A revival of Al-Azhar


There have been many signs of the revival of Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s most important seat of learning, most recently with the appointment of Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb as the institution’s rector, writes Hossam Tamam*

The declining impact of the official religious establishment, made up of Al-Azhar and its fatwa and waqf foundation offices, on religious affairs has been the most salient feature of the evolution of religious life in Egypt over the past three decades. Nevertheless, there are strong indications that we have reached a turning point where it is now possible to envision a revival of this institution as a central and effective player in the management and guidance of religious affairs, not only in Egypt but throughout the Islamic world.

To speak of the decline of Al-Azhar does not necessarily imply criticism or diminish its importance. This decline stems from many interrelated factors, some connected to developments that have affected religious beliefs themselves and others to the institution itself, as it has functioned within a particular historical context. In general, there has been a strong trend away from institutionalised religion in the world as a whole in structural/hierarchical and spiritual/doctrinal terms, and this has affected the Islamic religious establishment along with others.

However, there have of course also been local religious and political circumstances that have worked to reduce the influence of Al-Azhar and contribute to its decline.

This process began more than half a century ago, when Al-Azhar was annexed by the modern state. The latter looked on Al-Azhar either as an adversary deserving of having its wings clipped or as a subsidiary branch of government that could be wielded as a religious tool or shield in the service of the state and its political projects.

While president Gamal Abdel-Nasser first annexed and began the utilisation of Al-Azhar in this manner following the 1952 Revolution, the co-optation picked up pace under Anwar El-Sadat and moved into higher gear during the later Hosni Mubarak era. Under Nasser, Al-Azhar remained a powerful force in its own right and an active player whose efficacy was linked to that of Egypt as the leader of the Arab nation and a pivotal regional power.

Although that role vanished under Sadat, the state continued its process of the annexation and utilisation of Al-Azhar. At the same time, however, it opened the door to new religious actors in the shape of Islamist groups influenced by the powerful surge of Wahabi religious feeling backed by the rising power of Saudi Arabia on the crest of a huge oil boom. It was these ideological newcomers that delivered the most debilitating blow to the religious foundations of Al-Azhar, the ancient and long pre-eminent Sunni religious establishment whose Ashari theological traditions are famously open to multiple views of Islamic law and are tolerant of Sufism.

As a result, the real decline of Al-Azhar dates to the early 1970s when it began to lose ideological influence in the face of the Wahabi tide, the clearest expression of which is to be found in the radical Islamist groups. Al-Azhar probably would not have withstood this onslaught for long had it not been for its own institutional strength and the powerful presence of some of its leaders, most notably Sheikh Abdel-Halim Mahmoud who served as grand imam of Al-Azhar from 1973 to his death in 1978 and who was also a prolific writer on Sufism. He was probably the last rector of Al-Azhar to have had a vision of the integration of the exoteric and esoteric aspects of Islam before that of the institution’s current rector, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb.

In the 1980s, Al-Azhar’s standing and influence began to crumble at an unprecedented rate in the face of the influx of political Islamism into the religious realm. Islamist groups secured a foothold and expanded their influence in this realm, as well as, of course, in the political sphere itself, by questioning the authority and legitimacy of Al-Azhar on the grounds that it was a representative and religious emblem of the regime.

As for the regime itself, in the absence of a political project this was forced to expand its annexation and utilisation of the religious establishment in order to counter the mounting influence of the Islamist groups. However, the effect of this was to confirm the propaganda of these groups and to further weaken the legitimacy of Al-Azhar and its ability to lead in the religious domain.

One of the effects of the confrontation between the regime and the Islamist groups was that it obscured the rapid erosion of Al-Azhar’s religious views beneath the wave of Wahabism, which soon permeated even the centre of the Al-Azhar establishment. Al-Azhar and, more specifically, Al-Azhar University, became bastions of Salafism. Once only a fringe movement in Al-Azhar, Salafism became the most dynamic and influential ideological and doctrinal force in the institution.

As has generally been its custom, for its part the regime was more concerned with keeping the religious establishment under its control and using it for its purposes than it was with strengthening it as a centre of spiritual leadership and religious moderation, which had always been Al-Azhar’s leading features. Under the conditions of deterioration and collapse, the regime would naturally be unlikely to have the kind of awareness that could enable it to comprehend the complicated terrain of religion. As a result, the regime’s decisions on religious matters tended to be haphazard and lacking in strategic cohesion. Its need for immediate religious support was greater than any long-term or higher interests.

The period of Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi was one of crisis for the religious establishment in Egypt. Sheikh Tantawi served as mufti from 1986 to 1996, and he was elevated to the position of grand imam in 1996, a position he retained until his death in 2010. During this quarter of a century enormous damage was visited on Al-Azhar’s image and leadership in Egypt and abroad. Under Sheikh Tantawi’s leadership, the religious establishment had no clear perception of its role and nature or of its relationships with the state or other actors in the religious sphere. It was an era that reflected the arbitrariness that now pervades the Egyptian state.

The status of Al-Azhar and the office of the grand mufti in particular suffered under Sheikh Tantawi because he saw himself as a government employee and a civil servant, almost in the literal sense of the term. This outlook deprived him of any broader horizons and meant that Al-Azhar fell short of the expectations that the world had of the institution. Because he paid little attention to the aspirations of the Islamic world as a whole, Sheikh Tantawi failed to meet the Islamic world’s need for overarching religious leadership, particularly the need of the Sunni component of that world. At a time when the West was complaining of religious extremism and radicalism and was looking to Al-Azhar to serve as a beacon of moderation, Sheikh Tantawi insisted on restricting Al-Azhar’s scope to the domestic domain.

His relationship with other religious actors was not much better, characterised as it was by petty theological arguments with political overtones. In these Sheikh Tantawi sided with the authorities, but by doing so he ended up benefiting their adversaries, with the result that under his leadership Al-Azhar was swept by the biggest wave of fundamentalism and political Islamism in its history. Indeed, following the end of the period of Sheikh Abdel-Halim Mahmoud’s leadership, Al-Azhar’s ideological and doctrinal foundations underwent an almost total upheaval.

It is impossible to go into detail here regarding the factors that favoured the selection of El-Tayeb as the successor of Sheikh Tantawi as grand imam of Al-Azhar, important as such considerations are in understanding the internal workings and current state of the religious establishment. What is certain, however, is that this choice raises hopes of major changes in the management of religious affairs and of the powerful revival of the Al-Azhar establishment.

Several significant indicators already support this analysis. One is the palpable ebb of political Islamism in both its jihadist and non-violent incarnations. The ideological retractions made by jihadist leaders and Islamist politicians strongly suggest that political Islamism has lost its hold on religious action and influence in Egypt. The Salafist tide that once swept the religious sphere has led to the rise of a counter- movement that can gather in an establishment such as Al-Azhar, which still poses an alternative. Thanks to its Al-Ashari theology, its traditions of Sufism, and its openness to diverse interpretations of Islamic law, Al-Azhar can pose the strongest and most cohesive challenge to Salafism in the Sunni community.

Al-Azhar’s natural candidacy for this function is also strengthened by the backdrop of theological and spiritual chaos sewn, for example, by the recent proliferation of religious satellite television channels, which only augments the need for an institution that can serve as an ideological regulator, arbitrator and authority.

Indeed, we have arrived at a moment when the return of Al-Azhar to ideological predominance is not only needed by society in general, but is also needed by the religious actors themselves, as well as by the state. The latter seems to include officials who have now realised that state policies of co-opting Al-Azhar have backfired, especially now that the decline of Al-Azhar is almost equated with the decline of the state itself.

Another significant indicator of change came with the appointment of Sheikh Ali Gomaa as grand mufti in 2003. On this occasion, the regime acted contrary to its usual practice of selecting individuals who are close to being religious technocrats, if not religious civil servants. Instead, the appointment of Sheikh Gomaa reflected an awareness of the need to restructure and rehabilitate the fatwa institution, even if that involved giving it a greater degree of autonomy. Sheikh Gomaa has performed this task admirably, thus benefiting the state while not embroiling himself or the office he represents in the logic of political co-optation, the disadvantages of which have been shown to outweigh the advantages.

Sheikh Gomaa’s reforms of the Dar Al-Iftaa have helped to disassociate that institution from the bureaucratic inefficiency and stagnation that plague many other governmental institutions. In this, Sheikh Gomaa, once looked on as an outsider by those in the religious establishment who saw themselves as being more authentic Azharites, has succeeded where his predecessors failed. The new decision-making structure, system of training, and methodology he has introduced into the Dar Al-Iftaa have given the institution a huge boost, modernising it and enabling it to cope with new challenges. These reforms have also distanced it from any accusations of arbitrariness or personal whim, sometimes seen as traits of the fatwa process.

Sheikh Gomaa has thus been able to rescue the prestige of the institution from almost total loss. He has been aided by a theological and general erudition rare among Muslim scholars these days, as well as by a prolific output in jurisprudence and nearly four decades of experience and expertise in Islamic cultural and religious affairs.

The appointment of El-Tayeb as rector of Al-Azhar is a sign that the state has grasped the lessons of the reform of Dar Al-Iftaa and that it is now prepared to apply these on a broader and deeper scale. It is no idle flattery to say that Sheikh El-Tayeb is the man needed in the position of rector of Al-Azhar at this time. A respected scholar and a professor of Islamic theology and philosophy, he will be able to impart a more serious and judicious image to his office, which will also be one more suited to the modern world as Sheikh El-Tayeb has a record of openness to the West since the days when he was studying and working in France.

In fact, Sheikh El-Tayeb continues to translate works from French into Arabic, and he is also fluent in English. Yet, his is a balanced and rational openness that has not distorted his ability to understand the issues and complexities of society. This is in contrast to Hamdi Zaqzouq, who entered the Ministry of Waqf from a background in German orientalism, with the result that he is still engaged in fighting windmills, wasting much of his term in office on a project to unify the call to prayer. This epitomises the shallowness of an elitist vision of religious reform.

Sheikh El-Tayeb, born in 1946, comes from a prominent family hailing from Luxor in Upper Egypt and having a history of religious learning and leadership in a traditional society. He has striven to keep that tradition alive, and he still attends family assemblies in order to listen to and attempt to resolve the problems of family members, people from his home town and members of his Sufi order. Continuity of this sort lends substance to Sheikh El-Tayeb’s openness, and it is an extension of that of many like-minded Al-Azhar sheikhs and scholars, notable examples of which have included Sheikh Mohamed Abdallah Draz, who wrote his most important works in French, and grand imam Abdel-Halim Mahmoud.

Yet, what most qualifies Sheikh El-Tayeb for his present post is the fact that he is not an Al-Azhar technocrat. Instead, having been affiliated with Al-Azhar since the age of 10, he is an Azharite to the core and is deeply loyal to the institution. It appears that he has a clear perception of its position and functions and a project for reviving it as a centre of religious moderation and spiritual leadership. Having only been in office for a few months since March 2010, Sheikh El-Tayeb is naturally still feeling his way. However, it is possible to get a sense of where he is headed from the steps he has taken towards redrawing the lines of the relationships between Al-Azhar and the regime, between Al-Azhar and other religious actors and between Al-Azhar and the world as a whole.

Formerly a member of the policies committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), Sheikh El-Tayeb resigned from the committee immediately upon his appointment as rector, being aware that he could not be rector of Al-Azhar and an NDP official at the same time. He would have felt that it was important to set a boundary between his office and the party, not with the intention of setting Al-Azhar against the regime, but rather with the idea of setting it apart as a distinct institution, which, though always an integral part of the Egyptian state, needs to resist the mechanisms of political co-optation.

Sheikh El-Tayeb’s vision has shown itself in the positions he has taken. He has refused, for example, to issue a fatwa on the issue of the border fence with Gaza, which was the source of a political skirmish between Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi and Sheikh Tantawi, who responded by giving his blessing to the border fence. By contrast, Sheikh El-Tayeb has held that this is a matter that cannot be determined by a religious jurist, who lacks the military, strategic and political information necessary to issue a ruling. His position is a significant one in that it re-establishes the distinction between the political and religious spheres by drawing upon the history of Sunni discourse and its legacy of Islamic jurisprudence, rather than on the secularist logic that sees a separation between religion and politics.

In Sheikh El-Tayeb’s view, Al-Azhar can enter the political domain, but only as a unifier and a champion on issues on which there is consensus among the Muslim community. He therefore opposes normalisation with Israel, but refuses to get involved in details, such as whether or not one is warranted in visiting Jerusalem on an Israeli visa, or meeting with Israeli officials. The same approach applies in Sheikh El-Tayeb’s views on the Palestinian cause. Here, he supports the cause, but he will not issue fatwas that could be interpreted as being more favourable to one faction than another.

Sheikh El-Tayeb has been taking bold and confident steps in reordering relationships with the world abroad, with an eye to enhancing Al-Azhar’s academic and scientific standards and boosting its capacity to contribute to the contemporary age, thereby seizing all available opportunities to disseminate Al-Azhar’s moderate discourse. Sheikh El-Tayeb is confident that he is approaching such steps from a position of strength, since the declining influence of Islamist radicalism and the assimilation of Muslim communities abroad have created the potential for reciprocity.

Many political, cultural and academic circles in the West now look towards Al-Azhar as a centre of religious moderation and one that can offset the influence of religious extremism. In this regard, Sheikh El-Tayeb sponsored a project in collaboration with the British Council to found an English-language training centre, and he remains a strong advocate of cooperation with the UK on mutually beneficial cultural and educational matters of this sort that involve a religious dimension.

With respect to other stakeholders in the religious domain, Sheikh El-Tayeb’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood has long since overcome the Al-Azhar student militia crisis that erupted when he was president of Al-Azhar University. His position at that time was firm. He succeeded in containing a broad front of Al-Azhar scholars who were dissatisfied at Sheikh Tantawi’s handling of the crisis, and he pushed for the compromise solution of dismissing various leaders of the student demonstrations. His success won him the support of a broad front of Al-Azhar scholars.

In like manner, Sheikh El-Tayeb’s position towards Sheikh El-Qaradawi, the most important Sunni authority outside Al-Azhar, has been equally sagacious. Sheikh El-Tayeb’s qualified endorsement of El-Qaradawi following the latter’s dismissal from the Qatari-based forum Islamonline.net strengthened the prestige and dignity of his own office without in any way altering his or Al-Azhar’s intellectual and doctrinal position as an Ashari institution that represents Egyptian Islam.

There are further propitious signs for the revival of Al-Azhar. However, this will also be contingent on the success of the struggle to reset the mainstream course of action and belief in the religious domain. The major thrust of this will be against the Wahabist tide, which has now reached its height, and its results will not only determine the fate of religious affairs in Egypt, but will also affect those elsewhere in the Sunni world, most notably in such historical centres of the Sunni creed as Morocco, Syria, Turkey and India.

Awareness of this fact was reflected in the international conference on Imam Abul-Hassan Al-Ashari that was sponsored by Sheikh El-Tayeb in April this year and attended by prominent critics of the Salafist tide in the Sunni Islamic world. The true revival of Al-Azhar entails the rejuvenation of its characteristic ideological and doctrinal outlook, and this will inevitably court a clash with Salafism, recently the more influential and active trend.

* The writer is an expert in Islamist movements.

Published in al-Ahram

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