CAIRO — The oral divorce case looks set to rekindle the long-standing debate over the relationship between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb.

Sisi confirmed last week – during a celebration about Egyptian women who were absent from the Sheikh of Al-Azhar – that the government is continuing to issue the personal status law and that it will not pass "what is contrary to Sharia," pointing out that any new law raises some problems before it settles in society later.

The proposed law includes clauses on recognizing only documented divorce and not recognizing oral divorce unless it is documented, which Al-Azhar has repeatedly rejected, stressing its support for documenting divorce but also recognizing oral divorce in accordance with Sharia regulations.

It was not possible to obtain a comment from the spokesman for the presidency, Chancellor Ahmed Fahmy, but an official source sheikhdom Al-Azhar said to Al Jazeera Net, "The institution of the presidency and the rest of the state institutions appreciate Al-Azhar and the Grand Imam, and that the sheikhdom is a national institution within the institutions of the state and will participate in any discussion raised, but its position is fixed with regard to documenting divorce."

The academic and Egyptian political analyst believes in his interview with Al Jazeera Net that the political polarization carries the relationship between the presidency and the sheikhdom of Al-Azhar more than bearable, stressing the existence of a way out of the difference of the current two views on the documentation of divorce, while the academic Azhari opposition sees a real disagreement may reach a clash, according to his opinion.

Article 7 of the Egyptian constitution states that "Al-Azhar is an independent Islamic scientific body, exclusively competent to carry out all its affairs, and is the main reference in religious sciences and Islamic affairs," and states that "the Sheikh of Al-Azhar is independent and irremovable, and the law regulates the method of his selection from among the members of the Council of Senior Scholars."

Al-Azhar's position is firm and the appreciation is stable

An official source in the sheikhdom of Al-Azhar explains that the Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb and Al-Azhar scholars appreciate them in all state institutions, at the heart of which is the presidency, and that any current discussions, in which Al-Azhar will present its opinion at the time and announce it to all, as it is one of the institutions of the Egyptian state, which is what happened clearly when Al-Azhar announced its position on what was rumored about documenting divorce and canceling oral divorce.

Speaking to Al Jazeera Net, the source – who asked not to be named – adds that Al-Azhar scholars in its various bodies do not know the secret of the official insistence on recognizing the documented divorce only, and ignoring the ruling of its occurrence orally, and that the Council of Senior Scholars settled the matter unanimously by its members of different sects and specialties in February 2017, about the occurrence of oral divorce completed elements and conditions, with the need to document it and issue legal legislation to punish violators.

The source expects that the sheikhdom of Al-Azhar will not change its opinion on the case, saying, "This is a purely religious matter, and if a law is issued contrary to the foundations of Sharia in divorce, whoever issued it is responsible for it before God, and Al-Azhar will not approve it."

The flexibility of the sheikhdom and the wisdom of the state

Egyptian academic and political science professor Khairy Omar believes that the relationship between the presidency and the sheikhdom of Al-Azhar is being addressed more than it can bear, explaining this by the impact of polarization and political alignment, pointing out that the positions between the two institutions come within the framework of discussion, presentation of visions and consultation on them.

Omar says, in his interview with Al Jazeera Net, it is surprising that the positions are built on a partial image resulting from the interpretation of participation in a religious celebration, and are built upon without discussing any topic from its various aspects, which are mostly individual jurisprudence is spread through free and inexpensive social media or some of the private media, adding, "These campaigns have often lost their luster in previous times, despite being raised years ago."

He believes that the state does not want to underestimate Al-Azhar, so it continued to submit the draft family law for years for consultation between the concerned institutions and provided the opportunity for their equal participation, stressing that such matters remain addressed within the framework of the competent authorities without raising them, burdening them with other burdens and exploiting them politically.

He pointed out that the fact that the draft law has been under consideration for years indicates the possibility of reaching an appropriate formula on any pending or tense matters within the frameworks of the state, especially since the sheikhdom of Al-Azhar has great flexibility and wisdom to avoid any possible or desirable clashes from some, expecting the possibility of getting out of the difference in the two points of view by adapting oral divorce and setting criteria for proving it and then documenting it officially, as the difference here is not related to the will to dissolve the marriage knot, as much as it is an organizational process to ensure rights and control responsibilities, according to Believed.

Possible confrontation

On the other hand, Gamal Abdel Sattar, a professor at Al-Azhar University and former undersecretary of the Egyptian Ministry of Awqaf, believes that the authority insists on canceling the independence of Al-Azhar and its sheikh, and pushing Al-Tayeb to completely move away from the scene of his will under pressure or completely give up his independence and defense of the constants of Sharia, according to his opinion, which the Egyptian authorities usually deny repeatedly, stressing their keenness on the independence of Al-Azhar.

Speaking to Al Jazeera Net, Abdul Sattar adds that the possibilities of confrontation and clash have become closer, with talk of abolishing oral divorce, after both the authority and the sheikhdom of Al-Azhar extended the duration of the stay without resolving the positions between them.

He considered that what has hindered any negative decision towards Tayeb so far is the status of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar among Muslims worldwide, the symbolism of his international position, and the sensitivity of change in his constitutionally fortified position.

Tribute, reproach and attack

The grand imam had won presidential praise earlier, as well as reproach from the Egyptian president and media attack from those affiliated with the authorities in earlier times.

Sisi was keen to praise the efforts of Al-Azhar and the Grand Imam on more than one occasion, including the issuance of the draft personal status law by Al-Azhar in 2019, and the efforts of the sheikhdom in strengthening the Egyptian presence and Islamic advocacy in a country like Uzbekistan last February.

But the most prominent phrases received by Sisi, his famous reproach 6 years ago to the Sheikh of Al-Azhar on live television, saying, "I am tired, O Eminence Imam," after the latter's refusal to document the divorce and cancel the oral divorce.

In 2018, Egyptians watched an indirect verbal duel between Sisi and al-Tayeb over the Sunnah and Islamic heritage that al-Tayeb sided with, while Sisi seemed to open the door to discussing it under the pretext of renewal.

The Sheikh of Al-Azhar has also been widely attacked by media professionals affiliated with the state more than once in previous years, especially in 2017, and the media close to the authority, Muhammad al-Baz, demanded the resignation of the Grand Imam from his post so that he could "rest and rest," as he put it.

Some attribute the Sheikh of al-Azhar's tense relationship with the authorities to the summer of 2013, when al-Tayeb issued an audio statement following the dispersal of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins on August 14, in support of the late President Mohamed Morsy, in which he stressed that he was not aware of the dispersal decision, stressing the sanctity of blood, and that negotiations were almost successful to resolve the crisis.