Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

In search of ‘renewal’

Al-Azhar is at the centre of an escalating controversy, writes Amany Maged

Al-Ahram Weekly

Eight years ago an athletic display on Al-Azhar campus by Muslim Brotherhood students evolved into what became known as the Al-Azhar militias case. The students were accused of training to become a militarised group opposed to the state. It hogged the headlines for several weeks.

At the time, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, now the grand imam of Al-Azhar, was the rector of Al-Azhar University. In an interview with Al-Ahram daily he said that Al-Azhar, “as a mosque and a university,” needed to renew its religious discourse and revise its educational curricula. The Wahabi salafist trend had infiltrated the university, he said, propagated by professors who had worked in Saudi universities and then returned to Al-Azhar.

Since becoming grand imam, Al-Tayeb has worked to engineer that renewal. One measure he introduced was to ensure that books on Islamic history were taught free from the interventions of professors inclined to “colour” their instruction with Salafist or Muslim Brotherhood thought.

But Al-Azhar soon came under enormous pressure from Salafist and Brotherhood professors who resisted such reforms. Following the 25 January Revolution, when Islamist forces began to come into their own, Muslim Brothers and Salafists prepared for a conflict at Al-Azhar.

Disputes raged and tempers flared. The Salafists, who had plunged into the political fray, accused Al-Azhar officials of appeasing the state. Al-Azhar countered that the Salafists were extremists bent on moulding the university curriculum around their ideas.

Confrontations with the Muslim Brotherhood began long before they came to power. Reading the direction of the political winds, Al-Tayeb acted before the parliamentary elections that produced a Brotherhood-dominated parliament.

He pressed for a new law that would allow the grand imam to be elected by the college of senior ulema rather than appointed by the president. He then locked horns with the Muslim Brotherhood over the choice of mufti and parliamentary deputies for Al-Azhar. In both cases, the Muslim Brotherhood candidates were defeated.

The grand imam acknowledged that the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated Al-Azhar, just as it had other government institutions. Muslim Brothers would greet new students, pay their fees, offer them accommodation and other services. During Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations they paid students LE300 a day to take part.

Tensions between Al-Azhar and the Brotherhood surfaced on numerous occasions. One of the most striking occurred in 2012 when Mohamed Morsi was being sworn in as president. At the ceremony, which took place at Cairo University, the sheikh of Al-Azhar discovered that a seat had not been reserved for him in the front row with other senior officials. He left the assembly hall.

Incidents of this nature continued until the 30 June 2013 Revolution, when the grand imam aligned himself with then defence minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Al-Azhar immediately found itself targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood. An important part of the battle was the uninterrupted spate of student demonstrations that confirmed the extent to which the Brotherhood had infiltrated the university.

The blows kept coming. Al-Azhar faced an unprecedented wave of criticism for not declaring IS as heretic. Al-Tayeb said that IS had committed appalling acts against humanity and crimes against Muslims and non-Muslims alike and that it had to be fought with force and determination.

He supported this with the Quranic verse which states: “The punishment for those who wage war against God and his Prophet and who strive to sow corruption on earth is death, crucifixion, the severing of hands and feet on opposite sides or banishment from the land. This is the disgrace for them in this world and in the hereafter they will receive grievous torment.” But he did not explicitly declare that IS was heretic.

Al-Azhar also came under attack after Gaber Asfour became minister of culture for calling for a ban on the screening of films that deal with the lives of some prophets.

Al-Azhar appears to have painted itself into a corner. Although it supported the state, it now stands accused of betraying its reputation for moderation and turning into an institution that shelters and defends terrorists. This charge has gained ground due to the grand imam’s seemingly weak position on IS.

 Al-Azhar’s argument was that in the Ash’ari school of Sunni Islam, to which 90 per cent of Muslims subscribe, a person who has pronounced his faith in the oneness of God and the Prophet Mohamed cannot be accused of apostasy.

Some Al-Azhar officials have also been accused of harbouring pro-Muslim Brother sympathies. Recently a video clip, dating from two years ago, emerged on social media. The video shows Al-Azhar Undersecretary Abbas Shouman declaring his support for the constitutional declaration issued by Morsi in November 2012.

The Al-Azhar Teachers’ Club has called for the dismissal of officials accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Among those named are the editor-in-chief of Al-Azhar magazine, Mohamed Amara; Mohamed Al-Soleimani, who is Moroccan in origin; and Abbas Shouman.

The Al-Azhar Independence Movement has also called for their removal. In a statement to the press, the movement called on the three officials to resign in order to safeguard the reputation of Al-Azhar, saying that the institution’s credibility will be damaged by their continued presence in it.

Mohamed Salem Abu Assi, the official responsible for curricula development at Al-Azhar, has also been accused of “allegiance to Qatar”, where the professor lived and taught for many years.

Mohyeddin Afifi, the secretary-general of the Islamic Research Academy, insists that the sheikh of Al-Azhar’s nominations for positions are based on outstanding academic qualifications, and the candidates’ dedication to the mission of Al-Azhar as an institution committed to the principles of tolerance and opposed to all forms of extremism and terrorism.

Afifi stressed that Al-Azhar officials are not supporters of terrorism or groups that espouse violence, contrary to what is what is being put about in some quarters of the press.

According to Abbas Shouman, the recent attacks against himself and Al-Azhar in general are but one episode in a campaign to tarnish Al-Azhar, a powerful symbol of moderation. He believes the attacks are based on a poor understanding of the role of Al-Azhar and the provisions of Islamic jurisprudence (on which basis Al-Azhar did not explicitly pronounce IS members apostates).

He went so far as to suggest some foreign powers were conspiring to weaken Al-Azhar in order to further their own ends in Egypt.

One official in the office of the grand imam maintains that the attacks against Al-Azhar originate, in part at least, at the Ministry of Religious Endowments which, he claims, is trying to “pull the rug out from under Al-Azhar.”

He also accuses secularists of seeking to bend Al-Azhar to the service of their particular ideas and interests, and the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist of seeking to use the institution to further their own agendas.

The grand imam himself acknowledges how weak Al-Azhar has become. The situation is serious and requires concerted efforts, he said, adding that this is why committees have been formed to review and develop the curricula and eliminate the influence of Muslim Brothers and Salafists.

The process will take time and effort. It will also require coordinated efforts by several branches of government and the media.

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