Egyptian government and al-Azhar face off over training of imams

At the heart of the problem with modernising religious discourse is the religious establishment’s reluctance to let other parties interfere with its efforts.
Sunday 02/12/2018
A 2015 file picture shows Egyptian al-Azhar students waiting for grand imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb to deliver a speech at Cairo University. (AP)
Dead end. A 2015 file picture shows Egyptian al-Azhar students waiting for grand imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb to deliver a speech at Cairo University. (AP)

CAIRO - Within the context of the Egyptian government’s policy to reform religious discourse, a new face-off has arisen between al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) regarding Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recommendation to include imams in training by the National Academy for Youth Rehabilitation, which is attached to the presidency.

Many officials had, in the past, criticised training programmes that al-Azhar designed for imams and dispensed for scores of years. They said that limiting the imams’ training to religious sciences was not sufficient to prepare them to be capable of enlightened understanding. Hence the recommendation to have future imams of the Ministry of Awqaf trained at the National Academy to expand their knowledge of various fields and sciences.

This move by the presidency reveals a further widening of the gap between it and al-Azhar. The rivalry between the two institutions is intensifying as al-Azhar refuses the government’s interference in its prerogatives and the government accuses al-Azhar of being either lazy or reluctant to proceed with the urgently required task of reforming religious discourse and heritage.

At the heart of the problem with revising and modernising religious discourse is the religious establishment’s reluctance to let other parties interfere with its efforts. Al-Azhar considers the idea of ​​the Ministry of Awqaf Academy, for example, as interference by non-specialised bodies in religious affairs.

Some al-Azhar sheikhs consider it a violation of Article 7 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that “Al-Azhar is the primary reference in religious sciences and Islamic affairs. It is responsible for da’wa and dissemination of religious instruction and of Arabic in Egypt and the world. The state is committed to provide sufficient financial resources to Al-Azhar to achieve its mission.”

Sources close to the government said the conflict between al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf will not end as long as al-Azhar’s current grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, remains in his position. The sources confirmed that many institutions of the state back the initiatives taken by the minister of Awqaf, whom they consider as the spearhead in confronting Salafist and extremist groups.

The Egyptian government has resorted to using the minister of Awqaf on several occasions in functions that are usually considered the preserve of al-Azhar. The latest such occasion was when the minister gave a sermon in al-Rawda mosque in northern Sinai, which was the scene last year of an attack by Islamic State militants in which more than 300 people were killed.

The Ministry of Awqaf nominated to the board of trustees of the ministry’s academy members of al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars who disagree with Tayeb’s line of conduct with a view to thwarting al-Azhar’s efforts to block the ministry’s initiative.

Thus, the academy’s board of trustees includes al-Azhar’s senior scholars, such as Nasr Wasel and Ali Gomaa, former muftis of Egypt; Ahmad Omar Hashim, member of the Council of Senior Scholars; in addition to Shawki Allam, the current mufti; Osama el-Abd, head of the religious affairs committee of the Egyptian Parliament; and Emna Naseer, a member of parliament.

The Egyptian government has decided to rely on the minister of Awqaf rather than on al-Azhar to introduce reforms without opposition. The minister is seen as a flexible executive tool while Tayeb is perceived as standing in the way of Sisi’s reformist wishes.

The government, however, still must solve the dilemma of removing Tayeb, who represents a chronic headache to it because his position is protected by the constitution. The solution, for now, is to marginalise the sheikh’s role and powers.

The presidency’s National Academy was put in place to counter al-Azhar Academy. The latter was set up three years ago and supported by the government. However, the government abandoned al-Azhar Academy as a message of protest at al-Azhar’s lukewarm performance.

Observers said state institutions in Egypt support the ministry’s plans for combating extremism and hold al-Azhar responsible for failing to reform religious discourse, which explains why al-Azhar’s initiatives have not produced results.

Scholars at the Awqaf Ministry said the government has won the battle of training imams. Training curricula are ready and training will effectively start by the end of January at the National Academy. The training curriculum will not be limited to religious sciences but will include courses from fields such as law, politics, sociology and psychology.

The scholars said the aim of establishing the academy was to work with the social environment and the outside world, especially in the case of terrorism. This is why the academy is supported by major ministries and state institutions and is seen by the government as an instrument of soft power.

Also scheduled for the academy are visits by ministers of religious affairs, muftis and Muslim scholars from outside Egypt, who will be attending an international conference on Awqaf January 20.

Abdel Hamid al-Atrash, former president of the Fatwa Committee in al-Azhar, said the concept of the academy is not new. For decades, there has been cooperation between Egypt and many other countries in training imams. However, the establishment of a formal academy will facilitate hosting and training imams from all over the Muslim world.

Atrash said that, to succeed, the academy needs to dispense specialised training at the hands of specialised scholars in different branches of religious sciences and not just in public speaking and sermonising, in addition to training on spotting and responding to extremist ideas on social media.