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What Is Islam's Oldest Religious Institution Afraid Of?

04/13/2015 02:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

The story of Egyptian anchor, Dr. Islam Al-Buhairy, brings once again to the fore the need for Muslims and their religious institutions, especially in the Middle East, to lift the unjustified sacredness bestowed upon Islamic history and jurisprudence.

Al-Buhairy, who holds a PhD in Islamic studies from the UK and hosts the With Islam show on Al Kahera Wal Nasr -- a private TV channel in Egypt -- recently called for the re-examination of some aspects of Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh). His call is based on research that has led him to question the factualness of some historical accounts as well as the validity of certain legal judgments that he considers contains discriminatory, violence-inciting, and illogical arguments.

Al-Azhar, the world's oldest Islamic academic institution and university, has taken issue with Al-Buhairy's line of thinking. The university, a venerated cultural center for all Muslims in the East and West for over a thousand years, filed a complaint with Egyptian authorities demanding the shutdown of the show for inciting "communal strife among Muslims". Egypt's General Authority for Investment (GAFI), the responsible organ for broadcasting, has given 15 days for the TV channel to take the show off the air or else.

Al-Azhar's position is an absolutely perfect example of a fundamental problem plaguing Islamic religious institutions today. Instead of using Al-Buhairy's comments to engage in a much-needed religious discourse on the need to modernize Islamic Jurisprudence in order to meet the needs of 21st century Muslims, Al-Azhar has chosen to continue looking backwards while digging its heels in the hope that the terrorist ideology swelling in front of them will magically disappear!

What baffles me most with Al-Azhar's position is that Al- Buhairy is advocating for the renewal of Islamic thinking, something that is promoted by Egyptian President Sisi himself. In January 2015, Sisi called on al-Azhar to have a "new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam -- rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years."

Sisi's call for a "new vision" is far from being a lone voice in the desert, rather it echoes the sentiments of many Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere who have concluded that a modern and more egalitarian reading of Fiqh is necessary to keep pace with the changes and developments that Muslims have been facing in the 21st century.

Al-Buhairy speaks for this growing segment of the Muslim population when he advocates the re-examination of Islamic Jurisprudence. Fiqh, as the practice of deriving rulings from the Quran, a sacred text, does not make it, in and of itself, "sacred" as it is based on human intellect. The misguided "sacredness" that has been bestowed upon Fiqh, leading to a long period of Taqlid (Imitation) while discouraging the reexamination of the many rulings derived through Fiqh over the centuries, should be lifted.

One would think that in this critical time where al Qaeda and ISIS are becoming the predominant face of Islam, Al-Azhar -- headed by Dr. Ahmed el-Tayeb who holds a PhD in Islamic History from La Sorbonne-Paris, mind you -- would encourage and welcome such a discourse. Well... nope! Al-Azhar does not want original/critical thinking or dealing head-on with questions related to the everyday life of Muslims. Rather, it wants to keep its head in the sand, shutdown TV shows and keep a status quo where religious education is mostly based on memorization and imitation.

Al-Azhar maintains that Islam is a religion of peace, yet is ambiguous in condemning ISIS, all the while using its religious authority to ban a much needed and overdue conversation not only in Egypt but all over the Muslim world.

Is it just me or is there something bewilderingly wrong with this picture?