is a figure known to his colleagues but with a low public profile. He has written widely on subjects ranging from the narrowly technical (a comparison between Islamic and civil law on the right to cancel a sale while the contracting parties are still in each other's presence), to the broadly social ("Women and Globalization in the Arabian Peninsula" in which he praises the spread of education among women but decries homosexuality), and to the esoteric (a book on sex selection and sex changes, a surprisingly lively topic among Islamic legal specialists in part because laws governing the family and even prayer are highly gendered, so that it becomes important to know whether one is dealing with a male or a female).
In fact, it is doubtful that al-Barr was ever all that strong a candidate for the position. In a trip to Egypt last month, I received the impression that he was a possible but unlikely choice. The main reasons for spreading his name were largely political. Some associated with the Council of Senior Religious Scholars (the body making the pick) may have wished to mollify Egypt's Brotherhood president (who formally makes the appointment) that they would give active consideration to a Brotherhood candidate. And Egypt's growing number of Ikhwanophobes, by contrast, wished to sound the alarm about the movement's growing reach.
The rumor mongering was aggravated by widespread confusion about the new procedure for picking the mufti. While the legal provisions are very clear, they are untested and known only to specialists. Misinformation abounded. In a law issued on al-Azhar rushed through by Egypt's new military rulers in January 2012, the newly created Council of Religious Scholars selects the mufti. (Formally, the council forwards the name to President Mohamed Morsi for formal appointment. To my reading, Morsi has little leeway and his approval is essentially a clerical matter, but one could claim that he could refuse the appointment -- and some people in the religious establishment were uncertain if he might push such an interpretation if he were deeply unhappy with the pick.)
And the Council of Senior Religious Scholars itself is a group hand-picked by the current sheikh of al-Azhar. It is tilted toward his orientation (the sheikh is from within the institution, a Sufi, fairly liberal in Azhari terms, critical of Salafism, and distant from the Brotherhood). To be sure, the council is a diverse body and includes various tendencies. But despite some press accounts, it is hardly a Brotherhood preserve and is not, as a body, sympathetic to Salafism.
Some very prominent scholars (including the retiring mufti and one of his predecessors) were appointed to the council. So was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, often erroneously described as the Brotherhood's "spiritual leader." (Al-Qaradawi is treated respectfully by the Brotherhood but hardly directs the organization in either doctrinal or strategic matters; the attributed link appears to stem from his claim that he was offered leadership of the movement some years ago, an account I have not been able to confirm from anyone familiar with the organization.) The most knowledgeable observers see the council as a body as close to the current sheikh, and, since he selected each member, anything else would be a surprise.
But if the brief brouhaha about the mufti's appointment was based on rumor mongering and legal misreadings, the episode should turn our attention to some real and more portentous struggles over the official religious establishment in Egypt.
The first contest will be over the council itself. The mufti's authority is actually fairly limited, but the council has been granted substantial authority by the new al-Azhar law and the new Egyptian constitution. Its membership will likely be more consequential than that of the mufti's office. And the body is incomplete. The sheikh designated 26 individuals for the council, enough to constitute a quorum but leaving 14 vacancies. Morsi made the formal appointment of the sheikh's picks as one of his first acts as president. The sheikh now should complete the formation of the body, but he seems to wish to do so with an eye to the shifting political balance. He appears to be consulting to develop a body that will be both safe and accepted -- and is taking his time doing so. Once the body's membership is completed, it becomes self-perpetuating; current members fill any vacancy. But an isolated body will not only lose respect, it will be politically exposed, meaning that whoever fills the slots will likely have to have one eye on election returns.
And that leads to the second possible context -- over the text of the al-Azhar law itself. That law has many critics. Within al-Azhar, many advocate that the council be elected by the scholars; outside of al-Azhar the law was seen as a power play by the military, and the sheikh, and the Brotherhood vowed to amend it. But the sheikh has been very careful with Egypt's new leadership, and the thunder has gone out of the Brotherhood's rhetoric on the issue. The sheikh and the Brotherhood appear to have reached a modus vivendi for now, but a reconvened parliament (especially one with a powerful Islamist bloc) could take up the issue, especially if the council or al-Azhar accumulates enemies.
Finally, over the longer term, the coloration of al-Azhar might change. At present, this would be among top leadership clusters around the sheikh or around more traditional Azhari scholars. But Brotherhood figures (like al-Barr) dot the deanships and the faculty. Salafis are rare at higher levels but are not unknown among rank and file scholars. The lower one goes, in fact, the more numerous Brotherhood supporters become and even Salafis turn up: in the student body, for instance, the Brotherhood has a strong presence and Salafis a significant one. The top leadership is clearly concerned that with the presidency in Brotherhood hands, the parliament likely with an Islamist majority, and pressure from the lower ranks inside the institution, what it values as the centrist Azhari way may gradually be squeezed in favor of approaches it finds rigid or overly literalist as well as by movements whose political focus is masked in religious garb.
Whether such fears are justified is hard to tell. But it is clear that the struggle over the orientation of religious institutions could last a generation and does not hinge on a single appointment.
Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012). He gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Mokhtar Awad, junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.
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