Al-Azhar's Council of Senior Scholars, headed by Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, has reached a consensus agreement to reject the government's new policy of official, pre-written sermons for Friday prayers, saying the policy is damaging to religious discourse.
During its meeting on Tuesday, the council rejected the policy implemented by Religious Endowments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, saying that relying on official sermons would cause imams to become shallow in their thinking, which would in turn reduce their ability counter extremist ideas and the extremist groups that use religion as a cover.
The scholars said that such groups have ways of misinterpreting the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed, and imams who fall out of practice in scholarly terms would find it difficult to oppose extremist ideas and warn people against them.
Rather than being provided with scripts to read from during sermons, imams should be provided with the necessary training and resources to face extremist ideas, said the council.
The council also praised the role of Al-Azhar in trying to deepen Islamic intellectual culture among imams through teaching and the provision of books.
Meanwhile, the ministry declared that the sermon for this Friday will be about "cleanliness". Sheikh Gaber Tayei, head of the ministry’s religious sector, said the ministry will continue to insist on the scripted sermons.
The ministry's new policy for Friday sermons was enforced as of Friday after being announced just under two weeks ago. The ministry handed out copies of the standardized sermon — about abstinence and generosity — to mosques across the country, calling on preachers not to violate the new rule.
However, Ibrahim al-Hodhod, the president of Al-Azhar University, delivered a sermon on his own chosen topic, which was justice in Islam. He defended his move by saying that policies issued by the Religious Endowments Ministry do not apply to the ancient center of Islamic scholarship, Al-Azhar, and its preachers fall under the rulings of Al-Azhar only.
The ministry has been providing imams with topics for their sermons at Friday prayers since 2014, but the latest move confines all preachers to reading from the same script.
Several preachers have expressed fears that the new system will make preachers lazy and cause them to loose their knowledge of Islam, forced to read mindlessly from a piece of paper, rather than preparing their own material on a weekly basis. Others have labeled the move as the death of creativity, and still others fear it will destroy the relationship between the preacher and the listeners, eventually causing people to lose interest in Friday prayers.
Combating security threats linked to extremist Islam has been at the top of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's agenda since he took power from the ousted Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, and it is believed that the sermon policy is the government's latest move to stamp out hotbeds of extremism.