“Fatwa Kiosk” – photo via Al-Fajr newspaper
Egypt’s Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy has opened a number of kiosks in one of Cairo’s main underground metro stations to allow commuters to “seek guidance on Islamic issues.” According to Mohi El-Din Afifi, secretary-general of the academy, the initiative aims to “counter the extremist ideologies and misguided fatwas provided by extremist groups.”
The move has become a highly controversial issue among Egyptians. While some see it as a good idea to provide reliable “fatwas” (religious edicts), others perceive it as a sign of growing overt religiosity in society.
At Cairo’s downtown Al Shohada metro station, a female Muslim journalist from al-Fajr newspaper, pretending to be an atheist, spent two hours in the “Fatwa Kiosk” to hear the Al-Azhar clerics’ fatwas.
Although she was wearing an ordinary Egyptian-style hijab, the Al-Azhar scholar commented first on her necklace (an ankh, the old Egyptian Pharaonic key of life). “It looks like a cross, so you better not wear it, otherwise people may think you are Christian.”
The disguised journalist had a long conversation with the Al-Azhar scholars on many controversial issues, particularly concerning women’s rights in Islam, its inheritance, menstruation, the right not to wear the hijab. The scholars insisted on orthodox Islamic views that portray menstruation as an impurity and stated that women have to inherit half of the men, because these edicts are mentioned in the Quran and cannot be changed. One scholar then told the journalist, “You [women] really want to go head-to-head with men?”
More alarming, however, is the manner in which the scholars insisted on other regressive edicts, even though they did not come from the Quran. For example, they insisted that a brother has the right to stop his sister from wearing tight cloth, and prevent her from leaving the house if she is not wearing her headscarf. The scholars also insisted that in cases of adultery, it is mainly the woman’s fault, “Because when a woman abandons her honour, she can seduce many men.”
On the political level, the scholars insisted that the right to protest is only allowed with government permission, according to Egypt’s protest law. If no permission has been granted, protests are forbidden, “because saboteurs may infiltrate the protestors.” They also described a handshake with a Christian as “a moral, but not a physical impurity, that does not need ablution before prayer.” How kind!
In their “Fatwa kiosks,” Al-Azhar’s scholars probably thought they handled the disguised atheist journalist kindly. They indeed debated in a polite, civilised manner. Other Salafi scholars would probably be less patient and more aggressive. Nonetheless, this reporter’s experience sums up what is wrong, not only with the Fatwa Kiosks, but also with Al-Azhar’s overall Islamic doctrine. Egypt’s top religious institution is far from its announced goal of modernizing Islamic thought, and is still clinging to hard-core orthodox interpretations that enshrine inequality; even misogyny in society. It is naive to assume that their Fatwa Kiosks will stop radicalism.
Based on its current stance, Al-Azhar comes across as a softer version of regressive Islam that appeases autocratic rulers and rejects violence, but shares the wider pillars of backwardness with other radical groups. Such perceptions will not discourage the youth from radicalization; it will make Jihadi groups be perceived as more genuine and authentic.
With many Al-Azhar-affiliated scholars on Egypt’s newly established national council for combating terrorism, one can only wonder how they will combat terrorism while empowering misogyny and inequality.