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Shaltūt, Maḥmūd

By:
Amira El Azhary Sonbol, Jonathan AC Brown
Source:
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

Shaltūt, Maḥmūd

Maḥmūd Shaltūt (1893–1963), was one of a celebrated number of Azharī shaykhs who undertook the reform of Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque University. He brought the reformist school of Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905) to institutional fruition, accomplishing this through his writings on Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) and Qurʾānic interpretation as well as through his tenure as rector of al-Azhar (Shaykh al-Azhar) from 1958 to 1963. During his tenure al-Azhar assumed its modern shape. This decades-long transformation was complicated by the Nasser government, which brought the institution completely under government control in 1960. Although compromising with the state over administrative control, Shaltūt managed to bring about the partial realization of the dreams of past religious reformers of al-Azhar, including shaykhs Rifāʿah al-Ṭahṭāwī (d. 1873), ʿAbduh, and Muṣṭafā al-Marāghī (d. 1945).

Born in 1893 in the small village of Minyat Banī Manṣūr (Buḥayrah Province) in Lower Egypt, Shaltūt memorized the Qurʾān as a child, entered the Alexandria Religious Institute in 1906, and later joined al-Azhar, where he received the terminal ʿālimīyah degree in 1918. After teaching at the Alexandria Religious Institute for a number of years, Shaltūt joined al-Azhar under the auspices of its then rector, Shaykh Muṣṭafā al-Marāghī. The association between the two shaykhs would be a long-lasting one of cooperation in both the national and Azharī spheres. When al-Marāghī was fired by King Fuʾād in 1930, Shaltūt and seventy other Azharīs who supported his reform plans for al-Azhar were also dismissed. Shaltūt had also supported al-Marāghī’s opposition to Fuʾād’s efforts to have himself elected the new Islamic caliph following the 1924 Atatürk cancellation of the Ottoman caliphate.

On his return to the leadership of al-Azhar in 1935, al-Marāghī asked Shaltūt, who had turned to practicing law, to rejoin the university. He did so, rising through the hierarchy to become accepted as one of al-Azhar’s chief ʿulamāʾ after presenting a highly acclaimed study,  “Civil and Criminal Responsibility in the Islamic Shariah” at the International Law Conference at The Hague in 1937. In his study Shaltūt outlined his vision of a reformed Islam and of a Sharīʿah that could become one of the sources for modern legislation.

In 1946 he was one of the few intellectuals selected as a member of the Majmaʿ al-Lughah al-ʿArabīyah (Arab Language Academy). He was also invited to teach fiqh and sunnah (Prophetic traditions) at Cairo University’s Faculty of Law and became general supervisor for the Murāqabat al-Buḥūth al-Islāmīyah (Inspectorate of Islamic Research), an office that allowed him to travel widely throughout the Islamic world to promote better relations between Islamic nations. In 1957 he became the secretary general of the Islamic Conference and under-secretary of al-Azhar. In the following year he was chosen to be Shaykh al-Azhar, a position he held until his death in 1963.

Shaltūt became the head of al-Azhar during the most radical phase of Egypt’s 1952 revolution; most standing institutions were undergoing fundamental reorganization at the time. By 1961 the law reorganizing al-Azhar had been passed by an extremely reluctant Majlis al-Ummah. Even though Shaltūt shared credit as architect of the law, he was not entirely happy with it because it brought al-Azhar under the direct domination of the state. Since 1958 power over al-Azhar had been shared with a secular authority in the shape of a minister of al-Azhar and religious affairs. The 1961 law came at a critical time in Egypt’s history, just before the imposition of Nasserist socialist laws and the declaration of the National Charter. It was a time of strong nationalist feelings and revolutionary actions that touched all areas of life. Al-Azhar was to be remolded into an instrument of a new Egyptian-dominated Arab nationalist and socialist order. It was expected to fulfill this role through reorganization, reform, and a wider national and international role.

Shaltūt may have had mixed feelings about the 1961 law, but his 1964 book, The Azhar in a Thousand Years, shows that he had long stood for an activist al-Azhar that could play a greater international role in fighting religious fanaticism and uniting the Islamic ummah (community) with its various schools of thought. Reorganization, and the budgetary allowances that came with it, meant the partial fulfillment of the goals of his teacher Muḥammad ʿAbduh and his collaborator al-Marāghī: reopening the door of ijtihād (interpretation of law and doctrine); reforming education at al-Azhar through the introduction of modern subjects; and ending the religious fanaticism that kept the Islamic world divided by narrowing the differences among the Muslim madhhabs (legal schools).

The reformed al-Azhar was to graduate ʿulamāʾ with an all-around education. Thus, to the university’s traditional religious education were added modern faculties for graduating doctors, engineers, scientists, and even a college for women. A new division, Idārat al-Thaqāfah waʾl-Buʿūth al-Islāmīyah (Department of Culture and Islamic Missions), delegated al-Azhar graduates to teach and preach in Islamic countries and supervised foreign students studying at al-Azhar. Cairo’s Madīnat al-Buʿūth al-Islāmīyah (City of Islamic Missions) enabled thousands of students from all over the Islamic world to study at al-Azhar. Primary and secondary Azhar institutions (maʿāhid azharīyah) became active in graduating dāʿīs (missionaries) to work throughout the Islamic world. Even women graduates of the maʿāhid and al-Azhar’s Kullīyat al-Banāt (Girl’s College) could act as future dāʿis among Egyptian and Arab women.

Other achievements of Shaltūt’s tenure with a long-term impact on Egypt and the Islamic world included the formation of al-Majlis al-Aʿlā liʾl-Shuʿūn al-Islāmīyah (High Council for Islamic Affairs), which brought together for the first time representatives of eight Islamic madhhabs (Ḥanafī, Mālikī, Shāfiʿī, Ḥanbalī, Jaʿfarī, Zaydī, ʿIbāḍī, and Ẓāhirī) to meet in Cairo in 1962 for theological discussions. The meeting resulted in the publication of the first encyclopedia to cover the different interpretations of muʿāmalāt (acts concerned with relations among people) according to the eight sects, Mawsūʿat nāṣir li-al-fiqh al-Islāmī.

Shaltūt’s legal and theological thought was characterized by ʿAbduh’s methodology of seeking to ground significant reform in established Sharīʿah precedent. Throughout his works, such as his influential al-Islam: ʿaqīdah wa sharīʿah, his Tafsīr of the Qurʾān and his fatwā collection (Fatāwā), he presented a pared-down Islam as a core of agreed upon, uncontested beliefs and practices rooted in the Qurʾān and agreed upon Prophetic sunnah. Beliefs seen as superstitious or practices seen as backward were inevitably dispensable to this modern Islam. Shaltūt stirred up great controversy by issuing a fatwā denying that Islam required a belief that Jesus would return at the end of time, arguing that this was not proven by the uncontestable evidence required for dogma. He wrote at length on the topic of jihād, arguing that the Qurʾān’s teachings on violence had long been misunderstood; the holy book only called Muslims to arms in self-defense and to defend religious freedom. He also issued a fatwā prohibiting female circumcision, basing his conclusion on the primacy of avoiding harm to the body over the feeble scriptural evidence for the practice.

Bibliography

  • Shaltūt, Maḥmūd. Al-Fatāwā. Cairo, 1986.
  • Shaltūt, Maḥmūd. Ilā al-Qurʾān al-Karīm. Cairo, 1978.
  • Shaltūt, Maḥmūd. Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-Karīm.10 vols. Cairo, 1982.
  • Zebiri, Kate. Maḥmūd Shaltūt and Islamic Modernism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Zebiri, Kate. “Shaykh Maḥmūd Shaltūt: Between Tradition and Modernity.” Journal of Islamic Studies 2, no. 2 (2002): 210–224.
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