In 1934 the popularity of the rector of Al-Azhar was in stark contrast to that of his successor, leading to student demonstrations and strikes in a watershed year for the Islamic institute. Which side yielded? Professor Yunan Labib Rizk supplies the answer
Confidential British Foreign Office archives contain a set of files on "Egyptian Leading Personalities". Our attention was drawn to numbers 64 and 129, the files on two of the most important rectors of Al-Azhar: Sheikh Mohamed Mustafa El- Maraghi and Sheikh El-Ahmadi El-Zawahiri.
In the first we read of El-Maraghi's attempt to reform the time-honoured Islamic university by sponsoring a draft bill to expand its fields of specialisation and, thereby, offer its students greater employment prospects after graduation. The bill was widely supported by students and by a significant segment of the staff. Although the law was supposed to be passed in October 1929 and implemented during that scholastic year, King Fouad failed to ratify it on time. This deliberate procrastination drove Sheikh El-Maraghi to tender his resignation and, according to the British document, forfeit a propitious opportunity for reform.
With the suspension of the 1923 Constitution and the promulgation of the constitution of 1930, which gave the king a freer hand to intervene in the affairs of Al-Azhar, Sheikh El-Maraghi lent his active support to the opposition Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist Parties. This support was not insignificant, for by then he was chairman of the influential Society for the Defence of Islam. However, contrary to the custom of these Foreign Office documents, the file on El-Maraghi mentions a specific year: 1934. In this year, the "unpopularity of his successor gave rise to a series of student strikes demanding El-Maraghi's return to the rectorship of Al-Azhar. In addition, his name was proposed on more than one occasion as a nominee as minister of awqaf (religious endowments) in the Nassim government. He was reappointed rector of Al-Azhar in April 1935."
The contents of the second file were no bigger than the brief role played by its subject would permit. Sheikh El-Zawahiri had served as Egypt's representative in the conference over the successor to the caliphate that was held in Mecca in 1926. It was this individual's misfortune to have been appointed to replace El-Maraghi following the latter's resignation in 1929. Not only was the former rector a difficult act to follow but Al-Azhar, according to the file, "became a vehicle for palace influence." In this connection, the year 1934 crops up again. The document reported that in that year, El-Zawahiri's unpopularity, compounded by his subservience to the palace, stirred a wave of student demonstrations and teacher strikes that ultimately drove him to resign in April 1935.
The significance of that year was reflected on the pages of Al- Ahram which related the story in full. The story was exciting, not only from the perspective of the history of Al-Azhar but of the modern history of Egypt. However, before turning to it, we must first make a number of observations.
Throughout Egypt's modern history, Al-Azhar was a centre of nationalist resistance. Starting in 1798, it was a bastion of Cairo's first "revolution" against the Napoleonic campaign, after which it was instrumental in bringing a final end to the tyranny of the Mamelukes and placing Mohamed Ali on the Egyptian throne (1805). In the latter half of the 19th century, a number of Al-Azhar scholars were active supporters of the Orabi uprising (1881-1882), to the extent that in The Secret History of the British Occupation, Mr Blunt observes, "There arose in Al-Azhar a movement akin to a revolution." A few decades later, during the 1919 Revolution, the celebrated mosque became the podium for the speeches and declarations of solidarity between Muslim and Coptic leaders, notable among the latter of which was Archbishop Sergius.
Given this history, it is little wonder that the king would seek to exert his control over the famous religious institution. Three keys to power obsessed the palace. The first was the army, which the palace feared would become prey to party rivalries, for which reason the occupant of the throne ensured that he remained the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The second was the Foreign Ministry, in which Fouad fought to keep his representatives abroad on tight strings as though they were his personal envoys in foreign capitals rather than representatives of the people. Finally, there was the religious key, as was epitomised in Al-Azhar and its subsidiary institutions, and in the Ministry of Awqaf which both Kings Fouad and Farouq attempted to deploy against the nationalist movement.
1934 brought three developments that contributed significantly to the revolt of the Azharites. The first was Fouad's illness and the consequent growth of the influence of his right-hand man, Zaki El-Ibrashi. El-Ibrashi's increasing meddling in the affairs of government became so flagrant that the British high commissioner had to caution the king on numerous occasions, one time going so far as to issue an ultimatum. The second development was the dismissal of the notoriously autocratic Prime Minister Sidqi Pasha and his replacement by Abdel-Fattah Yehya who, if not as iron willed, was known to be the king's puppet in government.
The third and most immediate development pertained to the educational policies of the Al-Azhar administration under El- Zawahiri. The final straw was the restriction of admittance into the university's three colleges -- the faculties of Arabic language, Islamic law and clergymen -- to only a relative handful of graduates of Al-Azhar secondary school. Students from this school felt that the decision was particularly unjust because, as Al-Ahram relates, "after spending long years of study to obtain the elementary and secondary school certificates from Al-Azhar, they now find the doors of higher education closed to them." It explains that the secondary school certificates they obtained from Al-Azhar were not recognised by the secular institutions of higher education.
The situation in Al-Azhar in 1934 was thus highly explosive, an indication of which we find in Al-Ahram of 6 October that year under the headline, "The incident of Al-Azhar students arouses concern of Prime Minister and Palace circles." The report recounts that the students in question had resorted to "unacceptable means" to air their complaint. These means were to appeal to the British high commissioner and the American University in Cairo for admittance in that university "after having been deprived of the opportunity to continue their studies in Al- Azhar."
The reaction of the authorities, as Al-Ahram describes it, was "to turn their sympathy into anger and their leniency into harshness." It continues, "The rector resolved to treat the students severely and declared that they had committed a crime against the nation and Islam, and that the consequences of this crime would fall on their heads."
Actually, the reports on what actually took place were conflicting. One story had it that on 5 October a group of Al-Azhar students went to the AUC administration building to ask for application forms. However an AUC administration official interviewed by Al-Ahram denied that any "turbaned students" had ever come to the university office. The official conjectures, "Perhaps the students appeared individually and requested the application forms from the relevant secretary. These would have been given to them automatically, just as they are to all people who request them, since admission into the university is based, not on the distribution of these forms, but on the assessment of a completed application." He added that Al-Azhar students like all other applicants to the AUC had to meet certain minimum qualifications. "As these students received a religious education, they have not studied English or French and they have not taken the required secondary school courses. So how could we possibly accept them as students in our university?"
Regardless of whether the Al-Azhar or the AUC version was correct, the incident triggered fierce reactions. Al-Azhar University Inspector Sheikh Mahmoud Abul-Uyun, a noted conservative, stated, "It is impossible to conceive that any Al-Azhar student with intelligence, piety and a sense of national dignity would pursue such a disgraceful course of action in order to anger the authorities." The General Centre for Muslim Youth Associations issued a statement condemning the action of the Al- Azhar students. At the same time, however, it urged authorities to open classes for students who were not accepted into the Al- Azhar faculties to enable them to follow the first year courses "until such time as the authorities devise a solution to these students' problem."
Al-Ahram shared the concern of Al-Azhar officials. In his daily column, "Short but Significant," Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed described the events as "one of the gravest of social issues because of its intrinsic connection with our national pride." The Al- Ahram columnist faulted Al-Azhar officials for reducing admission into the university's faculties. "If the Sorbonne, the greatest secular university in the world, keeps its doors wide open, why not Al-Azhar, which is the recipient of thousands of pounds in trusts and donations from the pious who wish to facilitate the education of the poor, the spread of the faith and the inculcation of Islamic virtues."
The opposition press, on the other hand, hastened to the defence of Al-Azhar students, putting the blame for the plight on the rector. Al-Siyasa, the mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, reproached El-Zawahiri for his treatment of those "unfortunate students" who were yet another victim of the educational policies under the current government. The Wafdist newspaper Al-Jihad also held the Al-Azhar administration responsible for the plight of the students. "Those students are an offshoot of the plants cultivated by the officials responsible for the administration of Al-Azhar. The blame should be laid at the feet of the cultivators for every ill that befalls the fruit of what they planted."
The students who had triggered all this acrimony met and issued a joint statement exonerating themselves of the accusations leveled against them.
"We declare, firstly, our dedication to our Islamic religion and our Egyptian patriotism. We declare, secondly, our confidence in the officials of the General Centre for Muslim Youth Associations and give them the mandate to negotiate with the authorities for a just and rapid solution to our plight. Thirdly, we express our gratitude to the press for its advocacy of our cause and for the religious and patriotic spirit it exhibited in so doing. We declare, fourthly, that the students in question will not leave Cairo until their situation is settled, in the hope that this will be achieved in a manner that realises their aspirations as soon as possible so that they do not miss the scholastic year."
While Al-Azhar officials were reviewing the problem, students' patience began to wear thin, which would cause the situation to deteriorate rapidly. When a large group of students tried to meet the official in charge of religious institutes, police intercepted them. "Finding their entrance to the building barred, the students departed, but only after handing the commander of the police force a petition containing their demands and asking him to deliver it to Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Latif El-Fahham, deputy director of Al-Azhar and the Religious Institutes, in view of the fact that the venerable rector of Al-Azhar had not yet returned from Alexandria." In addition to containing their demands, the petition delivered an ultimatum: "We are united in our intent to resume our pursuit of our rights through all means if we do not receive a satisfactory response next Saturday."
Apparently, Al-Azhar officials had underestimated the students. When that Saturday arrived without a response, the students moved into action, not only in Cairo but also in the provinces.
In Zaqaziq, students of the religious institute staged a rally in which they protested the lower admittance quota into the Al- Azhar university faculties. "This action, in their opinion, flies in the face of the purpose for which Al-Azhar was established," Al-Ahram reports. It goes on to relate, "When officials of the institute realised that the students intended to persist in their strike, they notified the police who immediately dispatched a force that took up positions around the institute's buildings and blockaded the students inside the grounds of their dormitories."
Students of the religious institute in Alexandria also went on strike. They wanted to stage a demonstration "but administration officials had taken precautions. Upon a special signal, police forces were summoned to maintain order among the students. Nevertheless, while the police were determined to prevent the students from taking to the streets, the students were equally determined to press ahead with their plan. Fighting broke out between the two sides, during which students began throwing stones at the police. Eventually, they succeeded in overcoming the police, after which they broke through the gates, raced to the elementary school department, broke down its doors and encouraged those students to join them. The throng of students then marched through the streets shouting slogans until they reached Mohamed Nagi Mosque in which they held a mass rally and delivered impassioned speeches, appeals and exhortations."
In Assiut, some 800 students of the religious institute there took to the streets in a mass demonstration. When the dean of the institute appealed for calm, "some of the students heeded his advice and returned to classes while others continued their strike. Soon, a police force arrived to the scene of the demonstration, surrounded the protesters and began to strike out at them with their truncheons until they dispersed them by force. Approximately 30 students were arrested and turned over to the prosecution for investigation."
Back in Cairo, government authorities had taken precautions so that the capital would not become a battlefield between students and police. Armoured vehicles patrolled the streets around the Faculties of Islamic Law and Arab Language and Al-Azhar Secondary School. When a group of secondary school students attempted to leave those premises to demonstrate, police prevented them. Before tempers could flare further, their dean appeared and counseled them to remain calm, after which they returned to class. "There only remained a few who attempted to incite their colleagues to strike. The police officer apprehended six of what he described as agitators and took them to the head of the administration of religious institutes."
In an appeal to calm, Sheikh El-Zawahiri declared that the university had been in the process of reviewing the new admissions quota "when a contingent of the student body committed their offense and the strikes began, which actions brought a halt to any further deliberations until calm is restored and the situation returns to normal." Shortly afterwards, on 24 October, the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar issued a statement announcing that it was in the process of revising admissions quotas for first year college students. The statement explained that in the second round of secondary degree examinations, the success rate rose from 74 to 93 per cent. It stressed that this result only came about after the decision to reduce the admission quota but now, after deliberating over the issue, the council decided to accept all students who had received an overall grade of 65 per cent or higher. Students were placated, but only for a time.
Before two weeks had passed, the clouds of unrest stirred again when upper class students in the Department of Jurisprudence protested that they had not received the allowances to which they would have been entitled under the former system. "On the first day of class -- 8 November -- professors of that department arrived to deliver their lectures only to find that out of more than 50 students only five attended."
On this occasion, school authorities decided to clamp down immediately on the strikers. The administrative board of the Faculty of Law moved to suspend 38 students, declaring "Any student that fails to attend his classes next Thursday morning will be expelled permanently." The ultimatum, of course, had the opposite effect. When that Thursday arrived, students from all three faculties went on strike. Al-Ahram relates: "Not a single student reported to his class. When the lecturers found their classrooms empty, they returned home. Meanwhile, the students rallied and marched to the prime minister's building, in front of which they shouted slogans interspersed by appeals to reform." The incident signaled the escalation of specific student grievances to a broader protest movement, the nature of which was underscored in events the following day.
Al-Ahram reports, "All Al-Azhar students from the three faculties, along with students of specialised studies and the upper school department, emerged in force from their classrooms and formed a massive protest march. Some 4,000 students of all ages and departments headed first to the prime minister's premises where declared their support for the Wafd Party and called for the dismissal of the rector of Al-Azhar. In an orderly procession, they marched to Abdeen Square, shouting in unison, 'Long live Sheikh El-Maraghi, the only rector of Al-Azhar!' They continued in this fashion until they reached the Administration of Religious Institutes Building on Nubar Street. Here, they broke through the gates as they cried out for El-Zawahiri to show himself and announce his intention to resign."
When the rector did not appear the students stormed into his office to find it vacant. This did not prevent them from smashing his desk, telephones, the large chandeliers suspended from the ceiling, and all other furniture and equipment in the room. Afterwards, the students reassembled again in Al-Azhar Mosque where they issued a statement in which they swore that they would not return to classes until their conditions were met. These were the reinstatement of "the great reformer, His Eminence Sheikh El-Maraghi" as rector of Al-Azhar, the abolishment of the new admissions quotas, the annulment of the regulation requiring students to sit all their exams again if they failed in a single subject, and the reinstitution of allowances for students following specialised studies. Nor were all demands restricted to students. The statement also called for a raise in the salaries of newly engaged teaching staff.
At 7.30 the following morning students began to fill the courtyard of Al-Azhar Mosque. Their rally opened with cries of support for the recently installed Prime Minister Tawfiq Nassim who had replaced Abdel-Fattah Yehya and who was supported by the Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist parties. Following several speeches, the students decided to condense their demands into a single one, and that was to reinstate Mustafa El- Maraghi as rector. "After approving this proposal, the students elected a delegation to convey their sentiments to the former rector. Occupying two carriages in the Cairo-Helwan train, the delegation made its way to El-Maraghi's home where they found him in the company of a group of his friends. The delegation conveyed to him the respect and admiration of the students and their desire that he resume the rectorship of their university. The message was followed by chants praising 'the reformer of Al- Azhar,' 'the man of the hour,' and 'El-Maraghi the Sheikh of Al-Azhar.'"
El-Maraghi, in turn, delivered a short speech in which he said, "Al-Azhar is the institute in which I grew up. I owe everything good that has come my way to that glorious institution. Al- Azhar is the object of my greatest devotion and care, and its reform is my greatest hope and desire. I thank you very much and you may trust that my love for you is no less than your love for me."
The former rector had strengthened the students' resolve. On 19 November, they formed another large delegation which went to the prime minister's office to notify him of their determination to continue their strike until El-Zawahiri resigned and El-Maraghi was reinstated. Also during this period, they collected signatures on telegrams they dispatched to the king, the prime minister and other government officials, stating their demands. Although, they continued to assemble every morning in Al-Azhar in order to deliberate their various courses of action, they resolved to remain calm and not stage any further demonstrations.
Finally, on 24 November, the Al-Azharites had a glimmer of hope. In a meeting between student delegations and the minister of awqaf, the latter appeared sympathetic to their demands, especially that regarding the dismissal of El-Zawahiri. Nevertheless, the minister told them that he could not take such a decision alone. Rather, the matter would have to be brought before the entire cabinet and that would require time. He further promised to look into the rest of the students' demands on the condition that they returned to classes. The students complied even though it would take another four months before their demands were met. Although it would be 1935 by that time, that would not detract from the fact that 1934 proved a watershed year in the history of Al-Azhar.