Egyptian president said to be frustrated over al-Azhar
Cairo - There is frustration in the Egyptian presidency at the failure of al-Azhar — the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning — to reform the curricula of its schools, changing education methods of its preachers and detaching Islam from extremism, sources close to the presidency said.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb to create reforms and rid curricula taught to tens of thousands of al- Azhar students of material that could lead to extremism.
The president’s requests were not being taken seriously by al-Azhar, observers said.
“One of the reasons this is happening is that al-Azhar is controlled by the very people who encourage extremist thinking,” said Sayed al- Qemni, a writer who has criticised al-Azhar. “Nothing good will come out of al-Azhar under its current leadership.”
Government sources, who requested anonymity, said an early August meeting between Sisi and Tayeb was a “last chance” for the grand imam to initiate reforms envisaged by the president.
Sisi, the sources added, views al-Azhar as an international seat of learning that has the responsibility to stem extremism, correct misunderstandings of Islam and turn religious discourse into a tool for peace, not for bloodshed.
His vision is in response to the eruption of what has been described as an “extremist tsunami” in which there is a misunderstanding of Islam.
Egypt has been battling an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula. There militants, who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), call Egyptian Army troops “infidels” and Sisi an “apostate”.
In January 2015, Sisi told Tayeb that correcting wrong religious ideas and purifying religious thinking of extremist thoughts were part of his mission.
“I will complain to God against you [if you do not carry out this mission],” Sisi said.
Sisi has called for a religious revolution.
Frustration at al-Azhar is apparently growing within the cabinet. “Nothing has been done since the president called for renewing religious discourse,” Culture Minister Helmi al-Namnam said August 25th at a conference in Alexandria.
The presidency has a list of measures to reform al-Azhar and a number of radical clerics — thought to be standing in the way of reform — who must be replaced, sources said.
Sisi does not have the authority to replace al-Azhar’s grand imam, who is usually selected from members of the Islamic Research Academy, the highest intellectual body within al-Azhar. Members of the academy nominate one of their number to lead al-Azhar. The nomination must be approved by the president but the president cannot sack the imam once the nomination is accepted.
Tayeb, 70 and described by some academics as a “walking Islamic encyclopaedia”, was nominated as grand imam in 2010 when Hosni Mubarak was president. Islamist president Muhammad Morsi tried to replace Tayeb with a loyalist.
Observers say the failure of al- Azhar to initiate requested reforms and the inability of the presidency to replace the grand imam of al- Azhar will create friction.
“The fact is that al-Azhar, as it stands now, is not qualified to initiate reforms and any calls in this regard will be sabotaged by its leaders,” liberal writer Tarek Heggy said, “but the sure thing is that President Sisi will not get tired of demanding this reform.”
Al-Azhar matters in any international effort to neutralise radicals and fight extremism because it is the one entity that produces thousands of preachers every year. Tens of thousands of foreign students study at al-Azhar, giving it great international leverage. A change within al-Azhar can reverberate in Islamic circles around the world, observers say.
This change is under way, according to Mohamed Mehanna, an adviser to the grand imam of al- Azhar. He said it has established a new academy, which will soon start training preachers.
“President Sisi supports al-Azhar and the role it plays in renewing religious discourse,” Mehanna said. “Reports about the president’s frustration at al-Azhar have nothing to do with the reality.”