The Internet is buzzing with news of a speech last week by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt on the need for a “religious revolution” in Islam. Speaking at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, the most important center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world, Sisi admonished the assembled scholars to revisit Islamic law, or fiqh, in order to calm the fears of the non-Muslim world. According to a translation at Raymond Ibrahim’s site, Sisi said:
I am referring here to the religious clerics. We have to think hard about what we are facingand I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before. It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!
That thinkingI am not saying “religion” but “thinking”that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!
Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitantsthat is 7 billionso that they themselves may live? Impossible!
I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulemaAllah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.
All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.
I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move . . . because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lostand it is being lost by our own hands.
Some are praising Sisi for his bravery. That’s certainly one way to look at it. When Sisi calls for rethinking “the corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years,” he may be advocating something quite dramatic, indeed. For centuries, most Islamic law scholarsthough not allhave held that “the gate of ijtihad,” or independent legal reasoning, has closed, that fiqh has reached perfection and cannot be developed further. If Sisi is calling for the gate to open, and if fiqh scholars at a place like Al Azhar heed the call, that would be a truly radical step, one that would send shock waves throughout the Islamic world.
We’ll have to wait and see. Early reports are sometimes misleading; there are subtexts, religious and political, that outsiders can miss. Which texts and ideas does Sisi mean, exactly? Fiqh rules about Christians and other non-Muslims, which often insist on subordination? Some argue that, notwithstanding the speech at Al Azhar, Sisi has done relatively little to improve the situation of Coptic Christians. And calling for the opening of the gate is not necessarily progressive. Although progressive Muslim scholars endorse the opening of the gate in order to adapt fiqh to modernity, Salafist groups wish to open the gate in order to discard centuries of what they see as un-Islamic traditions. Opening the gate may be a signal for fundamentalism, for a return to the pure Islam of the Prophet and his companions. I don’t imply Sisi is a fundamentalist, of course. I’m just saying one needs to be alert to the nuances.
Still, Sisi’s remarks do suggest he means a rethinking of Islamic law to adapt to contemporary pluralism. This is definitely worth watching.
Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.