Tens of men sit listening carefully to the preacher as he speaks over the minbar (pulpit) at the neighbourhood mosque where they go every Friday. In his khutba (sermon), the preacher follows the topics the Ministry of Religious Endowments has selected at the beginning of the month.
A recent study, “To Whom do Minbars Belong Today?”, released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) raises the question and attempts to answer it through analysing the state’s policy in the management of mosques.
The study discusses the conflict over the management of mosques in modern Egypt and explores its roots in Islamic Jurisprudence and historic practices.
The state has built its policies in managing religious affairs on a presumption of Muslim unity, according to the study. However, these policies have had a narrow margin for multiplicity and diversity.
Mosques, according to Islamic Jurisprudence, are classified as Waqf (endowment), a property of God or property that the Muslim public is said to benefit from, according to the study.
“The question here is: Are the Muslim Public united?” said Amr Ezzat, the study author and EIPR’s Freedom of Religion and Belief Program officer.
It is always thought that government’s policy discriminates against minorities only, he said. “The study highlights the fact that this policy does not only discriminate in favour of Muslims, but also against them.”
Throughout different regimes, the state policies have been against anyone who has different beliefs than “the official Islam of the state,” said Ezzat. Presuming the need for the state’s interference in religious affairs as it is considered the Imam, an Islamic reference to the leader, has not change with time.
“President Al-Sisi once said that there is no Islamic leader, the only leader is the Egyptian state,” he said, “I find this very precise.”
Islamists have argued that the Egyptian state is “not Islamic enough”, but the state always argued that it is, he said, adding: “The compass is always political.”
The Ministry of Religious Endowments, the only Egyptian ministry that works exclusively with Muslims, has issued rules such as unifying topics for Friday Khutba. This would be to control the spread of different religious ideologies through mosques.
Other rules the ministry has forced include preventing scholars who were not educated at Al-Azhar from preaching. The rule excludes many groups, such as Salafi scholars, since most of them studied in places other than Al-Azhar, the institution with whom they disagree with in much of its beliefs, said Ezzat.
“Diversity is there even inside Al-Azhar,” he said. “Some people in Al-Azhar University are against any kind of elections because it could bring the Salafis.”
During the time of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, he used to name the preachers of the most important mosques in the country, said Ezzat. Prior to the 25 January Revolution, state security had to approve the ministry’s selection of Friday preachers.
As the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies controlled the Ministry of Religious Endowment during the time of former president Mohamed Morsi, only their supporters were selected for leading positions.
“Some preachers said they had to go to the Guidance Office to prove loyalty so they can be selected again,” said Ezzat.
After the ouster of Morsi, the state has forced more restrictions in order to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathisers, he said.
However, logistical limitations have prevented the state from forcing its authority on all mosques.
Not a single mosque was added to the mosques that are fully controlled by the ministry of Religious Endowments since 2011, said Ezzat.
“I was told in the ministry that there was no money to add any mosques,” he said.
These limitations force the state to allow some diversity through some tactics that still preserve its control, he said.
Tactics include “conditional” permissiveness of diversity, which allows different ideologies as long as they don’t clash with the state’s authority or “Islam as defined by Al-Azhar”, he said. Such tactics do not allow religious groups as Shi’a or Bahai to practice their faith in mosques.
Permissiveness “outside of the law” and permissiveness “to ensure loyalty” are other tactics the state has followed to keep control over mosques run by Islamist groups or NGOs, he said.