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Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb broke with strict traditional interpretations of Islamic law on Sunday by arguing that people have the right to call for the ousting of corrupt rulers.
Throughout history, Islam’s great religious scholars have said that revolting against tyrants is not recommended, since such revolts may lead to chaos. Such thinking is dominant in Saudi Arabia, where the ruling regime makes use of religion to suppress dissidents.
Some ultra-conservative Salfis had aligned themselves to this tradition, calling on people not to take part in the massive demonstrations against former President Hosni Mubarak, which led eventually to his ousting from power.
However, some Islamic scholars have said that people can revolt if the ruler is a tyrant.
“People have the right to hold peaceful demonstrations to express their disobedience towards despots,” said Tayeb in a speech that was read out by his chancellor, Professor Hassan al-Shafeli, on Sunday.
However, Tayeb argued that the only condition on protesting against tyrannical rule was that weapons should not be used, as this “could lead to civil wars that would be an introduction to a greater chaos that can’t be controlled.”
Recently, Al-Azhar, Egypt's prestigious seat of Sunni Muslim learning, launched a series of initiatives to achieve a national consensus over certain issues, such as the freedoms and rights of religious minorities.
Experts say that the recent increase in pronouncements from Al-Azhar is aimed at rehabilitating its image after decades of being seen as a tool of Egypt's regime.
This month, the Islamic institution issued a bill of rights document aimed at protecting civic freedoms in a new constitution, and which received the support of various Egyptian political parties and religious groups.