Ways forward for Al-Azhar
Al-Azhar's stance during the Egyptian revolution delivered a further blow to the institution's dwindling credibility, though this may be about to change, says Gihan Shahine
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Military officers meet members of Al-Azhar who seek to make the institution independent of the government
There was something odd about the Azharite imam of a mosque in the district of Nasr City in Cairo instructing worshippers not to participate in the then- ongoing demonstrations in January this year on the grounds that "obedience to the ruler is a religious duty." His sermon provoked public uproar and worshippers asked him to step down from the podium.
This incident epitomises the widening gap between the government-affiliated institution of Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's most prestigious seat of learning, and the Egyptian public as a whole. During the revolution that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, Al-Azhar adopted a discourse that largely toed the government line, further damaging the institution's already dwindling credibility.
However, all this may be about to change. Last weekend, thousands of Al-Azhar scholars protested against their loss of independence and the intervention of the state security in their work in front of the ruling Higher Council of the Armed Forces building.
According to the scholars, interviewed by the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Yom, under the previous regime state security "intervention included dictating the topics of Friday sermons to preachers." The "25 January Revolution has given us the hope of regaining our freedom," the scholars said.
However, this will be as a result of the revolution, for when the demonstrations peaked at the end of January the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, called for calm and issued statements about the need to end demonstrations and curb bloodshed. The statements did not mention the regime and kept silent about the bloody attacks orchestrated by the regime to scatter the demonstrators.
Instead of condemning the attacks, El-Tayeb rejected "civil strife", while the grand mufti at Al-Azhar, Ali Gomaa, issued an edict barring Muslims from praying in mosques on the "Friday of Departure", when demonstrators went out in their hundreds of thousands to put an end to the corrupt regime.
Sheikh Said Amer, the head of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee, which issues religious rulings, told the independent daily Al-Shorouk that protests were not a religiously acceptable means of expression. "They are haram [forbidden]," he told the newspaper, claiming that "religious scholars are unanimously against anti- government protests that may turn violent."
However, the prominent scholar Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, who heads the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), was quick to denounce such statements as either misguided or simply supportive of the authorities. Al-Azhar's official spokesman, Mohamed Rifaa El-Tahtawi, then also distanced himself from the institution's official discourse, submitting his resignation and joining the demonstrators. Several other Al-Azhar scholars similarly broke away from the institution's pro-government line, taking to the streets in their unique attire and calling for an end to the corrupt regime.
In the face of the official statements, El-Qaradawi, banned from preaching in Egypt for more than 30 years, broke through the barrier of fear and encouraged the demonstrators to continue their peaceful protests, which he defined as jihad in the face of tyranny, demanding an end to Mubarak's three-decade rule. The leader of the Shiite group Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, also stepped into the fray by giving a spirited speech defending the demonstrations as an act of jihad not just against corrupt autocratic rule, but also against Israel.
As the dust began to settle, Al-Azhar's official attitude towards the demonstrations hardly helped the credibility of the institution. Many agree with political analyst Hossam Tammam that "the official religious establishments, both Muslim and Christian, have been the biggest losers in the revolution." Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church, gave blatant support to the regime when he asked Egyptian Christians not to engage in anti-Mubarak demonstrations.
Yet, few people, whether Muslims or Christian, seemed to give much attention to such official calls. In fact, says Tammam, "the Egyptian revolution has completely reconfigured the religious scene and clarified the public's position towards religious institutions and discourses in the country. The result has been surprising. No one expected that religious Egyptians would be capable of overriding the powers of the religious institutions and of challenging religious discourses that they suddenly perceived to be part of a corrupt and repressive regime."
Nevertheless, much of the public will not have expected more from Al-Azhar, whose credibility has long been declining owing to its being seen as a mouthpiece for the government. Dependent on the state for funding, the institution's scholars have been turned into government employees sometimes more worried about their livelihoods than about the clarity of their religious discourse.
The grand sheikh and the mufti, the institution's two most prominent voices, have both been appointed by the government since the 1952 Revolution. Whereas the mufti can be replaced at any time, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar remains in office for life.
As a result, many would agree with Nabil Abdel-Fattah of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies that Al-Azhar has long been "used by rulers as a tool to justify authoritarian policies and garner public support for an autocratic regime." Al-Azhar's former grand sheikh, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who served a long term in office from 1996 until his death in March 2010, was a controversial figure who was often lambasted for being a government official willing to compromise the principles of Islam for the sake of state policies.
Many critics said that although the state has long used Al-Azhar as its mouthpiece, in some cases Tantawi went further than need be by reportedly volunteering fatwas pleasing to the regime. One controversial fatwa that placed Tantawi under fire was his religious legitimisation of the barrier on the Egyptian border with Gaza, which many saw as having been issued in favour of the regime at the expense of the lives of Palestinians. Tantawi was not against normalisation with Israel, and he was a critic of suicide bombing carried out in resistance to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Tantawi also described the boycotting of presidential elections as a sin, while staying quiet on issues such as allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Agriculture and the use of carcinogenic pesticides. According to Abdel-Fattah, Tantawi also avoided issues including "the regime's systematic violations of human rights, the state security abuse of prisoners, the widening gap between rich and poor, the president's remaining in power for 30 years, and the possible transfer of power to his son."
As a result, many people welcomed the appointment of Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, who had served as president of Al-Azhar University from 2003, as grand sheikh last year. A French-educated scholar, who was also Egypt's mufti until September 2003, El-Tayeb is an enlightened and moderate scholar with a philosophical background. It was widely thought at the time of his appointment that he would improve the image of the institution, severely damaged during his predecessor's term in office.
There were critics, however, who were apprehensive about the new grand sheikh's affiliation to the government as a member of the former ruling National Democratic Party. One former Muslim Brotherhood MP, Hamdi Hassan, let out a sigh of relief that Egypt's revolution "did not erupt during Tantawi's era, which would have been a farce for Al-Azhar." Yet, Hassan is not critical of El-Tayeb. "Nobody expected the revolution to overthrow the regime, and the grand sheikh, as a government employee, had to respect red lines," he said.
There has been a consensus among analysts that Al-Azhar will not regain its former grandeur just by changing the man at the helm. Instead, many observers insist that in order for this to happen Al-Azhar must regain its financial independence, such that scholars will not need to heed government policies.
Hassan believes that the right moment may now have come for this all-important change. "Egypt now enjoys an environment of freedom that will definitely give the grand sheikh the opportunity to revise his discourse and allow for change inside the institution," he said.
Indeed, for the first time in many years, the Grand Sheikh has begun to talk about democracy, freedom and human rights, as he did during a press conference following the ousting of Mubarak's regime. Pressing for a speedy transition to civilian rule with free and fair elections, El-Tayeb also called for laws outlawing all forms of torture and stricter control of the police and security forces.
Yet, perhaps even more importantly was El-Tayeb's call for future grand sheikhs of Al-Azhar to be elected by a council of scholars in Islamic Sharia law. This council would also be responsible for restricting the tenure of individuals elected to the position, formerly held for life by virtue of a presidential decree issued in 1952.
El-Tayeb rebutted claims that Al-Azhar had supported the regime during the revolution. "We did not, and we will not toady to the regime," he said. "Al-Azhar is a 1,000-year-old institution that is responsible to Muslims all over the world. It is not a tool in anyone's hands. It decides its views based on what it thinks is right, and it remains above governments and revolutions."
El-Tayeb said that Al-Azhar had "supported the demands of the young people from day one of the demonstrations, but we kept a distance from both sides fearing more bloodshed or the disintegration of the country." Al-Azhar had condemned the killing of protesters and had described those killed as "martyrs" rather than "victims", he said
Many, however, remain unconvinced. Abdel-Fattah said that a desire to halt the bloodshed was not a justification for Al-Azhar's negative stance towards the revolution since "those young protesters who went out to free the country knew that freedom had a price, which they were ready to pay."
"Both Al-Azhar and the Orthodox Church were part of the 'republic of fear' that those young middle-class demonstrators went out to overthrow," he said. Instead of instructing the protesters to go home, said university professor and political activist Yehia Qazzaz, the grand sheikh should have followed his role as "correcting the ruler and calling upon the president to step down in order to stop the bloodshed."
Both Abdel-Fattah and Qazzaz say that the grand sheikh, together with those in leading positions at Al-Azhar, should now resign to save Al-Azhar's credibility. "The grand sheikh, though a respectable and pious person, shot himself in the foot when he toed the government line at the beginning of the revolution. He lost his credibility," Qazzaz said.
Qazzaz puts little stock in the grand sheikh's post- revolutionary discourse promoting human rights and democracy. "It is no more than an attempt to save the face of the institution," he said. "But nobody is listening."
By contrast, a rapt audience of more than a million people gathered in Tahrir Square to listen to the Friday sermon delivered by El-Qaradawi in celebration of the uprising. The sermon was the first address El-Qaradawi has made in Egypt for 30 years, and in it he praised the young demonstrators who had toppled a "tyrannical pharaoh" and called upon Arab leaders to listen to the will of the people.
El-Qaradawi was applauded when he called for the conquest of Jerusalem. "I want to give a Friday sermon at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem," he said.
According to Qazzaz, people have gathered around El-Qaradawi because he employs "a moderate rhetoric reflecting the true spirit of Islam, which rebels against tyranny and injustice. This is a spirit that was unfortunately absent from Al-Azhar's statements."
One week after El-Qaradawi's sermon, again away from state-run mosques, an audience of at least 10,000 worshippers flooded one of the biggest squares in Sohag in Upper Egypt to hear superstar preacher Amr Khaled lead Friday prayers and deliver a sermon urging people to help rebuild the country. The sermon, the first delivered by Khaled after being banned from preaching in Egypt over the past ten years, was also very well received.
Khaled, whose moderate preaching and clever use of barrier-breaking technology has influenced the lives of millions of young Muslims around the world, has shifted his discourse from a purely spiritual message of piety and devotion to God to social development based on faith. Today, young people are told that rebuilding their country is part of their worship of God.
Observers agree that Al-Azhar now also needs to modernise its discourse if it is to regain credibility, something which Abdel-Fattah says can only happen with a change in the establishment's educational system. "Rote-learning techniques and the reproduction of the same old discourse using wooden language that belongs to the Middle Ages should be abandoned and replaced with creativity," he said.
Replacing those in leading positions and regaining Al-Azhar's financial independence are two other major steps in the same direction, he said. The Ministry of Religious Endowments, attached to the government in 1913, should be re-affiliated to Al-Azhar to help it regain its financial independence.
If these steps are not carried out, then Al-Azhar's decline will leave a vacuum that could be filled by other, sometimes faulty foreign schools of thought.