Dr. Ibrahim Al-Kholi, Professor of Elocution at the Arabic Language Faculty, University of Al-Azhar, is a respectable scholar, with long experience in Elocution as any of his fellow-faculty or many students would testify. He is a good-natured, modest and knowledgeable professor who spent long years in the classrooms of the long established University of Al-Azhar, taking the hands of his students and encouraging them to study and conduct research. And besides his brilliance in his field of specialty, he is a man with broad interests.
The man received respect from everyone until the ill-fated visit of a Jewish rabbi and the Israeli ambassador [to Cairo] to the residence of Al-Azhar, and their reception by Dr. Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar. Dr. Al-Kholi saw in this visit an offence to Al-Azhar, a slight to its status, and a degrading of its majesty. He wrote [two] articles entitled "A statement to the nation from a scholar of Al-Azhar" in Al-Shaab newspaper of January 16 and 20, 1998. In the article he explained to Muslims that the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar made a wrong decision receiving the Jewish rabbi, he asked him to correct his mistake and apologize to the nation for this mistake that was not of benefit to Al-Azhar and its honorable history, in addition to breaking the scholars of Al-Azhar into two [camps, opposing and supporting the decision].
Because he dared to express his opinion freely - and the freedom of expression and criticism is granted by the law to all Egyptians - the whole world stood in opposition to Dr. Al-Kholi. The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar sent a letter to Dr. Ahmed Omar Hashem, president of the University of Al-Azhar, saying that Dr. Ibrahim Al-Kholi wrote an article containing felonies against Islamic law [Editor: the meaning is offences considered criminal against Islam] that are not acceptable from a scholar of Al-Azhar, in addition to writing the article in unacceptable language. He [Dr. Tantawi] asked for an investigation to be conducted into the matter, based on article 67 of law number 103 for the year 1961 concerning the reorganizing of Al-Azhar. The letter included a copy of the article and a detailed memorandum stressing the ill will of the article towards the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, saying that it described him in terms which, if true, would mean despising him before the nation and all the Muslims, as well as degrading the social status of his eminence.
Upon the arrival of the letter, the president of the university referred Dr. Al-Kholi to interrogation, the two investigators saw that his case should be sent to the Punishment Board. The president decided to refer the case to the board headed by Dr. Taha Abu-Kreisha, the university’s vice president for student affairs, with the membership of counselor Mohammed Sobh Al-Metwalli, the State’s Council [the court of appeal that looks into cases in which the government is a party] undersecretary, Dr. Abdallah Mabrouk Al-Naggar, professor at the Faculty of Shari’a [Islamic law] and Law at Cairo, and Ibrahim Mohammed Suleiman of the Legal Affairs Department of the university as a secretary.
The university’s president decided to refer Dr. Al-Kholi to the Punishment Board because of "the mistake he committed, addressing the nation with a statement that lead to despising His Eminence the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, an unsuitable thing regarding His Eminence’s religious status and the respect due to him being an Imam [religious leader] of Muslims. The article also contained religious opinions disagreeing with those of the Islamic Research Institute, which may lead to confusion among the nation’s scholars, an unaccepted mistake from a professor at the University of Al-Azhar, a scholar, and a genuine educator."
And regarding [the fact] that the accusations against Dr. Al-Kholi are untraditional ones: criticizing the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and disagreeing with his opinion, and are not related to the job of teaching, the Punishment Board tried to find legal reasons for them. In the reasons for the judgment which dismissed Dr. Al-Kholi, while allowing him the right to a pension or his end-of-service reward, they wrote: "The legislator used generalized descriptions of the forbidden acts and the duties of workers [at the Azhar]. The code of penalties did not specify sanctions for each act specifically, excluding the codes of punishments. Bad intentions are not required for a worker to be responsible for a certain act, whether positive or negative, it is enough for the act [to be] committed or omitted to transgress the boundaries of the job, or to commit a legally forbidden act, without the need to prove bad intentions. In all cases, the sanctions should suit the act, therefore, not every sanction written in the codes can be applied to the worker, it should be chosen to go with the worker’s position and the mistake done."
The board saw that Dr. Al-Kholi’s description of the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar as negligent in meeting with the Jewish rabbi and the Israeli ambassador [to Cairo], that negligence means silliness, and that his saying the position is bigger than the man [Tantawi] and other defaming descriptions result in the degradation of the Grand Sheikh’s position, was criticism with nothing but personal envy [and], not one [that is, a criticism] aiming at reformation, and that it does not go with the constitutionally-granted freedom of opinion and expression and criticism to public workers through press or any other means.
The Board stresses that Dr. Al-Kholi misused his right of expression, going beyond the intended goals [of that right]. His criticism was not revealing the truths with good intentions, which may [therefore] stir doubts and sedition among Muslims, referring to [the fact] that Dr. Al-Kholi misused the [occasion of the] Grand Sheikh’s meeting with the Jewish rabbi and spoke badly of his senior supervisor, who is regarded as the symbol of the Islamic nation.
’Al-Ahrar’ was keen to discuss this sensitive case objectively. We contacted Dr. Taha Abu-Kreisha, the university’s vice president for student affairs and head of the Punishment Board. We asked him about the reasons behind the board’s cruel decision to dismiss [Dr. Al-Kholi], and whether the codes of the university permit dismissing a professor for just criticizing the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar?
He asked back: "Is it right to contact judges of a certain court and ask them about a reason behind a certain judgment? We should not speak and you should not ask."
"This is a punishment board, not a court house?" I asked.
" No, it is a court house, and happy Ramadan."
We also contacted Dr. Abdallah Mabrouk Al-Naggar, professor at the Faculty of Shari’a and Law and respected member of the Punishment Board: "These are not issues to be published." he said, apologizing for not continuing.
"I have the report of the Punishment Board of which you are a member." I said.
"I should not talk and have no information about this case." answered Dr. Al-Naggar.
I asked for the opinion of Dr. Mohammed Safwat Mursi, professor at the Faculty of Arabic Language at [the city of] Zagazig, who was fired by a similar punishment board and returned to his job after appealing before the State’s Council.
"Concerning my case, it was before the current leaderships of Al-Azhar. Those leaderships punished everybody who they thought should be punished. They said: "We are aware that firing a faculty member is wrong and unjust, the court will bring them back to their jobs, but they should be punished anyway."
He emphasizes that disagreement in opinions does not justify dismissing Dr. Al-Kholi. All previous Sheikhs of Al-Azhar had people disagreeing with them and they were criticized. He said Dr. Abdel-Halim Mahmoud, the late Sheikh of Al-Azhar, did not pray in the mosque next to his house because of a disagreement between him and the sheikh of this mosque about some Fiqh issues. He [Dr. Mursi] sees that the reference [to the Punishment Board] should be restricted to felonies and shameful acts which are not matter of personal opinions, the reference of opinion cases to such boards should be stopped because it delays work and prevents the faculty member from doing his job which we are in desperate need for, in addition to wasting time, effort and energies in non-rewarding matters.
He gives an example: The whole members of an examination control room were referred to a punishment board because of a mistake in a single letter of a student’s name, the investigation continued for years before delivering them a blaming notice. [Editor: There are the degrees of punishment. In increasing weight they are: Oral blaming notice, Written blaming notice, suspension, demotion, and dismissal.] The whole problem could have been solved by correcting the name [there and] then.
He also said that punishment boards are necessary, but only for those who deserve punishment. The referring of a faculty member to such boards for an issue that does not deserve such action raises a lot of question marks.
He demanded the specification of the mistakes and felonies that require referral of the worker or faculty member to a punishment board, to prevent misusing this weapon to harm whoever may differ with their bosses in opinion, or those unaccepted by the bosses, and to prevent misusing the law and power to achieve personal benefits.
Dr. Safwat differentiated between the firing of Dr. Al-Kholi and Dr. Ahmed Sobhi Mansour, and said there was big difference between the two cases, because Dr. Sobhi wrote words that require his questioning as a Muslim, a Muslim should not curse a Sahabi [companion of Mohammed] or question matters settled by the nation. Dr. Al-Kholi did nothing of that, he just disagreed with the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar in opinion. Previous Sheikhs were met with such disagreement and opposition.
Dr. Abdel-Azim Al-Mat’ani, professor at Al-Azhar University, explained that the firing of Dr. Al-Kholi is not the first case of its kind. It happened to Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq and Dr. Ahmed Sobhi Mansour, but the reasons of judgment are different, in the cases of Dr. Sobhi Mansour and Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq, serious offenses were committed against the [Muslim] faith. On the other hand, the case of Dr. Al-Kholi is just disagreement in opinion. He said that such disagreement enriches the case and raises no confusion. He explained that the subjects of opinion often has many schools [of jurisprudence] to the extent that some of them may be contradictory to each other, people choose whatever they see right among all the opinions. The main four [main] Fiqh schools did not raise confusion among the people, on the contrary, it increased the flexibility of Shari’a.
He added: "There is no group with immunity against criticism or disagreement with them. The point is that it [the criticism] should be honest, objective and aiming to find the truth."
And about the disagreement of Dr. Al-Kholi with the opinions and fatwas of the Islamic Research Institute, and his issuing of a statement to the nation, Dr. Al-Mat’ani commented: "The institute’s opinion is not holy, just an opinion like any other one. It is subject to the measures of right and wrong. Being different from the institute is a healthy phenomenon counting for [and not] not against Al-Azhar."
"Dr. Al-Kholi wrote in Al-Shaab news paper during the Second Gulf Crisis with the same title: "A statement to the nation by a scholar of Al-Azhar". Why was not he punished by Al-Azhar then if that behavior was illegal?" Dr. Al-Mat’ani referred to the fact that Dr. Al-Kholi is a scholar of Al-Azhar, and that issuing a statement, fatwa or opinion is a granted right to Azhar men whenever good intentions and arguments are found.
He insisted that the code by which Dr. Al-Kholi was judged did not contain a crime called ’issuing a statement to the nation by an Azhar scholar’. The code is free of this crime, if it was considered a crime, and the law stresses that there is no punishment without a legal text.
Dr. Al-Mat’ani asked, "Who said that issuing statements to the nation is the authority of the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar? What legal body granted him that right? The law states that the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar is the representative of Al-Azhar before legal authorities. The law of Al-Azhar did not include that publishing an article under the title "A statement to the nation" is an exclusive right of the Grand Sheikh himself." He also said that all laws agree that punishment comes after criminalization [by text], and until now, the law did not criminalize publishing an article with the title "A statement to the nation" by someone other that the Grand Sheikh. "How can we consider this a crime that deserves punishment, without any supporting text in the law of Al-Azhar concerning specifying the [limits of the] authorities of the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar?"
And about what the Punishment Board considered an insult to the Grand Sheikh, Dr. Al-Mat’ani saw that "The body that should look into the matter is the court itself, not punishment boards, because there is no duality in the judgment system of Egypt. If the Punishment Board has referred the whole case to the court, it would have been counted in for Al-Azhar. The adversary should not be the judge."
He explained that the internal codes organizing foundations - punishment boards - are weak in justice circles. The constitution rejects them when they are a party. "Where is the final authority for punishment boards whether in or out of Al-Azhar?" asks Dr. Al-Mat’ani.
"It is reasonable for the punishment board to [attribute] blame, for example. The matter should not reach firing and dismissing, these are decisions to be taken by the justice system of the state, the safety valve for all excesses, as we know."
Finally, he insisted that the makers of punishment codes have no weight inside or outside of Al-Azhar. There is no single case of such kind that was not reversed by the court. "The court is the final arbiter," he concluded.
Professor Mustafa Imam of the Faculty of Arabic Language at the University of Al-Azhar wonders: "How does Al-Azhar permit itself to dismiss a reputable scholar such as Dr. Al-Kholi while Egypt and its president honor Dr. Ahmed Zewail? [Dr. Zewail recently received the Nobel prize in chemistry for the year 1999] He says that Dr. Al-Kholi did nothing more than give his opinion: he published an article in which he criticized the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar for receiving a Jewish rabbi.
He insists that nobody is protected from doing wrong in Islam after the Prophet, and wonders if the Grand Sheikh has forgotten what the Qur’an said about the Jews and the danger they pose to the Islamic nation. Dr. Al-Kholi did nothing more than emphasize this idea.
He says that there is no priesthood in Islam, and that the rabbi’s visit to Al-Azhar resulted in differences among its scholars, some of them were dismissed from their positions, which is exactly the goal of the Jews.
He expressed his deep regret for the humiliation of such great elocutionist, and regards what is happening now at Al-Azhar as a benefit for Israel which has succeeded in planting disagreements among the scholars.
Lawyer Ahmed Al-Sayyed affirms that the punishments of the board vary from blaming to warning and suspending the worker from his job, explaining that suspension is a punishment for major felonies that must be preceded by other proved instances of guilt, and that the punishment of dismissal is an authority of the court and can be appealed before the administrative court in case of a legal error. It represents a major threat and insult to the clerk or faculty member. He also sees that criticism is allowed and the freedom of expression is permitted to everyone, whether a university professor or a university security officer. He stresses that Dr. Al-Kholi’s criticism of the Grand Sheikh is not a felony forbidden by the law.
"There is no text in the law stating that criticizing the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar is a crime, therefore, no sanction exists" comments Al-Sayyed. He says that the words of Dr. Al-Kholi that occurred in the article are not a crime that deserves punishment, and that the Grand Sheikh is a human being who can be right or wrong like anyone else. He takes the case of Dr. Mustafa Mahmoud as an example, when he wrote his book "Al-Shafa’a"[Intercession]. The scholars attacked him but he did not ask the court to punish them.
Lawyer Osama Halawa referred to the point that punishment boards are ruled by the laws organizing some functions, like the laws of universities, police and other bodies, how they are the equivalents of the Punishment Courts of the law organizing working in the state’s agencies, and how that punishment boards have two levels in most laws, and that appeals are allowed from the first to the second level.
He added that appeals against the judgments of these boards are allowed before the State’s Council exactly like [those of] punishment courts, that the judgments of such boards vary from blaming and warning to suspension with the allowing of pensions or part of or the whole amount of the end-of-service reward, and how it is known that over-punishing is rejected by punishment courts and controlled by the State’s Council.
In the case of reversing the judgment and letting Dr. Al-Kholi back to his job, Halawa saw that he is not eligible to compensation because punishment boards can not be sued for their misjudgments.
And about the adversary being the judge and the validity of that case, Halawa explained that each regulation [within the stipulations of its organizing functions] organizes the matter of the formation of its punishment boards, which are usually headed by a major executive in that body, with the membership of another member of the body, and of a counselor and an under counselor from the State’s Council. Being the adversary and the judge does not abolish the punishment board, because they are formed at the beginning of the year to punish any person, not for a particular one. They are organized according to the organizing law.