A raging debate, which unfortunately seems far beneath the radar screen of the short attention span of the Western media, is currently taking place in post-Mubarak Egypt about what kind of country Egypt will become. At the heart of the debate are 13 short Arabic words that make up Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution.
Egypt's first modern Constitution was written in 1923, soon after Egypt achieved independence from the British. The Constitution was significantly changed with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1953, and has been modified several times since. The current Constitution, available in English here, contains 211 short Articles all of which are subject to amendment.
Article 2 reads as follows: Islam is the Religion of the State, Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).
This article did not always read this way. It did not appear at all in pre-modern constitutions before 1923, and even then only stated that "the religion of the state is Islam and its language is Arabic". In 1971 Anwar Sadat added the clause, "Islam is a source of legislation," and President Mubarak in 1981 changed it to its present form as the principle source.
The reason President Sadat added the additional clause to Article 2 is a fascinating story. The present Article 77 states, "The term of the presidency shall be six Gregorian years starting from the date of the announcement of result of the plebiscite. The President of the Republic may be re-elected for other successive terms."
Article 77 did not always read that way, but originally limited a President to two terms. Anwar Sadat wanted more, and struck a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood to amend Article 77 in exchange for the additional Sharia clause in Article 2.
Soon afterwards Sadat began giving public speeches wearing the traditional gelebiya, calling himself Ar Rayyis Al Mumin (the Believing President), and reminding Egyptians that An Nabi wal Khulafa Ar Rashidun (Muhammad and his four immediate successor) had all been Rulers for Life. Although the Brotherhood recognized this as a farce and did not for a second believe Sadat was one of the Awliya As Saliheen, or faithful Muslims, they accepted his political stunt because they got Article 2.
When Sadat was assassinated and Mubarak realized the Brotherhood posed a threat to him as well, he further placated them by again amending Article 2 to read that Sharia would be the main source of Egyptian law.
Much of the above information was given by Coptic writer and political observer Naji Youssef during this Arabic interview with host Rashid. Naji advocates removing Article 2 in its entirely.
"The problem with Article 2," he said, "Is that when it states that Sharia is the main source for legislation, there is no room for Ijtihad (independent thought), Tafsir (critical analysis) or Muarada (opposition). To oppose it is to oppose Allah and his Sharia, which is not allowed in Islam."
"The basic definition of a Dawlah Medaniyah (civil state)," continued Naji, "Is a state ruled by law not based on religion. Law must be firm and clear, reflecting the needs of the people and applied to everyone irrespective of their religion or beliefs. This is not a political clash between Muslims and Christians with Muslims wanting Article 2 and Christians demanding its removal, but is important to everyone because we are all citizens of one country."
"Some people," added Naji, "Believe that if we oppose Article 2 we are doing something against Islam. This is not the case, and I am convinced that Muslim intellectuals who were not thinking merely from the religious perspective understood the danger of this Article from the very first day."
When asked if Article 2 guaranteed the rights of all of Egypt's citizens, Naji replied, "It does not guarantee human rights for any Egyptian citizen, not just the Copts. If you claim that Sharia is the main source for Egyptian law, what Sharia are you talking about? Are you talking about the Sharia of the Sunnis, or the Shia, or the Christians, or others?"
Rashid quickly retorted that "Christian law" certainly would have no place in Egypt's constitution, but acknowledged Naji's point that there were different interpretations of Islamic law. Naji then said, "If you tell me, as an Egyptian Christian, that the principles of Sharia form the basis of law I want to know what you are talking about. At the very outset, Muslims should agree on these principles if they want to say they are the source of law. If they cannot agree among themselves what Sharia is, how can they say it is the basis for Egyptian law? As a Christian citizen, I should not have to study Islamic law to know how Egypt's law apply to me."
"What does Article 2 mean," Naji continued, "When it says Islam is the religion of the state? The state is made up of institutions and interests. Can I say that Islam is the religion of the Ministry of the Interior, Islam is the religion of the Ministry of Agriculture, or Islam is the religion of the Egyptian Military? What do they mean when they say the religion of the state is Islam?"
"This does not only apply to Christians," added Naji, "But to Muslims as well. Where is the place for a Muslim who does not agree with another Muslim's interpretation of Sharia?"
"The Quran-only Muslims," noted Rashid, "Do not believe in the Hadith or the Sunnah (the sayings and life practices of Muhammad), but claim to be true Muslims. Sharia to them is not the same as for the Salafists, which in turn differs from the Sharia of the Muslim Brotherhood. And all of them are different from the Sharia of the Sufis!"
"That is why I am arguing," replied Naji, "Not from the standpoint of a Muslim or a Christian or an atheist or anyone else but as an Egyptian citizen. I am saying we need civil law that is not based on religion, and treats everyone exactly the same way."
"When I stand in front of the judge," continued Naji, "It should make no difference what his religion is or mine. The same law should apply to all. As it stands, if I am a Shia wanting a ruling about Zawaj Mutaa (temporary marriage), I will seek out a Shia judge because Sunni Islam does not recognize temporary marriage. When you tell me that the religion of the state is Islam, I feel that as a Christian I am not a part of this state."
"Should religion be mentioned at all in the Constitution?" asked Rashid. "The state is made up of Muslims, Christians, Bahais, atheists, rationalists and agnostics. They all need to be able to stand equally in front of the law."
"There is absolutely no need," replied Naji, "To mention religion in the Constitution. I want to repeat that this is not intended as an attack against Islam. I remind you again that this phrase was originally included in Article 2 for the political purposes of Presidents Sadat and Mubarak, not to serve the society. When you insert a clause in the Constitution merely to achieve your own political interests, knowing that others will exploit it for their religious interests, you have not served your people."
"Shaykhs are now describing this as the line in the sand," continued Naji. "They are accusing us of trying to remove the law of God from the Constitution. They know that the easiest way to inflame the passions of uneducated people is to claim that we are trying to remove Islam from the Constitution. As soon as you say, "This is against Islam," people stop thinking."
1. Recent media reports such as this in the New York Times note that Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is also calling for a Dawlah Medaniyah, or civil government, in Egypt. Are Yusuf Qaradawi and Naji Youssef advocating the same thing? The more I follow unfolding events in the Middle East and North Africa the more I realize how critical definitions are, particularly in the realm of religion and politics. As noted above, the word Sharia has different meanings even to different groups of Muslims. The term Dawlah Medaniyah is the same. It is extremely important to know whether a "civil government" means the same to Dr. Qaradawi as it does to Naji Youssef. I strongly suspect it does not.
2. Dr. Qaradawi warned Egyptians in his Tahrir Square sermon, "Do not let the enemies of Islam take this revolution from you." But who are the enemies of Islam? In an incredibly vitriolic sermon only available in Arabic, Shaykh Mohamed Hassan recently described any Egyptian who would want to change "even a single letter" of Article 2 of Egypt's Constitution as an "enemy of Allah and of Islam". Are Shaykhs Qaradawi and Hassan on the same page, or poles apart?
3. "As soon as (a Muslim apologist) says, 'This is against Islam,'" said Naji, "People stop thinking." Unfortunately, this is as true in America as it is in Egypt. Muslims here have even come up with a name for it. They call it Islamophobia.