By Azmat Haroon
Doha: Dispute over the use of politics in Friday sermons has become a divisive issue among a majority of Muslims across the Arab world.
The Friday prayer is singled out from all other obligatory prayers in Islam for many reasons, including the fact that the sermon (Khutba) is compulsory. The sermon is delivered by the Imams of all the mosques, who lead the prayers, and cover a variety of issues Muslims encounter in their daily lives.
Scholars who argue that politics is inseparable from Islam say that the Imam is duty-bound to dive into politics while giving the weekly sermon, and disclose sufferings of Muslims, even if they are located in a remote corner of the world.
Others say that the ‘minbar’ (the platform used by the Imam to deliver his sermon in the mosque) is being exploited by political parties which use Imams to further their agendas.
The debate has come to the forefront following Egypt’s crackdown on unlicensed Imams, who have been banned from giving Friday sermons.
According to the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al Awsat, Egypt’s Ministry of Awqaf has barred nearly 55,000 unlicensed clerics from preaching in mosques and banned all those who have not graduated from Al Azhar University from ‘preaching in government and civil mosques’.
The Minister of Awqaf, Dr Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, also announced that special committees will be formed to ensure that mosques are no longer used for political reasons, a move many believe is a blow to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although mosques have been used for political debates for many centuries in Islamic history, some experts suggest that latest disputes over mosques began following the revolutionary wave of demonstrations that began in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) in December 2010.
Some argue that politically-motivated speeches in mosques are creating a further divide among Muslims already separated on sectarian grounds.
One Imam of a mosque in Riyadh was recently suspended following a video that went viral on the Internet, showing locals and Egyptians fighting during the Friday prayer.
The brawl erupted over comments of the Imam who had spoken against Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in his sermon, a political stance that agitated many Egyptians present in the mosque.
Reports suggest that since 2011, nearly 1,101 mosques have broken their ties with the Tunisian government, while some 2,200 mosques have become a point of dispute between different Islamic parties and the state.
In Syria, as many as 1,450 mosques have been destroyed or bombed since the beginning of the crisis, and include the historical Khalid bin Walid Mosque dating back to the 7th century.
Dr Abdul Hameed Al Ansari, professor of Shariah and former dean of Islamic Studies at Qatar University, writes in a recently-published column that the Arab Spring had, in fact, brought many Islamist groups to power.
“This phenomenon gained momentum with the Arab Spring, where some Imams represented political parties and anyone who did not agree with their stances was tagged as a ‘disbeliever’.”
Dr Al Ansari said that one of the dire consequences of the increasing political clashes in mosques was that some Islamic scholars were seen as people who were not ‘reliable’.
“They used mosques for the election propaganda, for promoting their political agendas… many mosques and the media were used to brainwash the majority of people.”
He said that some Imams in Kuwait had ignored a government decree barring them from discussing political issues in mosques.
Kuwait’s ties with Egypt deteriorated as some Imams continued to speak against the ouster of president Mohammed Mursi.
Following the political stand-off in Egypt over the overthrow of Mursi, Cairo’s Al Fateh Mosque became a focal point of a bloody showdown between the Egyptian military and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom took refuge in the mosque.
August 16, a Friday, was declared the ‘Day of Rage’ by the Brotherhood, and hundreds died in clashes that broke out during mass demonstrations across Egypt.
Meanwhile, in Morocco, members of the Tamazight or the Berber political movement, have started raising their separatist flags in nearly 137 mosques.
Arab columnist Fawad Al Fathi writes that members of the Berber movement decided to use mosques as political platforms after they realised that Salafis were calling them ‘non-Muslims’ and ‘anti-Islam’ in their mosques.
“Now, mosques in Morocco are divided on the bases of ethnicity,” writes Al Fathi, pointing at dangers of mosques becoming ‘fighting rings’ for political parties.
Speaking to The Peninsula, one local Imam, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Imams based in the GCC countries can never oppose the political leanings of their governments.
He said that despite differences on regional issues among GCC countries, they intended to maintain diplomatic ties with each other.
“For instance, I have rarely seen an Imam speaking on anti-Shia lines in a Friday sermon in the Gulf. This is because the governments do not want to encourage any kind of dispute in their countries.”
He also pointed out that any sermon that creates rifts among the people attending the congregation is seen as ‘fitna’, which is ‘haraam’ in Islam.
The purpose of the Friday prayer is to unite Muslims, and it is important that the sermon does not offend people, he said.
He added that Imams also have to ensure that the subjects they choose to discuss are relevant to the audiences.
“The Imams are encouraged not to exceed 30 minutes during their address on Friday. The Khutba should not be a cause of disturbance for people. If the Imam fails to maintain the interest of the people in his sermon, then its whole purpose is defeated,” he added.
Interestingly, a majority of religious scholars in the Gulf are not from the local populations, and many often come from different Arab and Asian countries and they have their political and personal views.
Several people this newspaper spoke to were divided on the issue of discussing politics in mosques.
Khalid Miqdad, a Qatari student, said although discussing politics was sometimes necessary, it was important to draw some sort of limits for the Imams.
“The address should be relevant to the interests of Muslims attending the prayer and not the other way around.
“Our problem is that many people misunderstand the real purpose of mosque and use it for their personal agendas.”
Mohammed Smatti, a resident of Qatar, said that Islamic scholars should not impose their political opinions on others.
“If they use Islam to defend an argument, no one can disagree with it.”
Heba Alfiq, a Qatari, said that some people attending such congregations may feel it is a ‘sin’ to defy what the Imam has said.
“Some people may feel guilty and think they would be sinners if they oppose the political ideas of the Imam.”
She said that some preachers have their personal ideas about politics, and by giving speeches on politics during Friday sermons, they impose their beliefs and ideologies on their audiences.
“The purpose of Friday sermons should be to promote Islamic ethics and ways of life and create awareness so that people make political decisions on their own.”
Popular pro-democracy Islamic activist, Dr Muhammad Al Ahmari, called for a new legal framework that separates politics from religion in mosques across the Arab world.
In a recent column, he writes that Muslims have co-existed with Christians and people from other religions for centuries in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq but many Islamic-political ideologies today were promoting sectarianism.
“Some extremist groups describe liberals and people supporting secular parties as ‘disbelievers’ or ‘agents’.”
“People should select their leaders based on their vision, not their tribal or religious affiliations.”
The debate is expected to intensify in the coming weeks as the civil and political unrest in many countries in the Arab world continues, and taking sides for or against religious parties can cause problems.