Muslim Countries of the World: Egypt

Al Azhar university and mosque in cloudy city evening
Wintery fog surround tall Tower of Al-Azhar university and minaret of Al-Hussein mosque Islamic Cairo, Egypt © Evgeniy Fesenko | Dreamstime.com

Islam is the state religion of the Arab Republic of Egypt. The traditions of Islam in Egypt have an ancient history. Islam plays an extremely important role in modern Egyptian society. Egypt has always been and remains a state that attaches an important role to Muslim values and Islamic law.

Islam penetrated into Egypt together with the commander and companion of the Prophet Amr ibn al-As. His troops entered Egypt in 639. A twenty-year period of wars and negotiations followed with Byzantium to which the Egyptian lands belonged, with the Christian patriarch of Alexandria, who was the spiritual leader of the indigenous people of Egypt the Copts. As a result, by 658 the resistance of Byzantium and the Copts was thwarted, the country converted to Islam, became part of the Caliphate and Arabs began to settle in Egypt. Egypt separated from the Caliphate three hundred years later. First, the Fatimids (the Shiite dynasty of the descendants of Caliph Ali who fled from the Caliphate) ruled here, then the Ayyubids (the descendants of Saladin), after them the Mamluks, who were conquered by the Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt remained part until 1805. Then the power in Egypt was seized by the first independent ruler Muhammad Ali. Then, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Egypt became a protectorate of Great Britain for forty years, until in 1922 it gained full independence as the Kingdom of Egypt.

During its long history, Egypt has been influenced by numerous schools and movements of Islam. These are the Shiite Fatimids, who founded their state here in the 11th century, and the Sunni Ayyubids of the Shafi’i madhhab who replaced them, and the Mamluks of the 13th-15th centuries, under whom the practices of ‘simplified’ Islam developed in the villages and among the urban lower classes. A country distinguished by scholarship, the presence of such educational institutions as the University of the Al-Azhar mosque (the second oldest operating Islamic university after Tunisian Kairouan and the most authoritative in the world), an abundance of muhaddis (experts on the Sunnah) and faqihs (experts in law), philosophers and scientists, was practically divided into the ‘intellectual’ stratum of Muslims and the ‘countryside’ stratum of Muslims. Differences in their approach to Islam continue to be felt to this day.

Since the time of the Mamluks, the ulema have played an exceptional role in Egypt. They had the right to control public life, appoint all religious officials, mullahs and imams of mosques. The Ulema Council still plays an exceptional role in the religious life of the country. Especially the Council of Senior Ulema of the Al-Azhar Mosque. Both the mosque and Al-Azhar University have exceptional authority in the field of Muslim fiqh and doctrine. The great imam of the Al-Azhar mosque (currently Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb) enjoys exceptional influence in the affairs of the state and in the affairs of Islam in the country. In 2013, the Council of Senior Ulema of the Al-Azhar Mosque elected for the first time the Grand Mufti of the country (sheikh Shawki Allam). Previously, the Grand Mufti of Egypt had been appointed by the President of the country.

Islam has always been the state religion. It was recorded in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Egypt in 1923, and repeated after the proclamation of the Republic in the constitution of 1952, which is in force to this day with some amendments. The main one of them is the 1980 amendment, which officially adopted Sharia law as the ruling legal system in the country. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, which is practiced in Egypt. The country has religious institutions of different religions (including Christians and Jews), as well as institutions of different varieties of Islam (including Shiites and Ahmadis). Sharia law applies to Muslims. Christians and Jews are subject to the corresponding laws of their religions.