Dismay in Egypt as al-Azhar reform fails to materialise

Sunday 14/05/2017
Looking backward? Muslim scholars wait for the meeting between Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, al-Azhar’s grand imam, in Cairo, last April. (AP)

Cairo- Efforts to reform al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest seat of Islamic learning, fail be­cause those who control the Sunni Islamic institu­tion do not believe in reform, work hard to hamper it and are unquali­fied to be part of it, critics said.
“Al-Azhar scholars are only good at reviling those with different views and calling them infidels,” said Gaber Asfour, a former culture minister who is a staunch critic of al-Azhar. “They think reform will be bad for their institution.”
Reforming al-Azhar, Egypt’s old­est and highest-ranking religious body, has turned into a major is­sue in Egypt with the Arab country waging its own fierce war against Islamic extremism.
Debates on reforming the insti­tution morphed into a draft bill in parliament that would trim the au­thority of al-Azhar’s grand imam, limiting his time in office and pro­viding a mechanism to remove him if he failed to lead the required re­forms.

Nevertheless, any such reform ef­fort is expected to be nipped in the bud because of the lack of enthusi­asm inside al-Azhar itself, experts said.
The need to reform al-Azhar re­verberates loudly in Egypt with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi call­ing for a “religious revolution” and demanding al-Azhar undergo mod­ernisation and reform.
Sisi has said he wants to turn the religious establishment into a powerful tool in the fight against ter­rorism as Egypt battles the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai. Sisi seems, however, to be failing to convince al-Azhar scholars to make changes, analysts said.

Islamic researcher Youssef Ziedan said reforming al-Azhar cannot happen by presidential de­cree. “Reform will only come from within,” Ziedan said. “It must hap­pen as part of a religious and in­tellectual uprising inside al-Azhar itself.”
Nevertheless, reforming al-Azhar is imperative for the fight against extremism, experts said, and this institution cannot play an effective role while it nourishes extremism, they pointed out.
An al-Azhar scholar who hosts a religious programme on local Me­hwar TV has called on Christians to convert to Islam and said their faith is “incorrect.”
“Leaving al-Azhar as is can be catastrophic,” said Khaled Mon­tasser, a TV commentator. “The conduct of such an important insti­tution is enough to give terrorists carte blanche to kill.”