Azhar Scholars Debate the Civil Society

Let's Not Talk About Politics!

Scholars at the Islamic Azhar University welcome civic participation – just as long as it stays apolitical, as Lennert Lehmann writes in his analysis

Photo: AP
No place for open debate on politics and civil society – the Azhar University in Cairo

​​What is Islam's relationship to civil society? Or how does civil society deal with Islam? Listening to the traditional thinkers at the venerable Islamic Azhar University in Cairo, one could gather that the theologians function as a mouthpiece for President Mubarak.

Normally, Muslim theologians never weary of emphasizing that religion and state are inseparable in Islam. However, even as Middle Easterners committed to the values of civil society are growing bolder in demanding more participation and an end to repression, the Azhar theologians remain conspicuously silent on issues of politics and civil society. Civic participation, yes, but please keep it as apolitical as possible.

Generalizations and platitudes

Conservative Islamic theologians are fond of platitudes such as "All people are equal" or "Men and women have equal rights". However, in the final analysis, many of their statements remain ambiguous.

One example is provided by the religious scholar Abdel Ghany Shama: "There is no compulsion in Islam. If God wanted everyone to believe in him, that is how it would be. But God wants diversity." Thus one could assume that since God is omnipotent, he must have wanted the world to be the way it is, with all its negative sides.

"Islam prohibits resignation", asserts Shama's colleague at Azhar, literary scholar Abdoulla Mohammed Abdoul Shafi Ali Abou Hasha. "A good society fights poverty," Hasha says, referring to citizens' charitable efforts.

"Islam wants justice!" – for him, civil society is primarily a "society that fulfills needs". Civil societies are organizations that build hospitals, kindergartens and schools. "People who work for society."

But what should be taught in the schools, one might ask. Who sets the tone of the social dialogue? For Hasha, it is "a catastrophe" that religious associations have gained a great deal of influence in Egypt through a commitment to social work, running Koran schools and soup kitchens, while receiving their financial support in part from the Gulf States.

Social movements as a social ill

Examples are the Ibn Khaldun Foundation run by the sociologist and civil rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, or the party of the opposition politician Aiman Nur: "They have done nothing for society, they've only produced opinions. They are political dealers and counterfeiters," according to Hasha.

The Azhar scholars deny that ordinary citizens have the right to produce opinions, to influence a social discourse. They see a danger in social movements that aim to gain power, such as the activists in the Kifaya movement and the Islamists. "The ideologization of the Koran must stop. Ideologization denies reality."

Simple logic

Elsayed Elshahed, member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Cairo and member of the Islamic Academy for Religious Education in Vienna expressly refuses to talk about politics when speaking of civil society.

"That just gets us into a polemical discussion", he says. And: "The components of belief are internalization, articulation and action. Taken together, that creates the identification between word and deed."

In other words: Islam condemns hypocrites and liars (who doesn't?). Those who demand the good must act accordingly. "Islam commands us all to seek to the good together." But what is the good? This, as we know, is where opinions differ.

At any rate, in the matter of an open, participatory civil society, one should not seek advice from the theologians at Azhar University.

Lennert Lehmann

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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