Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s call in a speech on August 13 for equality between men and women in inheritance and cross-religious marriages continues to stir controversy in Egypt, and more particularly in Al-Azhar, which claims historic leadership over Sunni Muslim affairs in the region.
The move took place with the blessing of Diwan al-Ifta, Tunisia’s highest religious establishment, which described it as “reinforcing women’s position and guaranteeing the principle of equality between men and women in rights and obligations that is called for in our religion and in the Hanafi Sunni doctrine.”
But the move hasn’t been as well received in the eyes of Al-Azhar. In a statement issued on Sunday, the establishment reiterated its rejection of Tunisia’s progressive approach, asserting that Quranic texts discussing inheritance leave no room for alternative interpretations. “These teachings leave no space for uninformed analyses or theories that contradict Islamic edicts. It provokes Muslims that hold onto their religion with a firm hand and shakes the stable foundation of the Muslim community.”
Shortly after Tunisia’s announcement last week, Abbas Shouman, the deputy head of Al-Azhar, expressed his institution’s discontent, saying that Essebsi’s decision does away with religion rather than renewing it.
He denounced the clerics supporting Tunisia’s line of thought as “unscholarly,” accusing them of being ignorant of the blatancy of certain Islamic rulings “that do not allow for independent reasoning and do not change with time or space.”
For Shouman, Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men defies the purpose of marriage in Islam, especially since, unlike in Islam, other religions give men the authority to forbid their wives from practicing a different religion.
The issue, in his opinion, lies in the possibility that non-Muslim husbands may exercise that authority and prevent their wives from practicing Islam.
Similarly, Mahmoud Abdel Khaleq Draz, an Al-Azhar scholar, refers to equitable distribution of inheritance as “undebatable,” given that there are final conclusions on the matter in Islam. “The regulation of inheritance in Islam and the prohibition of marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men are both Islamic axioms determined by Sharia,” he says. “There is no space for independent reasoning or uncertainty.”
Furthermore, Draz believes that what happened in Tunisia is “an explicit insult to imams.” He believes that their progressive interpretation “is a question mark that can only be answered by Tunisia’s mufti.”
In an interview with the privately owned Egyptian Al-Watan newspaper, Tunisia’s mufti endorsed the Tunisian president’s remarks and defended them on the basis that “God’s ruling on earthly matters” could and should be reinterpreted to stay relevant.
For him, the Islamic inheritance system is fair to women, especially since in some cases women’s rights may surpass men’s. The rule that states that women must inherit half the value inherited by men is not the only rule in Sharia regulating inheritance, he asserted, adding that there are cases in Islam where women inherit as much as men, and others where they inherit more.
Observing the adverse reactions to the Tunisian president’s speech and Diwan’s subsequent support, Omaima Abou Bakr, a pioneer in Islamic feminism, notes that discussing equality in inheritance or marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men “is not against Islam, but rather against the classic interpretations of Islam.”
She points to other possibilities of interpretation that she thinks are being overlooked by the indignant sheikhs of Al-Azhar. “There have been contemporary readings of Islam that discuss these issues and offer new progressive readings and solutions outside the scope of scholars and clerics,” she says, “But these readings are rare and unknown.”
According to Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford’s St Antony’s College, the main fault of classic Islamic interpretations of the Quran is that they consider the text categorical in implementation as much as in articulation. “The literal implementation of the text leads, in some situations, to selective justice, which in itself contradicts the essence of the text,” he argues.
Similarly, Khaled Aboul Fadl, the chair of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of California, wrote in his 2003 book, Speaking in God’s Name, that “authoritarian interpretations” of Islamic readings harm several social groups, mostly women.
However, Abou Bakr, who also heads the Women and Memory Forum, an organization that promotes gendered narratives of history, points to another issue: the confinement of women’s rights to a framework set by the state.
This “state feminism” often involves applying certain adaptations of women’s rights, ultimately geared toward increasing political gains during ongoing disputes with religious institutions, she says.
Tunisian columnist, Thameur Mekki, expands on this point in an article, explaining that Essebsi uses women’s rights as a tool to gain leverage over his rivals.
“There are similar debates over women’s rights in the Maghreb countries. These debates are always supported by a political willingness for discussion and a strong and healthy civil society,” Abou Bakr says. “However, this is difficult in Egypt, because resistance is absent given the widespread fear of discussing these issues in the absence of free spaces.”
However, Abou Bakr believes that Tunisia’s stance will inevitably introduce these debates to Egypt, albeit not in as progressive of a manner, because of the “invasiveness” of Al-Azhar’s authority. “Historically, Egypt has been the nation of Al-Azhar, which is a very intellectually conservative institution,” she says.
Al-Azhar’s hostility toward subjects it believes challenge fundamental Sunni Muslim thought has caused tensions inside Egypt in the recent past.
In January 2017, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claimed that the rise in Egypt’s divorce rates necessitated a move to ban verbal divorce. At the time, Al-Azhar’s highest authority, the Council of Senior Scholars, said that verbal divorce is Sharia-compliant and that to change Egypt’s divorce laws would not be the right approach to to counter rising divorce rates.
However, the Tunisian move has propelled debate in Egypt, with proponents pointing to the nearby country as offering a lessons to be learned and opponents going as far as to entertain the idea of going to war with Tunisia for deserting Islam.
Amna Nosseir, a professor of Islamic philosophy at Al-Azhar University and a member of Parliament, is wary of how criticizing Tunisia’s policies can impact bilateral relations. “The response to this issue should be left to Al-Azhar,” she says. “But we should not let it interfere in our political relationship with Tunisia.”
Translated by Waad Ahmed