Egypt deploys scholars to teach moderate Islam
CAIRO - In his battle against militant Islam, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is relying not just on soldiers but on white-turbaned clerics from al-Azhar, Egypt’s 1,000-year-old centre for Islamic learning. He wants clerics to counter radicalism in the classroom.
In a televised speech in January at an al-Azhar conference, Sisi called for “a religious revolution” in Islam. Radicalised thinking, he said, had become “a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world”. That had to change and scholars had a leading role to play, in schools, mosques and on the airwaves.
“You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting. The entire world is waiting for your next word because this nation is being torn apart,” Sisi said.
The president’s warning is part of a much larger project. To contain the radical Islamist movement, Sisi has most conspicuously been using the law and brute force but he is also promoting a more moderate and less politicised version of the faith.
In the struggle to contain radical Islam al-Azhar is one of the most important fronts.
The al-Azhar mosque was built in the tenth century and is one of the oldest in Egypt. It opened a university that spread Shia Islam until the end of the Fatimid Caliphate in 1171. It was turned into a Sunni mosque and university that taught the four schools of mainstream Sunni Islam.
Today the university’s various faculties and research centres have 450,000 students, many from Asia and Africa. It has a network of more than 9,000 schools across Egypt attended by more than 2 million students.
Al-Azhar’s teachers, preachers and researchers have introduced a few changes, tweaking textbooks and monitoring militant statements on social media to better refute them. However, al-Azhar officials openly acknowledge the magnitude of the challenge ahead.
To be successful, Sisi will need to achieve what many before him have not: balancing tough security measures with education to encourage a more moderate version of Islam. Experiences in Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Iraq show that cracking down on extremism can instead stoke it.
It was the president’s reputation for piety that led his predecessor, Muhammad Morsi, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, to appoint him army chief in August 2012. Yet Sisi was also bold enough to seize power from Morsi after the Brotherhood leader became increasingly unpopular. Since then, Sisi has cracked down hard on the Brotherhood.
Since Sisi came to power, al-Azhar has purged Morsi-era teachers and returned to an appointment system in which the state plays a major role. It has publicly backed Sisi’s actions against the Brotherhood and militants. Al-Azhar has simplified its curriculum to make it more compatible with the modern age, said Abbas Shuman, al-Azhar deputy head. Textbook passages describing the spoils of war and slavery have been removed, he said, because, while applicable during the Muslim conquests, are out of date.
Shuman said such changes are reasonable. “Al-Azhar is built on Islamic heritage but not all of it is sacred,” he said.
The university insists that students should not read old religious texts without guidance. Professor Abdel Fattah Alawari, dean of the Islamic theology faculty at al-Azhar, said specialised panels were created to review books written by professors to make sure they do not lean towards extremism.
Al-Azhar recently started a YouTube channel to counter Islamist propaganda and began using social media to condemn Islamic State (ISIS) atrocities. Sheikhs from al- Azhar tour youth centres around the country to promote moderate thought and discourage radicalism.
Abdel Hay Azab, president of al- Azhar’s university, said: “Al-Azhar university educates scientists, preachers, doctors and engineers. So when al-Azhar provides its educational services to society, it has to be with the right vision for religion, which is that religion should not be seen as an obstacle in society.”
The reforms have not been universally welcomed. Yousef Hamdi, a third-year student studying Islamic theology, said he was upset that he has not been taught the four mainstream schools of thought on Sunni learning. He says reforms mean he is not being taught the full teachings of Islam. The result, Hamdi said, is that like-thinking students seek books that teach what they feel is pure and traditional Islamic jurisprudence.
Shuman said curriculum changes have not weakened the fiqh taught. “Sharia law allows for rulings that are no longer applicable to the modern age to be reviewed to make it more suitable for this age,” he said.
It is not hard, however, to find radical texts. Just outside al-Azhar mosque in Cairo’s old quarter, a maze of alleyways is dotted with scores of bookshops selling mainstream Islamic titles and books by more extreme Islamist scholars, including Ibn Taymiyyah and Sheikh Kishk.
Egypt’s government denies allegations of human rights abuses and says the Brotherhood, ISIS and al- Qaeda pose a grave threat to Egypt. At the same time, security sources say authorities do target universities.
Abdul Ghani Hendi, a religious affairs adviser in the Egyptian parliament, says al-Azhar should be completely restructured to allow for self-criticism. “All the thought that dominates the society is extremists’ thoughts. We should confess that frankly,” he said.
Sisi remains committed to his drive against militancy and says al-Azhar can do more to promote a moderate form of Islam. In a recent speech, he said, “We need to move faster and more effectively.”