Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 September 2005
Issue No. 758
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The dwindling credibility of Al-Azhar -- once the Sunni Muslim world's most prestigious seat of learning -- may have helped spawn the rise of extremist Islamist thought. Gihan Shahine sheds light on why the demise took place, and what can be done to reverse it

A government mouthpiece?

Al-Azhar continues to assert that Islam rejects terrorism. But who's really listening?

Click to view caption
An illustration showing the traditional method of teaching at Al-Azhar, (whereby groups of students gather around different sheikhs for their daily lessons)

A week after the terrorist attacks in Sharm El-Sheikh, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, posed a question to a luminous gathering of Muslim scholars in Cairo: "Where did terrorists get their deviant ideas from?"

The answers he got -- and gave -- were hardly convincing. Many of those in attendance adopted the usual defensive official discourse, content to merely reiterate that Islam is a religion of peace. Tantawi, for his part, dwelled on how quick Al-Azhar was to denounce the 9/11 attacks, asserting that suicide bombings targeting innocent civilians were "sacrilegious"-- a far cry from jihad, which is only meant, he said, to be an act of "self-defence" against the "oppressor".

The Grand Sheikh scoffed at claims that his once venerated institution's official discourse was today insufficient, and wondered why terror groups were not listening to Al-Azhar's sage advice. "Have those who criticise Al-Azhar ever attended a Friday prayer there, or gone to the mosque to discuss our Islamic rhetoric?" an angry Tantawi demanded.

In the same vein, Egypt's mufti, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, also chose to distance Al-Azhar from the problem. "Terrorism and extreme thought," he told reporters who attended the scholarly gathering, proliferated when people turned their backs on Al-Azhar -- even though Al-Azhar has always been the source of balanced Islamic guidance."

Gomaa and Tantawi both lay the blame for the global wave of terror that has been committed in Islam's name anywhere but at their own doorstep. They have consistently refused to acknowledge that it may be partly because of Al-Azhar's dwindling prestige that the terror problem emerged. Today, the religious institution whose edicts -- for over 1,000 years -- were respected by millions of Muslims worldwide is seen as no more than a mouthpiece for the Egyptian government.

Fully dependent on the state for its funding, Al-Azhar's scholars are government employees, more worried about their livelihoods, in many cases, than the clarity of their religious discourse. The Grand Sheikh and the mufti -- the institution's two most prominent voices -- are both selected and appointed by the government.

It wasn't always that way. The Grand Sheikh used to be elected by a committee of senior clergy. His authority -- spanning the spectrum of religious activities from issuing edicts and managing waqfs (religious endowments), to the simple ritual of establishing a podium in a new mosque and assigning a sheikh to deliver sermons -- was fully independent of the state's hegemony.

"That unity," said Sheikh Gamal Qotb, former head of Al-Azhar's fatwa council, "lent Al-Azhar unmatched strength and harmony in decisions, goals, and edicts, which reflected positively on all aspects of Egypt's political, social and spiritual life."

Azharites, according to Qotb, "would correct the ruler when wrong, support him when right, but would never seek any official position in the regime." That dynamic, according to Qotb, lasted for "more than 800 years, during which Egypt never saw any act of terrorism."

Qotb and other analysts say it is the demise of Al-Azhar's historic role as the Sunni world's most reliable seat of learning that has left the door open for "intruders" and "extremists" to step onto the scene, disseminating unprofessional fatwas that sometimes call for the killing of civilians -- which could be one reason behind the recent wave of terror attacks.

The dismantling of Al-Azhar began at the turn of the 20th century, when the waqfs (endowments) and house of fatwa were removed from the mother institution with the appointment of Sheikh Mohamed Abdu as Egypt's mufti in 1897. As a result of that split, the mufti, the endowment minister, and Al-Azhar's Grand Sheikh became figures of nearly equal importance. "The split was a political decision meant to provide the ruler with two more alternative sources of fatwa in case he didn't like what the Grand Sheikh said," according to Qotb, who retired from Al-Azhar in 2001 after three decades worth of work there. "Which not only weakened Al-Azhar, but also undermined its historic public credibility."

In 1913, the Endowments Ministry became officially affiliated to the cabinet by virtue of a decree from the British ambassador to Egypt at the time. The ministry operated under dual British- French supervision, which meant, "the khedive would have control over preachers, who would be appointed and paid by the minister of endowment," Qotb said. "A preacher who would criticise the khedive, would be immediately dismissed and replaced."

Al-Azhar itself soon became dependent on state funding. Since the 1952 Revolution the Grand Sheikh has also been selected and appointed by the government. That loss of independence has turned it into "a government institution with little public credibility", Qotb said, which meant, "the carpet was gradually removed from under it."

As a result, people began to seek out other forms of religious authority. Several popular NGOs were established to fill the gap. The Islamic Charity Association was formed to provide both social services and religious classes. Three other religious NGOs also became popular: Ansar Al-Sunna (The supporters of prophetic tradition); Al-Gam'iya Al-Shar'iya (The Islamic law society); and the Muslim Brotherhood. Whereas Ansar Al-Sunna focussed purely on daawa (preaching), Al-Gam'iya Al-Shar'iya was more active on the social level. The Brotherhood adopted a political agenda.

The public was soon seeing these NGOs as "alternative sources for fatwa with a platform to debate with Al-Azhar scholars," Qotb said. He is of the opinion that "had Al-Azhar remained one strong independent institute, those NGOs would never have seen day light." Splitting and weakening Al-Azhar was "definitely a major miscalculation" on the government's part.

When the government then clamped down on the NGOs, "occasionally imprisoning their members and freezing their funds," Qotb said, "it ultimately pushed desperate young people into a dark corner where secret religious organisations seemed like the only way out. And that's exactly where the first sparks of terrorism began."

With the state's hegemony hanging over it, Al-Azhar "had largely failed to reach out to the young," said leading Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh. Islamic rhetoric, he said, needed to address young people's real problems, things like poverty and unemployment. "That's exactly what Al-Gam'iya Al-Shar'iya and the Muslim Brotherhood have been attempting to do over the past 50 years in parallel to their daawa activities." In Abul-Fotouh's opinion, it was the "state security clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Gam'iya Al-Shar'iya that further complicated the problem, creating an environment of political repression, where desperate youths would vent their anger in violence."

According to Nabil Abdel-Fatah of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, these "politically frustrated" young people "resort to a religious discourse to justify acts of violence". Abdel-Fatah parallels that form of hiding under a religious cover to the same way the state itself began using "Al-Azhar as a tool justify its authoritarian policies and garner public support for an autocratic regime."

For Qotb, examples of this are clear. One is when the Grand Sheikh "shot himself in the foot by calling boycotting elections a sin, while staying quiet on major issues like corruption in the Agriculture Ministry that led to the use of carcinogenic pesticides."

Abdel-Fatah criticised Al-Azhar for adopting a passive stance towards other important issues like "the regime's systematic violations of human rights, state security abuse of prisoners, the widening gap between rich and poor, the president's remaining in power for more than 24 years, and the possible transfer of power to his son."

Tantawi has been repeatedly lambasted for being a government official willing to compromise the principles of Islam for the sake of state policies. In the run-up to last May's referendum on the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution, Tantawi surprised many observers when he issued the controversial edict that equated the boycotting of elections with "withholding a testimony".

Earlier, Tantawi's retraction of a fatwa issued by a senior Al-Azhar cleric urging Muslim and Arab states to boycott the Iraqi governing council also made waves. Tantawi abjured the earlier edict, which bore Al-Azhar's official seal, 10 days after it was issued, and, more embarrassingly, immediately after meeting with David Welch, the then US ambassador to Egypt. "No Egyptian cleric has the right to pass a verdict on the affairs of another country," Tantawi said by way of explanation.

That cow towing is a far cry from the stances taken by Al-Azhar in the distant past. "At the outset of the modern era, Al-Azhar established its intellectual and political leadership in Egypt in the confrontation against the injustices perpetuated by the Ottoman overlords;" chronicled Ahmed Khaki, a 1966 deputy education minister and the author of The Mission of Al-Azhar in the 20th Century. That leadership, according to Khaki, manifested itself in the fact that Napoleon felt the need to satisfy Al-Azhar as an integral part of his campaign to take over the country. The French commander, according to Khaki, "fully appreciated the political leverage of Islam, to the extent that it was said he read the Quran along with his political books. He realised that Muslim political and social thought were essentially derived from the holy book."

But Al-Azhar's towing of the government line is also not new. Abdel-Fatah said that in the 1990s, Al-Azhar retracted an earlier fatwa legitimising nationalisation when the current government needed to change those laws. Al-Azhar again contradicted itself when it first slammed any reconciliation with Israel following the 1967 setback, and then legitimised it when President Anwar El-Sadat sought a peace treaty with Israel.

"So which Al-Azhar should we believe -- that of the 1960s, 1970s or 1990s?" Abdel-Fatah asks.

For Al-Azhar to regain its historic status, Abdel-Fatah suggests it has to become independent again. That means depending on the waqfs -- and not state funding -- for its budget. Abdel-Fatah said the Grand Sheikh should also be elected by a board of senior Al-Azhar clerics, instead of being appointed by the government.

To counter misconceptions about Islam, "Al-Azhar should also modernise its rhetoric," Abdel-Fatah said, "which cannot be done unless scholars go abroad to get their higher education, as was the case more than half a century ago."

Qotb believes Tantawi "miscalculates when he volunteers his support for the government -- even when he is not asked to. This does the state more harm than good. While Al-Azhar busies itself with side issues, the field is left open for those seeking power under religion's guise."


Considered Islam's most prestigious institute of learning since its foundation as a mosque in 970, Al-Azhar is more than just a university -- it is an institution that has affected, over the years, nearly every facet of Muslim life in the Middle East and beyond.

Al-Azhar's educational system includes thousands of elementary, intermediate and secondary schools spread out across the country, as well as a Cairo-based university that teaches a wide variety of subjects in addition to theology, which attracts students from all around the world.

Number of Al-Azhar schools nationwide: 6,300.

Number of students enrolled in Al-Azhar elementary, intermediate, and secondary schools in 2004: 1.5 million.

Annual budget: LE1.45 billion in 2002, compared to LE43 million in 1981.

Number of Al-Azhar University students in 2004: 309,921.

Number of Al-Azhar University teaching staff: 2,743.

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