Egypt’s senior clerics elect faith leader as snub to Brotherhood

(Originally published by the Times.)

Evan Hill and Muhammad Mansour in Cairo

Egypt’s top clerics defied the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and used their first free vote in 60 years yesterday to choose a scholar as the Grand Mufti — the leading arbiter of faith across the Sunni world.

Shokri Ibrahim Abdel Karim, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence from the Nile Delta, will become Egypt’s 19th Grand Mufti if, as expected, his nomination is approved by President Morsi. In this role, he will be Egypt’s most prominent interpreter of Islamic law, with responsibility for issuing fatwas.

Professor Abdel Karim received the most votes in a secret ballot held among the Senior Scholars Authority, a group of officials formed after the 2011 revolution. Before the uprising, Egypt’s presidents directly appointed the Grand Mufti, but power has now been placed in the hands of scholars at al-Azhar, a university considered by many to be the most important seat of Sunni Islamic learning in the world.

Professor Abdel Karim has written books on the political rights of Muslim women, including their rights in divorce proceedings, and on the relationship between medicine and Sharia when applied to sex changes and identifying the sex of a child before birth.

His nomination came two years to the day after Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down as President.

The Brotherhood had pushed its own candidate, Abdel Rahman al-Bar, for the mufti’s position, sparking criticism that the conservative Islamist movement was trying to seize the country’s highest religious authority after capturing political power.

However, Mr al-Bar did not even make it to the final round of voting, Azhar sources said. Candidates for the mufti’s position are not meant to hold political affiliations, and some observers saw Mr al-Bar’s alleged nomination as a threat to al-Azhar’s independence.

“The new mufti is greeted, as he is committed to the moderate Azharite ideology,” said Mohamed al-Mokhtar al-Mohdy, a member of the Senior Scholars Authority. He said that Professor Abdel Karim, who was born in 1961, was considered a young voice and “we are optimistic about him”.

Professor Abdel Karim teaches Sharia and law at a branch of al-Azhar University in Tanta, a city in the Nile Delta. Saif Qazamil, the dean, said that Professor Abdel Karim was well liked by colleagues and students and worked with “quiet efficiency”. He received his doctorate from al-Azhar in 1996 after writing a thesis comparing criminal proceedings under Islamic and civil law.

The controversy surrounding Mr al-Bar betrayed the contentious relationship between al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood. In its first statement welcoming Professor Abdel Karim’s nomination, al-Azhar specifically noted that he was not a member of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood claimed on Twitter that Mr al-Bar had never been nominated.

Some analysts believe that the episode shows al-Azhar’s ability to outmanoeuvre the Brotherhood and block its influence. “My understanding is that the name of al-Bar was leaked not as an indication that he was being seriously considered, but as a way to draw people’s attention to the fact the Muslim Brotherhood wanted him,” said H.A. Hellyer, a fellow with the Brookings Institution based in Cairo. “Once that was out in the open, it then became easier for the senior scholars’ council to choose someone else.”