It might take decades to reform al-Azhar
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.