Conservatives want scholars to decide whether laws comply.
Salafists threaten walkout over Sharia law clause in Egypt's constitution
CAIRO // An influential Islamist party has threatened to quit the committee formed to rewrite Egypt's constitution and rally millions to protest over its vision of an Islamist state.
At issue is Article 2 of the country's 1971 constitution, which says "the principles of Islamic law are the chief source of legislation".
But members of the Salafist Al Nour party in the 100-strong constitutional committee are demanding the word principle be removed so all laws are based on Sharia.
It is the latest clash between conservative and moderate Islamists, and goes to the heart of a debate over who will interpret whether new laws are in accordance with Sharia.
Younis Makyoun, a senior member of Al Nour and the constitutional committee, told the newspaper Al Masry Al Youmthe party fears the old wording would let the largely secular Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) continue as arbiter of Sharia.
The party has proposed Al Azhar, the centre of Sunni Islamic thinking in the Arab world, or a separate group of clerics to take this role.
Al Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, are content to leave the article alone.
But public statements by Al Nour members seem to show the party is more concerned with who will decide whether laws are Sharia-compliant than with basing all laws on it.
The SCC, whose judges were primarily trained in secular law, was the sole body allowed to interpret whether laws were in accordance with Sharia principles.
"Over the past 30 years, the [SCC] has identified the state as the authority that has full power in reinterpreting the text and coming up with new rulings or qualifications that is at the core of Islamic law," said Gianluca Parolin, a professor of law at the American University in Cairo.
"The role was no longer in the hands of the Islamic scholars, but rather the authorities."
The result was that Article 2 had little bearing on making laws.
The Al Nour proposal to have Al Azhar as the new authority for interpreting whether laws are in accordance with Sharia suggests a longer-term goal to gradually remove the government from decisions on religious affairs.
Ahmed Al Tayebb, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar who was appointed by Mubarak, has ardently opposed Salafist initiatives in Egypt, especially after the uprising that toppled the old regime.
Grand Sheikh Al Tayebb has positioned the university as a moderating force in the debate about the role of religion and the state.
But there has been a grass-roots movement among some of Egypt's imams and scholars to separate Al Azhar from the government and allow for a new process to elect the Grand Sheikh.
They believe this would make the institution into a more powerful force in deciding religious affairs in the region.
One of the proposals from the independence movement is to make Al Azhar more democratic, a move that could allow the Salafists to have a greater influence.
Prof Parolin believes that even if the Salafists succeeded inhaving "principles" removed from Article 2, it would "still allow the legislature quite a lot of room or leeway to decide what are the rulings", because of the large body of Islamic law that can support different conclusions.
"One of the most interesting elements of the current debate is what does it mean to implement Islamic law in 2012 Egypt?" he said. "Few of the political parties have articulated what they mean by this."
Historians who have studied the practice of Islamic law say Sharia can be interpreted in many ways.
It is not a set of laws that can be switched on or off, but "a legal tradition, which has multiple historical forms and multiple opinions", said James Baldwin, a history professor at Queen Mary, University of London.
Prof Baldwin found that in the Ottoman era, for example, people in Egypt would go to different judges and courts based on how the four main schools of Sharia interpreted crimes or legal requests.
"You see this come up in the historical court records," he said. "Litigants realise they can get different results depending on the court or the judge.
"A common example has to do with women seeking divorce. Some schools made it very difficult to achieve divorce if their husbands don't agree or if they have run away. Others made it easier."