Al-Azhar failing to confront Muslim Brotherhood
The relationship between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and al-Azhar is littered with hostility. Al-Azhar, Egypt’s oldest religious body, and the Muslim Brotherhood, historically the most powerful Islamist group in the country, have vied over who represents Islam in Egypt, contributing to the difficult situation that the country finds itself in.
During the era of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, al-Azhar has been tasked with “renewing” religious discourse and clamping down on Islamic extremism. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, after an ill-fated year in power, the group has been outlawed once again and designated a terrorist organisation.
In a speech before al-Azhar scholars in January 2015, Sisi called for new religious discourse to fight rising Islamic extremism. “We are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before God. The entire world is waiting for your word… because the Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost… by our own hands,” he said.
But al-Azhar’s previous position towards the Muslim Brotherhood, compared to its position today, was much stronger. In the past, al-Azhar was known for its fierce ideological and jurisprudential battles against the Muslim Brotherhood’s interpretation of Islam, Egyptian researcher into Islamist groups Hussein al-Qadi said.
“After the president called for a renewal of religious discourse, al-Azhar has failed to challenge extremist ideology. Earlier generations of al- Azhar scholars, particularly during the 1940s, responded much more strongly to the Muslim Brotherhood attempts to monopolise religious discourse for political gain, publishing a number of books and opinions about this,” Qadi said.
“They were involved in defending moderation… but they have practically vacated this role now,” he said. Al-Azhar’s senior officials are suffering from “weakness and inability to challenge extremism, and provide an attractive and moderate vision of Islam to the youth in an appropriate way”, he added.
Author of Al-Azhar’s Position Towards Muslim Brotherhood, Qadi said that al-Azhar historically played an important role in checking the Muslim Brotherhood, a role that appears to have been abandoned at a time when it is needed more than ever.
“They used to fight ideology with ideology, with their books and opinions being published across the country for access to all. These publications demonstrated clearly how the Muslim Brotherhood deviated from the principles of Islamic Dawah (proselytisation)… leading the way to the path of violence and terrorism,” Qadi said.
More than a year after he called on al-Azhar scholars to renew and reform religious discourse, Sisi hinted that Egypt’s oldest religious institute had failed to carry out this mission.
“You are the one responsible for religious discourse and God will ask me whether I am satisfied [with your performance] or not,” he told al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al- Tayeb in June.
“The role of clerics is not to give speeches in mosques but to spread peace among humanity… We must stop and change our religious rhetoric from mistaken ideas that lead to terrorism,” he added.
Criticisms of al-Azhar and its failure to tackle Islamic extremism are on the rise domestically. Al-Azhar has particularly faced strong criticism for refusing to follow directions issued by Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments, which has been seeking to clamp down on extremist preachers.
After shutting down a number of unregulated zawya or neighbourhood mosques, the ministry announced that Muslim clerics would be required to read from a single script, prepared by the ministry, during weekly Friday sermons. Al- Azhar rejected the move, with the Council of Senior Scholars, which is headed by Tayeb, saying this would “freeze” religious discourse in the country.
Al-Azhar has since announced the establishment of a new education body from which future imams must graduate. In the meantime, many analysts wonder whether al-Azhar is doing enough to fight extremism.