Why al-Azhar is unable to weed out extremist thought

The task of revising Islamic heritage in al-Azhar has not moved one step forward.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Ongoing problem. A man reads outside a bookshop that sells Islamic and reference books for al-Azhar students near the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo.       (AP)
Ongoing problem. A man reads outside a bookshop that sells Islamic and reference books for al-Azhar students near the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. (AP)

Grand Mufti of Egypt Shawki Allam rejected a dissertation presented at al-Azhar University because it relied heavily on extremist references.

Allam, who was a member of the dissertation jury, objected to the inclusion of the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the leading theorist of Muslim Brotherhood extremist thought. Allam said that referencing extremist sources in research “destroys the correct vision of Islamic faith and encourages extremist thinking.”

The mufti, however, stopped at criticising the researcher’s work and did not present a clear dissenting view. His attitude is representative of the incomplete approach of Egypt’s religious institutions in dealing with extremist ideas. They address the problem superficially and formalistically, rather than substantially intervening to eradicate it.

This incident was not the only one of its kind in Egypt recently. Minister of Awqaf (Endowments) Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa expressed anger at another researcher’s referencing of opinions encouraging extremist thought. The researcher had stressed a source saying that “the idea of the nation-state leads to atheism and destroys monotheistic religions.”

Another researcher defended a master’s thesis in which he praised “the proselytising ideology of Ali Jirisha,” a prominent pro-violence figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Azhar University rejected a thesis that discussed the poetry of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born head of the Doha-based International Union of Muslim Scholars. An Egyptian court in January sentenced him in absentia to life in prison for incitement to kill and other crimes.

Political Islam experts point out that the Brotherhood and Salafist movements draw extremist ideologies from the ample supply of old and modern sources on Islamic jurisprudence and theology available at al-Azhar. Some of those sources stress blind loyalty and make permission for excommunication as well as for killing non-Muslims. Islamist political groups have used these ideas to push their agendas.

Each time the issue of revising Egypt’s Islamic heritage is brought up, al-Azhar skirts the issue by forming a committee to review the curricula and purge them of extremist idea but thousands of extremist references at al-Azhar’s research library remain untouched.

Ahmed Salem, professor of philosophy at Tanta University, said the main obstacle stopping weeding out extremist references is the refusal of religious institutions to respond to governmental initiatives. Revising Islamic jurisprudence and developing new doctrines are impossible as long as al-Azhar’s scholars are convinced that classic references are red lines.

Salem said the main handicap is tied up in al-Azhar’s synergy with the works of its old thinkers and scholars, some of whom paved the way for the creation of extremist organisations. Those references continue to be offered as canonical jurisprudential assets that students must learn. Government institutions must exercise a supervisory role to weed out references that unabashedly promote terrorism before engaging in a scholarly revision of traditional texts.

The result is that the task of revising Islamic heritage in al-Azhar has not moved one step forward. The question remains controversial and casts doubts on al-Azhar’s willingness to fulfil its role in combating extremism.

This obvious failure in revising traditional texts raises questions about who should impose measures to counter extremist ideologies and puts into question the ability of intellectual elites and enlightenment advocates to provide a critical review of canonical sources.

Al-Azhar is reluctant to touch the sources, the state’s institutions are focusing on security issues and solutions and progressive elites do not have adequate responses. Some intellectuals also blame the weakness of the administrative machine. Al-Azhar does not have the capacity to produce digital content to reach a wider audience.

The problem is compounded by laws against deriding religions voted on recently by the Egyptian parliament. In addition to restricting freedom of expression, they do not encourage critical evaluation and revision of religious heritage for fear of being accused of disrespecting religions.

The issue is part of the political game between the state and the religious institutions. There are mutual interests between the two sides. In times of crises, the government needs the support of the religious institutions and the latter receives financial support that exceeds that given to educational institutions. Some experts say al-Azhar won’t touch its intellectual and religious heritage unless the government withdraws financial support.

Abdel Ghani Hindi, a member of the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs said the problem was not restricted to deciding whether to give students and researchers access to old sources but was also tied to identifying erroneous ideas that had seeped into the Islamic intellectual heritage through the writings of scholars that coincided with the beginnings of political Islam a few decades ago.

Hindi said the inclusion of extremist sources among traditional Islamic references was made possible by the strong presence of extremist Islamist organisations inside al-Azhar University. As long as elements of extremist organisations remain in al-Azhar, it will not be possible to weed out from the library those works that use jurisprudence to justify taking power.