Excommunicating Egyptian Scholar Finds Himself on the Outside

Published May 7th, 2017 - 02:18 GMT
al-Azhar university. (AFP/file)
al-Azhar university. (AFP/file)

The position is one of the most important in Egypt and in the Muslim world. Ahmad Hosni Taha has just been fired from the presidency of al-Azhar University, however, after calling a prominent critic of Islam an ‘apostate’. Taha accused Islam al-Behairy of telling “lies” about historic Islamic scholars, and said that his words had taken him outside acceptable Islamic thought.

If you speak Arabic, you can watch the interview here:

The remarks provoked an outcry, and Taha was removed from his post despite apologizing.

It is not al-Behairy’s first run-in with the country’s Islamic authorities. His calls for Islamic reform have long irritated them, and he was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison in 2016 for ‘insulting religion’. He was released after he was granted a pardon by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

al-Azhar university, founded in the tenth century, is the preeminent centre of Sunni theological study in the world. It rules on disputes regarding the proper conduct of Sunni muslims, and the voice of its President therefore carries considerable weight.

The issue of apostasy in Islam is a thorny one for the contemporary Islamic world because it is on the basis of excommunication - declaring that someone is outside the faith - that extremist groups like al-Qaeda and Daesh ‘justify’ their killings of other Muslims.

As Egyptian journalist Samer al-Atrush notes, al-Azhar has refused to excommunicate Daesh and others because they think that the principle is, at heart, faulty:

The Oxford Dictionary of Islam says that leading scholars, “reject takfir [excommunication] as un-Islamic and marked by bigotry and zealotry.”

The controversy comes at a sensitive time for an Egypt increasingly wracked by the violence of Daesh’s Sinai branch. The group has increasingly re-focused its activities on killing Egypt’s Christians, who make up around 10% of the population.

After the Palm Sunday attacks on churches in Tanta and Alexandria that killed at least 45, the group’s leader told Muslims to avoid Christian gatherings, saying that they were “legitimate targets”.

In such a climate, it seems that Egypt needs as little extremist rhetoric as possible, so we’re glad to see al-Azhar standing up for what’s right and firing Taha.

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