By Muhammad al-Khouli
In Egypt, it is widely known that any property on which a mosque is located is “exempt of taxes.” It is only natural then to see several mosques sprouting up on any given street.
In a related phenomenon, if someone wants to build a structure without the proper permits, all he would have to do is hang a huge banner reading: “Here, the so and so mosque will be erected.” If a security officer tries to enforce a demolition against the structure, all the property owner has to say to stop him dead in his tracks is: “You’re going to demolish a mosque, sir.”
For all these reasons and more, zawayas mushroomed on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. Because the zawayas are not supervised, the property owner or any other person with the courage to mount the pulpit can give a sermon. This is how different Islamist groups came to dominate the zawayas.
Islamists’ physical appearance enabled them to fill such roles. They wear short, white jilbabs (flowing garments), and they grow their beards and memorize a few hadith and Quranic verses. These zawayas were used recently to fire up people to protest in defense of the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed president Mohamed Mursi.
According to sources from the Ministry of Religious Endowments who spoke with Al-Akhbar, the more dangerous problem lies in the fact that the ministry has 110,000 mosques and only 55,000 imams, leaving a deficit of 55,000 imams. The sources said that imams not affiliated with the ministry are hired to cover this huge deficit and are given permits to give sermons at ministry-affiliated mosques. This is how the Islamist movement was able to get its foot in the door and all the way to the pulpit.
As such, Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa decided to cancel the permits of more than 55,000 imams and “consider any previous permits null if they are not renewed within two months from the date.” Friday prayers will be allowed in “zawayas that are smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet) only with written permission from the ministry’s undersecretary.”
The minister’s decision was informed by certain developments during Mursi’s one-year rule. As Mursi appointed an endowments minister who was a Brotherhood sympathizer, many clerics warned of his plan to mold mosques in the image of the Brotherhood.
Sources at the endowments ministry told Al-Akhbar that the former minister, Gamal Abdel Sattar, agreed to set up training and cultural courses for the new imams who were selected last year under Mursi. The problem is that the ministry hired clerics from the Salafi and Brotherhood movements, which led to this crisis. He pointed out that 57,000 men applied to the ministry’s contest to select new imams, but only 3,000 passed.
Imam Ahmad Daoud told Al-Akhbar that it was clear that there was a “brotherization” process underway at the ministry. He said he was present at those courses and noticed that the teachings differed from the centrist al-Azhar school of thought.
Sheikh Sabry Abada, undersecretary at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, believes that under Mursi, mosques were used to “uphold politics above religion.” This previous state of affairs, he said, required the ministry’s adopting such an audacious decision. The decision to disqualify preachers who are not graduates from al-Azhar and do not have academic qualifications was “way overdue,” he said.
He added that history will remember this “decisive and characteristic decision,” the purpose of which is to “maintain the state’s centrist Muslim identity.”
Abada stressed that mosques are places of worship, pointing out that many political movements took advantage of the insufficient number of ministry-affiliated imams by having their clerics fill the void. They then began to push their ideas, rouse worshippers and spread lies in order to mislead the public.
He said that the ministry will take measures to implement the minister’s decision within days and tighten the ministry’s control over all mosques and zawayas.
Most Salafi movements and the Brotherhood were not pleased with these developments. Their members attacked the decision on social networking sites saying: “Sisi builds churches for Christians while he closes mosques. May God take revenge!”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.