Dispute at al-Azhar conference reflects deep divisions over Islamic renewal

Cairo University President Mohamed al-Khosht said Muslims are held hostage by the thoughts of people who lived a long time ago.
Sunday 02/02/2020
On the defensive. Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb speaks in Cairo.    (Reuters)
On the defensive. Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb speaks in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - A verbal duel between al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb and Cairo University President Mohamed al-Khosht overshadowed discussions at an international conference on religious renewal.

Al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, organised the late-January conference in Cairo to discuss urgent issues on the religious stage and religious renewal. Delegates and scholars from 46 countries were invited to the Al-Azhar International Conference on Renovation of Islamic Thought.

However, a dispute on the second day of the conference between Tayeb, who has led al-Azhar since 2010, and Khosht revealed the depth of contention surrounding modern Islamic thought.

Khosht, one of the few non-al-Azhar scholars invited to the conference, called for scrapping Islamic heritage and forming a new kind of religious thought. He said it was impossible to renew current religious discourse because it “was made to suit a different age.”

“Creating a new discourse cannot happen without creating a new religious thought,” Khosht said.

Khosht said Muslims are held hostage by the thoughts of people who lived a long time ago and that “renewal makes it necessary for us to change our way of thinking and the way we see the world.”

“This can happen only if we change the way the holy Quran is seen in Western societies,” he added.

There was no applause in the conference room for Khosht, whom Tayeb denounced and accused of negligence. Tayeb said Muslims should pursue renewal in line with Islamic heritage.

“The heritage some people take lightly today built a nation and taught people co-existence,” he said.

He criticised those who blame Islamic heritage for making Muslims weak.

“We advocate a renewal that benefits from the treasures of this religion and uses them as a guiding force for the future,” Tayeb added. “We should leave out things in this heritage that do not suit the present.”

Central to the debate was whether Muslims should build on principles inherited from predecessors or start from the ground up to face modern challenges. The question has vexed many Muslim-majority countries, including Egypt, especially with the rise of religious extremism.

The surge of extremism, often fuelled by severe interpretation of religious texts, has made the issue of religious renewal more urgent.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has frequently urged religious scholars to press for religious renewal, tasking al-Azhar with taking on the mission. Sisi said in a speech sent to the conference that neglecting renewal would provide extremists an opportunity to radicalise young people.

Al-Azhar has stood up for religious moderation since its founding almost a millennium ago. As a mosque, a university and a religious institution, it has defended the Islamic faith against extremist ideologies, teaching tens of thousands of scholars who have carried its message across the world.

Tayeb received a thunderous ovation for lashing out at Khosht, reflecting the following his view has inside al-Azhar and in other religious institutions represented at the conference.

Khosht’s view, however, represents that of a significant number of those studying Islamic religion, philosophy or concerned about religious discourse in general.

After watching Tayeb chide a scholar for his position on religious renewal, alienating a significant strand of Islamic thought, some said al-Azhar’s leadership not be entrusted with renewing Islamic thought.

“The current leadership of al-Azhar does not believe in the need for renewal and is comfortable with things as they are,” said former Egyptian Culture Minister Gaber Asfour. “Keeping things unchanged serves the interests of this leadership, which will not allow any renewal to happen.”