General El-Sisi, the commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces and current defence minister, is essentially calling for a reformation in Islam. His bold declaration comes as the Egyptian people approved a constitution in a vote that the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted.
The speech, which went unnoticed in the Western media, took place at the Armed Forces’ Department of Moral Affairs. In the speech, El-Sisi said:
“Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people, pointing to the need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam—rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years.”
Notice what El-Sisi did not say. He did not say Zionism or Western oppression is the greatest threat to Egypt, nor did he point to a specific group like Al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. He accurately framed the struggle as an ideological one within Islam.
When he refers to the “discourse that has not changed for 800 years,” he’s referring to when the most qualified Islamic scholars of that time ruled that all questions about interpretation had been settled. The “gates” of ijtihad, the independent interpretation of Islam, ended by the year 1258. He wants the “gates” reopened, allowing for the critical examination that an Islamic reformation needs.
Elsewhere in the speech, Sisi “called on all who follow the true Islam to improve the image of this religion in front of the world, after Islam has been for decades convicted of violence and destruction around the world, due to the crimes falsely committed in the name of Islam.”
This is another important declaration. He attributes Islamic extremism to this lack of discourse. He doesn’t blame it on a Jewish conspiracy to defame Islam or describe it as an overreaction to non-Muslim aggression.
He is also pre-empting the Islamists’ inevitable attack that he is an apostate by stating that Muslims are advancing Islam by having this discourse and turning away from violence. He takes away the argument from extremists that they are the model of a devout Muslim.
The next question is whether El-Sisi has the standing in Muslim opinion to be listened to. For now, the answer is yes. The Egyptian military that he leads has a 70% favorability rating, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s rating is at 34%. He is almost certain to run for president and, at this stage, is likely to win.
When the military toppled President Morsi and El-Sisi announced the suspension of the Islamist-written constitution, he was joined by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University, an institution that is basically the equivalent of the Vatican for Sunni Islam. To date, Al-Azhar has not broken with El-Sisi or condemned his remarks.
Other influential Egyptians may endorse El-Sisi’s view. In January 2011, former Egyptian Islamist Tawfik Hamid reported that 25 Islamic scholars, including teachers from Al-Azhar, said that ijtihad needed to be resumed. The 10 points they listed for renewed examination included the separation of mosque and state, women’s rights, relations with non-Muslims and jihad.
Calls for reform and ijtihad can be heard beneath the visible surface of the Muslim world. In my own experience, I’ve heard many average Muslims endorse reformation but their views are not reflected in the national leadership.
Some of these reformist Muslims want to reopen the “gates” of ijtihad, while others say they never considered them closed to begin with. For example, Tunisian professor Dr. Muhamd El-Haddad, argues, “Daily life has evolved radically since the last millennium, but there has been no accompanying development in mainstream Muslim legal theory.”
Professor Ziauddin Sadar of London wrote in 2002 that that Islamic doctrine is “frozen in time” and there are three doctrinal pillars that need reform: “The elevation of the Shari’ah to the level of the Divine, with the consequent removal of agency from the believers, and the equation of Islam with the State.”
Those that argue that the “gates” were never closed include Malcolm Jardine, who wrote a thoroughly-researched essay on the topic. In 2006, the U.S.-based Nawawi Foundation published a study by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah with the premise that Islam “never had a doorkeeper to close it in the first place.”
General El-Sisi and the overall backlash against the Islamists may spark what the world needs most: An Islamic reformation. It is not enough to topple Islamists. Their ideological underpinning must be debated and defeated. The determinations of scholars from 800 years can no longer be treated as eternal truth, but for what they really are—opinions influenced by the times in which they were made.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.