The decision to unify Friday prayers by giving preachers written sermons is in the best interests of society, Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said in response to Al-Azhar’s top clerics’ rejection of the decision, according to a statement released Sunday on the ministry’s official website Awkaf Online.
The minister began the statement by expressing the ministry’s full respect for Al-Azhar, affirming their belief that Al-Azhar is a “huge Islamic reference”, and also confirming their keenness to maintain the institution’s prestige and position worldwide.
Regarding the sermons, the statement continued: “the ministry sees the decision as an intellectual and strategic project and a legitimate national interest in accordance with a comprehensive vision for the enlightenment and understanding of religion without differences in interpretation or intellectual discourse or overstepping boundaries.”
The ministry’s statement also noted that unified sermon will not impact the relationship between the imam and his listeners, adding that the sermon is prepared considering the differences among various imams’ studies and understanding.
The statement said that the ministry appreciates the grand imam of Al-Azhar’s role in giving all religious institutions the freedom to make decisions related to administration, which is beneficial and does not cause harm to society.
Al-Azhar’s top clerics, including the institute’s undersecretary Abbas Shuman, opposed the decision, concerned that the sermons will lack credibility, creativity, and will distort the connection between an imam and his listeners. They also urged that it is inappropriate considering their long years of study, effort, knowledge, and prestige.
However, there are a number of imams who support the decision, praise it, and say that it is beneficial to the sermon, the imam, and the listeners. They further say that it will prevent mistakes, control the timing of a sermon, and unifying the information delivered to people.
Imam Ahmed Mowaad said in a televised interview on a state-owned TV channel that the decision of the unified sermon is like any other new decision, which is met with both criticism and support.
The imam praised the decision, saying that adjusting the timing of the sermons has been a pressing matter. He referred to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, when his sermons never exceeded 20 minutes. He said that nowadays sermons should not exceed 15 minutes as Friday prayer sermons often do nowadays.
He further contended that unifying time and topic will avoid mistakes and distortion, explaining that several imams’ lengthen their sermons and go off topic, wasting time, distorting the message, and causing mistakes.
Unifying the duration and topic of a sermon unifies the listeners’ knowledge, Mowaad said.
He commented on Al-Azhar clerics’ arguments, saying that imams are not obliged to follow the exact text of the written sermon as they can use their own methods in lecturing and presenting, but they must commit to the ideas, hadith, and verses included in the written sermon.
He added that unified sermons will not impact interactions between imams and listeners. Mowaad suggested that imams can prepare for Friday sermons by studying and reviewing the written paper before giving the sermon in order to appear prepared before their constituents.
As for creativity, he urged that imams and preachers give classes, lectures, sessions, and TV interviews where they can present their studies and perform freely without restrictions.
He concluded that based on his experience, especially this past Friday, he noticed that listeners were less focused on whether the imam was reading from a paper or not and more focused on his presentation skills.
This past Friday was the second to feature the unified sermon since its announcement. The sermon addressed chastity and purity. On 14 July, Gomaa announced the implementation of the written unified Friday sermon in all mosques across the country after several meetings with scholars over the past few weeks.
Similarly, El-Sheikh Mohamad Al-Agamy, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Endowments in Assuit, said that he was also committed to the written sermon and called on other imams to implement it, saying that it will benefit imams’ ability to concentrate and will shorten the time of the sermon.
On Friday, Zakria Al-Khateb, deputy of the ministry in Sharqeya, said that the main purpose of the decision is to require all imams to not go off topic, also clarifying that unifying the sermon aims to pray for Egypt and for its president, according to independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Al-Khateb said that there are strict instructions to implement the decision and that whoever violates it will face legal consequences.
He commented on Al-Azhar clerics’ rejections saying that even if the institution is unsatisfied with the decision, people cannot oppose the minister’s decision, especially since the minister was previously a dean for one of Al-Azhar’s universities.
He concluded that all ministry figures are satisfied with the decision, mentioning how Friday prayer speech pulpits are affiliated to the ministry.
The decision to standardise Friday sermons follows a string of other measures that the ministry has undertaken over the past three years to tighten its grip over religious discourse in Egypt in an attempt to regulate it.