Imam of Al Azhar sparks polygamy debate in Egypt

The head of the foremost Sunni seat set out to clarify the interpretation

Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, has stirred up controversy after saying that polygamy is an 'injustice' for women. AP
Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, has stirred up controversy after saying that polygamy is an 'injustice' for women. AP

The Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al Azhar mosque, the world’s foremost seat of religious learning for Sunni Muslims, has found himself in the middle of controversy about whether Islam has conditions on polygamy.

Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb said on state television on Friday that polygamy often constitutes an act of oppression against women and children.

Widely shared interpretations of Quranic texts allowing Muslim men to take more than one wife, Dr Al Tayeb said, were often distorted.

He said these interpretations ignore the strict stipulation that husbands must be certain they could treat their spouses fairly and equally if they were to take more than one wife.

In theory, Islam allows Muslim men to take up to four wives but it is not often done in modern times.

Often, it is a practical issue with that many unable to afford to have more than one family, and there are often laws that curb polygamy.

In Egypt, husbands must disclose their current marriage, or marriages, if they intend to wed again.

The first wife has the right to request a divorce within one year of learning of a second marriage, if she objects to the new union.

“Those who say that marriage must be polygamous are all wrong. We have to read the verse in full,” Dr Al Tayeb said.

He complained that many contemporary Muslims fail to understand the context of Quran verses or form opinions based on incomplete texts.

“One wife is the rule, while polygamy is the conditional exception,” Mr Al Tayeb said. “If there is no fairness [by the husbands towards his spouse], then it’s forbidden to have more than one wife.”

Although clearly and carefully presented, Mr Al Tayeb’s comments set social media networks ablaze with accusations from Muslims and some clerics, especially ultra-conservative Salafis.

They said the grand imam was contradicting the Quran, a very serious accusation in the Muslim world. Mr Al Tayeb has at times been called an obstacle to moderate religious discourse by the pro-government media in Egypt, where Muslims have generally moved towards religious conservatism over the past 50 years.

Things got so heated, that Al Azhar issued a statement at the weekend clarifying Dr Al Tayeb’s comments.

The controversy showed the extent of religious conservatism in Egypt, a mainly Muslim nation of about 100 million people.

It also showed the difficulties in trying modernise religious discussion, something that has been repeatedly demanded by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

Dr Al Tayeb has warned strongly against any meddling with the body of Sunnah – Prophet Mohammed’s sayings and customs – or the faith’s established schools of thought.

On Monday he defended his stance on the question of polygamy, which is banned in overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey and Tunisia, saying he would never call for legislation that “goes against the Quran or the pure Sunnah".

Two years ago, Al Azhar’s council of senior clerics, led by Mr Al Tayeb, went against Mr El Sisi’s publicly stated wish to see legislation invalidating verbal divorces where a Muslim husband can tell his wife she is divorced.

Mr El Sisi, alarmed by rising divorce rates, wanted the government to only recognise documented divorces.

The council, representing the views of the 1,000-year-old Al Azhar, unanimously ruled that verbal divorce, when meeting all requirements, has been an undisputed practice since the early days of Islam.

The rejection marked a rare instance of a public institution contradicting the president, who has centralised rule of the country since he was first elected to office in 2014.

Updated: March 5, 2019 10:09 AM


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