Author:Hammond, Andrew

Andrew Hammond reports from Cairo on local reaction to legislation which, its opponents say, is a serious attempt to secularise religious education.

They've been described as the most significant changes to the system of religious education in Egypt in 40 years. Just days before the Egyptian parliament went into recess for the summer on 11 June, the assembly passed an amendment to the Azhar Law of 1961 that reduces the secondary school stage of the Azhar education system from four to three years. The Sheikh of Azhar, Mohammed Al Sayed Tantawi said the idea was to reduce the workload on Azhar students. But his critics say it amounted to something else: the most serious attempt yet to "secularise" religious education in the most prestigious Islamic seminary in Sunni Islam.

Since 1961 any teenager studying in the dozens of Azhari schools around the country has been taught the state education curriculum alongside Azhar's religious programme. This was part of a process of reducing Al Azhar's independence by bringing it under the authority of the state. The same law decreed that the Sheikh of Azhar would be nominated by the President of the Republic -- before, he was chosen from within by Al Azhar scholars. Influential secularists like writer Taha Hussein, who served as Minister of Education in the 1940s, originally hoped to end Al Azhar's parallel education system by dissolving it into the state system.

So it's no surprise that the loser in the reduction of secondary education from four to three years is the Azhari curriculum. All courses covering Islamic inheritance laws, the concept of Jihad (holy struggle) and criminal law have been omitted; so too has much of the syllabus on tafsir, or interpretation of the Koran, and hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet. What has shocked many religious scholars most of all is changes to the traditional mode of memorisation of the Koran, the core of any Islamic religious education, they say. Previously the Koran was taught entirely at primary school level so that pupils entered secondary school already hafiz, or a memoriser of the Koran. Now the system is designed so that it is not until the last year of secondary school, at 16, that pupils know the entire text, through staggering the courses over primary and secondary school.

Tantawi has admitted that the aim in part is to streamline an Azhar religious education and to put an end to rote-learning, to cut out the "repetitive and excessive" elements to produce...

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