For months Al-Azhar and its Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb have faced heated criticism for failing to combat extremism. Such criticism has been amplified in the wake of the Palm Sunday bombings of the Church of St George in Tanta and St Mark’s Church in Alexandria, reaching the point where some journalists, intellectuals and MPs have demanded the grand imam resign. Under current laws he cannot be dismissed. In response, Al-Azhar officials and scholars rushed to defend their institution.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has repeatedly called for the renewal of religious discourse. He has urged a “religious revolution” that would marginalise ideas and texts that may have been current for centuries but that are now a source of anxiety for the whole world.
Last year Al-Azhar came under attack after issuing a statement which refused to designate the Islamic State (IS) as a heretic organisation. It is a line of attack that has once again been taken up. Writer and columnist Ibrahim Eissa recently accused Al-Azhar of espousing IS-like ideas. Another media figure, Amr Adib, holds it responsible for the decline in moderate religious discourse and the spread of extremism.
Parliament, too, has begun to wag its fingers. MP Mohamed Abu Hamed of the Solidarity Committee has accused institutions charged with renewing religious discourse of not doing their job. He demanded Al-Azhar condemn absolutist thought and promote openness to others “in accordance with the true teachings of Islam in the Quran and Sunna, adding that the absence of a legal framework regulating the functioning of Al-Azhar leaderships has led to the failure to perform its required duties which is why he has decided to propose a bill amending the law governing Al-Azhar.
Under the proposed law agencies would be designated direct responsibility for monitoring and reviewing educational curricula in Al-Azhar schools and colleges with an eye on sifting out material or subject matter that supports extremist thought. Others would be responsible for pursuing measures to renew religious discourse. The bill also includes provisions penalising any religious leader issuing fatwas that incite violence and bloodshed.
The writer Fatima Naout is among those who believe Al-Azhar is indirectly responsible for the spread of extremist thought.
“Ideological terrorism” is the way “toxic ideas that poison the minds of youth” are spread, she said. “I am not attacking the ancient institution of Al-Azhar,” she insists. “What I am doing is calling on it to fulfil its responsibility to raise awareness that Islam is not a faith of violence but a faith of tolerance.”
Naout has reproached Al-Azhar for its failure to eliminate subject matter that fosters violence from the curricula and to unequivocally disassociate Islam from extremism. She explains that certain combat-related Medina suras from the Quran, which apply only to the circumstances in place at the time the Prophet Mohamed was in Medina, are being used by some people “as a pretext to kill Copts and others”.
In remarks to the press Naout said Al-Azhar needs to explain that these verses relate to a specific historical period and cannot be used by terrorists to promote actions contrary to the original intent at the time of revelation. “Al-Azhar must perform its role in the drive to renew religious discourse if it wants to spare bloodshed,” she said.
Al-Azhar officials and scholars rose to the defence of their institution. Ahmed Omar Hashem, a member of the Organisation of Senior Al-Azhar Ulema, insists Al-Azhar is doing its job in updating religious discourse. “Renewing religious discourse is one of the duties commanded by the prophet. Al-Azhar is performing that duty,” he says.
Hashem stresses that the renewal of religious discourse cannot involve the altering of Quranic texts or Sunna and that Al-Azhar was thoroughly engaged in reviewing and updating books currently being used in class.
He also points out that decisions at Al-Azhar are not just taken by the grand imam, his deputy or the rector of Al-Azhar University. “There is also the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar, the Islamic Research Academy and the Organisation of Senior Ulema. All these bodies study decisions that are submitted for their consideration before they are issued.”
It takes moderate thought to counter extremist thought, says Hashem. During the dialogue with radical groups in the 1980s and 1990s, whether in prisons, in universities or elsewhere, it turned out, says Hashem, that “the majority of them were not Al-Azhar graduates.”
“Rarely do we find an Al-Ahzar affiliate in such groups which are made up mainly of deluded youth.”
As to why Al-Azhar has not condemned IS as a heretical organisation, Hashem says condemnation for heresy does not apply to IS but to “all who wrongfully kill a soul”. No one who has pronounced the Islamic declaration of faith can be declared a kafir (unbeliever), he argues, though anyone who has pronounced the declaration of faith and then sanctioned the bloodshed of Muslims will be deemed to have “deviated from Islam”.
President Al-Sisi’s call to Al-Azhar to renovate religious discourse was “healthy, because this is constructive criticism and we welcome constructive criticism. However, destructive criticism is not in the interest of Al-Azhar, or of Egypt or of Islam in general”.
According to Hashem, Al-Sisi has called for the renewal of religious discourse “out of his love for Al-Azhar and because he wants it to rise to respond to those who harm Islam and use its texts for the purpose of terrorism”.
Mohamed Al-Shahat Al-Guindi, a member of the Islamic Research Academy and former Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, argues that recent criticisms of Al-Azhar constitute a “systematic attack” rather than constructive criticism. In remarks to the press he said: “If the attackers wanted to serve the interests of the faith and the nation they should have met with representatives of Al-Azhar and expressed their criticisms, presented their ideas on how to remedy the spread of extremist thought and clarified what they believe is wrong with religious discourse. However, they chose the easiest course which was to attack the institution.”
Al-Guindi argues it is unjust to hold Al-Azhar, alone, responsible for the fact that some people subscribe to extremist ideas and carry out terrorist attacks. Other institutions — schools and colleges, the family, media and economic organisations — also shared the blame. “We need to acknowledge this so that we can come to a correct understanding of the current dilemma,” he stressed, adding that it was necessary to give Al-Azhar a chance because “it takes time to reorient thought and set it on the right path towards the correct understanding of the faith.”