Islam in Egypt's New Constitution
Foreign Policy, December 2012
6 Pages Posted: 2 May 2013 Last revised: 28 May 2013
Date Written: December 13, 2012
If a student of constitutional texts reads the Egyptian constitution of 2012 from beginning to end, he or she will find much of it familiar - a great deal of the language, structure, and institutions are common to constitutions in many countries around the world. However, he or she will also find references to Islamic law that seem unusual - unusual even among the constitutions of majority Muslim countries. The problem will not be Article 2, which declares that “the principles of Islamic shari'a are the principal source of legislation.” This type of provision is fairly common in contemporary Arab constitutions. It is understood require that all state law respect shari'a principles. What will be puzzling are some of the unusual subsequent articles. Article 4 of the new constitution gives the Islamic scholars of al-Azhar a right to be consulted on questions of Islamic law. More striking still, Article 219 adds a gloss to the term “principles of the Islamic shari'a.” It defines these principles in highly specific and technical terms from the Islamic legal tradition - terms that are rarely used outside of scholarly circles. There has never been anything quite like this language in the constitutions of any other Muslim constitution. The language in this constitution has given rise to much speculation - both about where the language comes from and what it means. This short article, published on the eve of the constitution's ratification, clarifies some of the questions surrounding the article. It discusses the background to the provision, dissects the language of Article 219, explains what the language means to different Egyptians, and considers the possible implications of Article 219 for Egypt going forward. The article concludes that Article 219 is likely to change the types of argument that competing forces will have to use when arguing about whether an Egyptian law is un-constitutional because Islamic. But there will continue to be fierce argument between liberal and anti-liberal factions about what types of law are permissible in a self-styled Islamic state and, of course, about which are wise.
Keywords: Islam, Shari'a, Egypt, Constitution, Religion, Democracy
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