CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top Islamic authority on Sunday rejected President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's suggestion that legislation be adopted to invalidate the practice of Muslim men verbally divorcing their wives.
It marked a rare instance of a public institution contradicting the president, who has presided over a wide-scale crackdown on dissent in recent years while seeking to rally the country's entrenched interests behind him.
The Council of Senior Clerics in Al-Azhar — the highest authority in Sunni Islam — unanimously ruled that verbal divorce, when meeting all requirements, has been an undisputed practice since the days of the 7th century Prophet Muhammad.
The requirements, it explained, included that the man has a sound mind, full consciousness and uses appropriate phrasing. Muslim women in Egypt cannot verbally divorce their husbands but can apply for divorce in a court of law.
In a carefully-worded statement, the council made no mention of el-Sissi, or his suggestion last month for legislation requiring such divorces to be carried out in the presence of a state-authorized cleric. It was addressed to "the people."
However, its rejection of the president's proposal was uncompromising, and it made a thinly-veiled reference to the constitution, which refers to Al-Azhar as the main authority on religious and Islamic affairs.
The council expressed concern over the high rate of divorce in Egypt, where 40 percent of marriages end in divorce within five years, according to figures cited by the president. But it pointed out that the figures include only documented divorces, suggesting that reducing the number of verbal divorces would have little impact.
El-Sissi had proposed the change during a televised address he gave last month with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, in attendance. He turned to him and said with a smile: "What do you think, your eminence, the imam?" indirectly acknowledging that he needed al-Azhar's backing for his proposed legislation.
Al-Tayeb, appointed by presidential decree, heads the Council of Senior Clerics.
Ayman al-Sayad, an analyst who closely monitors religious affairs, said that Al-Azhar's rejection of the proposal showed that it has "drawn a clear line between religion and politics." He added: "It has decisively settled the issue, but went to great lengths so as not to appear confrontational."
El-Sissi, a devout Muslim whose public comments are often peppered with Quranic verses or mentions of God, has repeatedly called for moderating Islam's discourse to counter extremism. Recently, he instructed authorities to standardize Friday sermons in mosques across Egypt, a move billed as combatting extremism but which was seen by critics as further curtailing free speech.
The statement was a cautious pushback against el-Sissi, asserting a measure of independence for Al-Azhar in the face of a president who seeks to rally everyone and every institution behind him, according to author and columnist Basma Abdel-Aziz.
But it also reflects the influence wielded by senior conservative clerics in an institution that prides itself on being the chief propagator of moderate Islam while remaining a bastion of religious conservatism, said Abdel-Aziz.