It might take decades to reform al-Azhar

Sunday 14/05/2017

The Egyptian Constitu­tion of 2014 gave al-Azhar, the coun­try’s top Islamic seat of learning, complete independence from the state. The venerable institu­tion lost nothing of its traditional theological role and religious influence in the country.

It was feared that al-Azhar would fall under the total control of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had infiltrated the institution’s highest authority, the Council of Senior Scholars.

The grand imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, however, was apprehensive of the rising career of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi while in his previous role as min­ister of defence. Tayeb was aware that, if the general took power, al-Azhar would revert to its role as an analyst of the government’s policies, a role it has assumed since the time of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Nasser was the first president to thrust al-Azhar into politics in modern Egypt, hoping that it would help in the transition to a socialist regime. During the coro­nation of King Farouk I in 1936, the prime minister at that time, Moustafa el-Nahas Pasha, refused to let the 16-year-old regent take the oath of allegiance before al- Azhar’s senior scholars; he had him take it before the parliament as a gesture marking the begin­ning of the secular state.

Nasser needed the backing of al- Azhar to give religious legitimacy to the government’s new policies, which were questioned and op­posed by political Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi also appealed to al-Azhar for support when he overthrew Mu­hammad Morsi in July 2013. Today, it looks as if Sisi is determined to disturb the murky waters of al- Azhar knowing the risks involved.

Ahmed Hosny, the president of al-Azhar University, during a tele­vised appearance in May, blatantly accused researcher and journal­ist Islam Behery of apostasy. On the same programme, Hosny said al-Azhar “cannot declare mem­bers of [ISIS] as apostates because the organisation is committing individual acts but, in the end, they are Unitarians.” These dec­larations cost Hosny his position following a general outcry in the country and returned the issue of religious extremism at al-Azhar to the forefront.

It seems that the eternal power struggle in religious affairs in Egypt is still raging between ex­tremist Salafists and the so-called moderates. In 2014, Abd Dayim Nasir, adviser to the imam of al- Azhar, declared that “the Salafists want to turn al-Azhar into a politi­cal instrument. We’re against that because we do not want to have the law subjugated to a religious power which decides what is right and what is wrong.”

Three years later, it looks as if Nasir was far from reality. It seems that al-Azhar is once again victim of the full religious powers and independence granted to it by the constitution. It is facing a mini intellectual rebellion.

Journalist Ahmed al-Khatib said 12 members of al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars belong to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad Organisation. Khatib is fac­ing imprisonment for publishing articles critical of al-Azhar.

For Rifaat al-Said from the Na­tional Progressive Unionist Party, “al-Azhar’s problem is that it got used to extremist thinking which produces only extremists… and that causes al-Azhar to regress even further.”

“Al-Azhar has a difficult and complex structure,” he said. “The grand imam is an open-minded person but he is in charge of a curriculum in which some courses are extremist, which, of course, will produce similar thinking. He also heads the Council of Senior Scholars, which must be restruc­tured to bring in enlightened personalities and which must abandon the frozen mindsets controlling it.”

Al-Azhar continues to resist calls for reform. Some conserva­tive religious figures are trying to turn it into a Vatican for Muslims. “Extremists are explaining those calls for reforming al-Azhar and presenting them to Muslims as part of a colonialist scheme to de­stroy Islam. This is why they are staunchly resisting them,” said Amine Shelby from the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

One of the severest critics of al-Azhar is Member of Parlia­ment Mohamed Abou Hamed. He introduced a bill that directly threatens Tayeb’s position. “Both Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood ideologies exist inside al-Azhar and nobody can deny that fact. This represents a real handicap on the path to reform,” Abou Hamed has said.

“There are leading administra­tive and teaching figures who espouse delinquent ideas. Even the Council of Senior Scholars includes Brotherhood figures and this despite the law which clas­sifies the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. In its current composition, the council is breaking the law.”

Still, Abou Hamed’s bill was withdrawn.

The battle for al-Azhar has regional reverberations. Some powerful countries in the region are carefully monitoring the con­flict. The “Arab spring” brought the issues of the role of religion in society and of who has the author­ity to determine that role to the forefront.

Some Arab regimes that had welcomed the removal of the Mus­lim Brotherhood from power are concerned about al-Azhar turn­ing into a force confronting the secular governmental system in Egypt. Others are apprehensive of the influence of the controversial scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is an al-Azhar alumnus whose ideas have become a staple of Brother­hood ideology.

Many Arab officials are aware of the influence of al-Azhar Univer­sity not only in the Arab world but also in the wider Muslim world and especially among the Muslim minorities in Europe and else­where. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim students travel to al-Azhar to study religion.

Some Egyptian diplomats fear that the conflict between the government and al-Azhar may be turned into an attack on Islam. They say that Sisi must tread very carefully and handle reforming al-Azhar with patience. After all, it took the Muslim extremists dec­ades to infiltrate al-Azhar; it might very well take decades more to dislodge them.