Al-Azhar’s ‘Bill of Rights’

Following the Arab Spring, a venerable Islamic institution’s new Statement on Basic Freedoms suggests where sharia law may (and may not) be compatible with international conventions to guarantee free expression.

Published in early 2012, the Al-Azhar Statement on Basic Freedoms calls for freedom of opinion, faith, creativity and scientific research. A representative of Al-Azhar shared this document with Free Speech Debate director Timothy Garton Ash when he visited Cairo earlier this year. The text was translated into English by FSD team member Hebatalla Taha and that translation authorised by the same representative of Al-Azhar.

During the long reign of president Hosni Mubarak, Al-Azhar was regularly accused of stifling free speech. Grand Imam Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy supported the former president’s policies until his death in 2010. Now under Ahmed el-Tayeb’s leadership in a post-Mubarak Egypt, Al-Azhar is attempting to regain its prestigious reputation and reconcile sharia law with international conventions on free expression.

In the document that follows, Al-Azhar describes its message as “the correct, centrist understanding of religion”. One of the most interesting and perhaps most controversial elements of this document comes under the heading “freedom of opinion and expression” and states: “…we need to respect the divine beliefs and rituals of the three Abrahamic faiths to avoid threatening the national fabric and security. No one has the right to raise sectarian or doctrinal strife in the name of freedom of expression. The right to present a scholarly opinion supported by relevant evidence, however, is far from incitement and shall be guaranteed, as outlined by the principle of freedom of scientific research.”

Putting aside the fact that Al-Azhar addresses only the three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism and Christianity), how compatible is this declaration with our seventh draft principle: “We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief”? Please add your comments below. You can also check the original Arabic text of Al-Azhar’s statement here.

In the Name of God the Merciful

The Noble Azhar

Office of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar

Al-Azhar Statement on Basic Freedoms

In the wake of the liberating revolutions that have fuelled the spirit of complete renaissance in various fields, the Egyptian, Arab and Islamic nations look to their scholars and intellectuals to determine the relationship between the principles of sharia law and the set of basic freedoms that has been unanimously agreed upon by international conventions. These basic freedoms have emerged from the cultural experience of the Egyptian people, as they consolidate the nation’s foundations and reaffirm its long-established principles. Scholars must outline the foundations of these basic principles to determine the necessary conditions for development and to widen future prospects.

The freedoms referred to are: the freedom of belief, freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of scientific research and freedom of literary and artistic creativity. All such freedoms should bear in mind the overarching purpose of sharia, as well as grasp the spirit of modern constitutional legislation and requirements for the development of human knowledge. This relationship creates a spiritual energy for the nation that can fuel a renaissance and work as a catalyst for physical and moral progress. This effort should be harmoniously connected and consistent with a rational cultural discourse and enlightened religious discourse. These two discourses overlap and complement each other in a pattern that is fruitful for the future and unites the goals and objectives agreed upon by everyone.

It is therefore important for the scholars of Al-Azhar to examine the intellectual components involved in systems of human freedoms and rights and to adopt a set of principles and rules that govern such freedoms. This is based on the requirements of today and the need to preserve the essence of compatibility in communities, taking into account the public interest in the process of democratisation, until the nation builds its constitutional institutions in peace and moderation with blessings from God.

This can stop the spread of certain provocative summons, which tend to invoke the pretext of the call “to promote virtue and prevent vice” in order to intervene in public and private freedoms. Such is not commensurate with the cultural and social development of modern Egypt, at a time when the country needs unity and the correct, centrist understanding of religion. Such is the religious message of Al-Azhar and its responsibility to the community and the nation.

First: Freedom of belief

Freedom of belief and the associated right to full citizenship for all based on full equality of rights and duties is considered a cornerstone of modern community building. It is guaranteed by the unchanging peremptory religious text and explicit constitutional and legal principles. As God Almighty says, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong,” adding, “So whomever wills – let him believe; and whomever wills – let him disbelieve.” These verses legitimise the criminalisation of any appearance of coercion, persecution or discrimination in religion. Every individual in the community can embrace ideas as he pleases without affecting the right of the society to maintain monotheistic beliefs. The three Abrahamic faiths have held on to their sense of holiness, and their followers should retain the freedom to observe their rituals without facing aggression directed at their feelings or violations on their religions sanctity, and without breaching public order.

As the Arab world has been the location of divine revelations that embrace heavenly religions, it is rigorously committed to the protection of their holiness, the respect of their rituals and the maintenance of the rights of their believers with freedom, dignity and brotherhood.

From freedom of belief follows recognition of the legitimacy of pluralism, the protection of the right to disagree and the obligation of every citizen to respect the feelings of others and equality among citizens. This equality is based on a solid foundation of citizenship, partnership and equal opportunities in all rights and duties.

Furthermore, respecting freedom of belief entails rejecting exclusion and tafkir (declaration by a Muslim that another Muslim is a non-believer due to a certain belief, saying or action) and rejecting trends that condemn the beliefs of others or attempt to inspect the consciences of the faithful. This is based on established constitutional systems and conclusive provisions decided upon by sharia law and expressed by many Muslim scholars under the influence of the Prophet Muhammad who once asked, “Have you opened his chest [and examined his heart]?” Similar sentiments were expressed by many Imams, including Imam Malik of Medina who stated, “If a person says something that most probably denotes disbelief, yet still there is a remote possibility it does not, it should not be taken to denote disbelief.” Notable Imams of jurisprudence and legislation in Islamic thought left us golden rules: “If the mind and the text are apparently conflicting, the mind should be given precedence and the text reinterpreted.” This serves the objectives of sharia while keeping in mind legal interests.

Second: Freedom of opinion and expression

Freedom of opinion, whether spoken, written, through art production or digital communication, is the foundation of all freedoms. It is the manifestation of social freedoms that goes beyond individuals to include things such as the formation of political parties and civil society organisations, freedom of the press and audio, visual and digital media, as well as free access to the information necessary to express an opinion. These freedoms must be guaranteed explicitly by the constitution to transcend ordinary laws that are subject to change. Egypt’s supreme constitutional court has expanded the concept of freedom of expression to include constructive criticism, even if it is harshly worded. The court stated, “It is not appropriate to restrict freedom of expression regarding public issues. This should be tolerated.” However, we need to respect the divine beliefs and rituals of the three Abrahamic faiths to avoid threatening the national fabric and security. No one has the right to raise sectarian or doctrinal strife in the name of freedom of expression. The right to present a scholarly opinion supported by relevant evidence, however, is far from incitement and shall be guaranteed, as outlined by the principle of freedom of scientific research.

We declare that freedom of opinion and expression is crucial for real democracy. We call upon the nation to raise a new generation according to a culture of freedom and the right to disagree while respecting others. Furthermore, we urge workers in the fields of religious, cultural and political discourse in the media to take this significant dimension into account and to exercise wisdom in the formation of a public opinion that is characterised by tolerance, open-mindedness and invokes dialogue whilst rejecting bigotry. To achieve this, the cultural traditions of tolerant Islamic thought should be evoked. An example is a saying by one of the Imams: “I believe that my opinion is right, but may be wrong, and that the opinion of others is wrong, but may be right.” The only way to fortify freedom of opinion is therefore by using sound arguments according to the ethics of dialogue and the cultural customs found in sophisticated societies.

Third: Freedom of scientific research

Profound scientific research in humanities, natural sciences, sports and other fields is an engine of human progress and a means of discovering the ways and laws of the universe. Such knowledge can be harnessed for the good of humanity. However, this research cannot take place and pay off in a theoretical and practical sense without the nation devoting its energy and mobilising its resources. Quranic scripture urges reasoning, review, inference, measurement and meditation in cosmic and human phenomena to discover the universe. These criteria paved the way for the greatest scientific renaissance in the history of the East and presented an achievement for humans in both the East and the West. It is widely known that a renaissance was led by scholars of Islam, who carried its flame to light the era of renaissance in the West. If thinking in various branches of knowledge and art is generally an obligation in Islam, as held by scholars, then theoretical and experimental scientific research is an instrument that fulfils this obligation. The most important conditions are that research institutions and specialised scientists possess full academic freedom in testing and imposing assumptions and probabilities and can carry out experiments with precise scientific standards. It is also the right of such institutions to maintain creativity and necessary experience to ensure access to new results that add to human knowledge. Nothing can direct them to achieve this goal other than the ethics, methods and constant elements of science.

Some of the senior Muslims scholars such as Al-Razi, Ibn Al-Haytham, Ibn Al-Nafis were leaders and pioneers of scientific knowledge in the East and the West for many centuries. The time has now come for Arab and Islamic nations to return to the race for power and to enter the era of knowledge. Science has become a source of military and economic power and a basis for progress, development and prosperity. Furthermore, free scientific research has become the foundation of educational development. The supremacy of scientific thought and the prosperity of production centres, which shall be allocated large budgets, task forces and major projects proposals, require securing the highest ceiling for scientific and human research. The West was close to retaining all of scientific progress in its hands. It would have monopolised scientific progress if not for the rise of Japan, China, India and Southeast Asia, which have provided illuminating models for the Middle East’s ability to break this monopoly and to embark on an age of science and knowledge. The time has come for Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims to enter the competitive scientific and cultural arenas. They have what it takes in terms of spiritual, financial and human energy, as well as other conditions required for progress in a world that does not respect the weak and those falling behind.

Fourth: Freedom of literary and artistic creativity

There are two types of creativity: scientific creativity related to scientific research as stated above and literary and artistic creativity found in the various genres of literature such as lyrical and dramatic poetry, fiction and nonfiction, theatre, biographical accounts, visual and fine arts, film, television, music and other innovative forms of art that have been newly introduced to these genres.

Generally, literature and arts seek to raise awareness of reality, stimulate imagination, refine aesthetic feelings, educate human senses and expand their capacity, as well as deepen the human experience in life and society. Art and literature can also sometimes criticise society while exploring better and finer alternatives. All of these functions are significant and lead to the enrichment of language and culture, stimulation of the imagination and development of thought, while taking into account sublime religious values and moral virtues.

The Arabic language had been characterised by its literary richness and remarkable eloquence until the Holy Quran arrived at the peak of eloquence, increasing the beauty and genius of the language. The Quran nourished the art of poetry, prose and wisdom and launched the talents of poets and authors of all nationalities that embraced Islam and spoke Arabic. For years these individuals excelled in all arts freely and without restrictions. Many scientists who came from Arab and Islamic cultures such as elders and Imams were narrators of various types of poetry and stories. The basic rules governing the limits of freedom of creativity are the receptivity of the society and its ability to absorb elements of heritage and renewal in literary and artistic creativity. Such rules should not touch upon religious feelings or established moral values. Literary and artistic creativity remain among the most important manifestations of a prosperous set of basic freedoms and the most effective at moving the community’s awareness and enriching its conscience. As this rational freedom becomes more entrenched, it becomes a symbol of modernisation as literature and the arts are mirrors of a society’s conscience and a sincere expression of its constants and its variables. They present a radiant image of society’s aspirations for a better future, and may God bless that which is good and right.

Signed in Al-Azhar Sheikhdom
14 Safar 1433 AH  – 8 January 2012 AC
Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar
Dr. Ahmed El-Tayyeb

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