Grozny conference stirs criticism of al-Azhar
Cairo - Cracks are appearing in a front Saudi Arabia is trying to form with al-Azhar, the Cairo-based highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, days after its grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, attended a conference in Chechnya about who should be called a Sunni.
Organisers did not invite anyone from Saudi Arabia to the late- August gathering in the Chechen Republic, although 200 religious scholars from other countries were asked to attend.
The Saudis were especially angered by the failure of the conference’s final communiqué to include Wahhabism, the branch of Sunni Islam followed by most Saudis, on the list of “true Sunnis”.
Also excluded was Salafism, an ultraorthodox branch of Sunni Islam followed by millions of Egyptians and Saudis and financially backed by Saudi Arabia.
“The conference is part of a new intellectual war against Saudi Arabia,” said Saudi writer Mohammed al-Bishr. “Those who paid all this money to host 200 scholars in Grozny did not do this because they loved those who attended the conference but because they hated those who did not attend it,” he wrote in the Saudi newspaper Kol al-Watan.
Several Saudi writers and scholars expressed similar sentiments and called on Saudi Arabia to turn its back on Egypt after the Grozny conference, which Osama al-Azhari, the religious adviser to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, attended.
Al-Azhar issued a statement saying that it had nothing to do with the final communiqué of the conference and its participation was restricted to a speech delivered by Tayeb.
“Al-Azhar did not organise this conference,” said Sheikh Abbas Shouman, a senior official of al- Azhar. “There is no conflict between al-Azhar and Saudi Arabia. We have contacted the organisers of the conference to get clarifications on the final communiqué.”
This, however, seems to be less about the conference and more about Saudi efforts to control al- Azhar, partly to maintain its self-proclaimed leadership of the Sunni Islamic world and partly to fortify its front in the battle against Shias, experts said.
Saudi Arabia has been trying to win al-Azhar to its side, spending tens of millions of dollars on projects desired by the religious institution and its university.
The projects included the renovation of al-Azhar mosque in southern Cairo, funding an al-Azhar television channel, financing the construction of a hostel for thousands of foreign students and offering free pilgrimages to al-Azhar leaders and scholars.
When he visited Cairo in April, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud visited al-Azhar mosque and met with Tayeb. He was the first Saudi monarch to visit al-Azhar since 1946.
Some experts said Saudi Arabia has been trying to control al-Azhar by financially supporting some of its Salafist leaders.
“It actually spends a lot of money to do this,” said Ahmed Kerima, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at al-Azhar University. “The problem is that those Salafists — like Wahhabis — believe that they are the only true Muslims in the world.”
He called the Salafists and the Wahhabis the new “Kharijites” — a despised splinter sect of early Islam accused of killing indiscriminately and falsely labelling other Muslims as infidels.
Kerima said the Egyptian government should refuse to back the Wahhabis who financially support the Salafists, describing the Salafists as an “impediment on the way of reforming al-Azhar”.
Shouman did not deny that Saudi Arabia and al-Azhar stand united against Shias and Iran’s growing influence.
“Al-Azhar is totally against growing Shia influence in the region,” he said. “Saudi Arabia strongly backs this role.”