Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 March 2010
Issue No. 991
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'A good choice after all'

Will the appointment of a new grand sheikh restore Al-Azhar's credibility? Gihan Shahine finds out

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Ahmed El-Tayeb

Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, who has served as president of Al-Azhar University since 2003, was appointed grand sheikh of Al-Azhar last week, the institution's top cleric, with the appointment immediately causing a heated public debate.

El-Tayeb, who also served as Egypt's mufti between 2002 and 2003, succeeded Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who died of a heart attack in Saudi Arabia on 10 March at the age of 81.

El-Tayeb is widely perceived as being a government affiliate owing to his membership of the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) policies committee, and critics are concerned that his loyalty to the government, rather than his scholarly achievements, may have been the main reason why he was given precedence over other candidates nominated for the job, including Egypt's present Mufti Ali Gomaa.

Amr Hashem Rabei, a researcher and political analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, is among the staunchest critics of the new appointment, saying that the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar holds a prestigious position in the Muslim world, and this being so he should be completely independent.

Rabei speculated that, "as is the case with other government sectors, the regime, out of a sense of weakness, is trying to select leaders whom it trusts will toe the government line."

However, El-Tayeb's academic achievements outweigh those of many of his rivals, and he is thought of as moderate and enlightened cleric who promotes dialogue with the West. El-Tayeb received his doctoral degree from France's Sorbonne University in Paris, and he has written or translated works on science, Marxism and Islamic philosophy and culture.

Since his appointment, El-Tayeb has been much in evidence on television and in the press. In a televised interview with presenter Mona El-Shazli, El-Tayeb insisted that his being a member of the NDP and Al-Azhar's top cleric were two separate issues.

His loyalty to Al-Azhar was unquestionable, he said, and he refuted charges that the regime or the NDP had put pressure on Al-Azhar during his service as president of the institution or as mufti.

Prominent writer and expert on Islamic affairs Fahmy Howeidy welcomed the appointment as a "good choice after all", not paying much attention to the fact that El-Tayeb was an NDP member since "the regime would choose a government loyalist."

What might distinguish El-Tayeb from his predecessor was the fact that "he is more eloquent, has a better temper and is perhaps more pious than Tantawi was," Howeidy said.

However, Howeidy said that though El-Tayeb's appointment may be meant to "improve the image of the historic institution," restoring Al-Azhar's credibility was not an option since "the political environment, in which freedoms and rights are already curtailed, will not allow it."

Dependent on the state since the 1952 Revolution, Al-Azhar's staff, including its grand sheikh, have been turned into government employees, with the grand sheikh holding a rank analogous to that of prime minister.

The grand sheikh of Al-Azhar is appointed by presidential decree and remains in office for life. According to Sheikh Gamal Qotb, former head of Al-Azhar's fatwa council, the nature of the appointment means that the grand sheikh has little genuine independence, resulting in a loss of Al-Azhar's credibility.

Sometimes seen as being little more than a mouthpiece for the government, there is almost a consensus among analysts that Al-Azhar will not be able to restore its former prestige unless it regains its independence and its grand sheikh is elected by a committee of senior clergy and does not remain in post for life.

However, Qotb is optimistic that the new grand sheikh's philosophical background and academic achievements will "perhaps lend him more creativity and eloquence in achieving compromise".

Howeidy is equally optimistic that El-Tayeb will "not allow Al-Azhar's dignity to be lost, since he seems to fear God more than he fears the regime, and he has already been tactful when dealing with difficult issues."

Nevertheless, El-Tayeb is known for his hardline stance against the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group. In 2006, he condemned a military-style parade by Brotherhood students at Al-Azhar University, in which they wore black facemasks "like Hamas, Hizbullah and the Republican Guard in Iran".

El-Tayeb has angered some conservative Muslims for being a critic of outward manifestations of piety such as the veil or the wearing of beards, which he has described as possibly coming at the expense of true spiritual development.

He supported his predecessor's ban on the niqab, or full face veil, among female Al-Azhar students on the grounds that it was not a religious obligation in Islam.

More ticklish issues are also on the new grand sheikh's agenda, Rabei saying that the stance Al-Azhar takes on resistance in the occupied Palestinian territories and rigging in the upcoming elections will help decide the degree of El-Tayeb's independence from the government.

Born in Upper Egypt in 1946, El-Tayeb joined an Al-Azhar affiliated school at the age of 10, and has enjoyed a career spanning 40 years at the institution. He became a faculty member at Al-Azhar University before becoming head of the philosophy department.

An ardent student, El-Tayeb's teachers included distinguished scholars such as Sheikh Abdallah Deraz, Ali Abdel-Qader and Abdel-Halim Mahmoud, who all managed to adapt their traditional upbringings to achieve coexistence with the foreign countries where they obtained their higher degrees.

"In college, we were introduced to seven doctrines, including those of the Shia and Sufism, and told they were all correct, something that distinguishes Al-Azhar from the world's other Islamic universities," El-Tayeb previously told the Weekly.

"Every student is free to follow the doctrine of his choice," and this has always meant that Egyptians are more tolerant, and less susceptible to extremist thinking, than people in some other Muslim countries, El-Tayeb said.

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