The grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, played a major role in the incidents that ended with the military announcing the ouster of Egypt’s first-elected president Mohamed Morsi, also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The grand imam and Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic pope, were key attendees at the last-minute meeting held by Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi that agreed on the ouster of Morsi and the roadmap for a post-Morsi Egypt.
Al-Tayeb said in a statement that followed Al-Sisi’s announcement of Morsi’s removal on Egypt’s state television that he supported early presidential elections and the roadmap. “It was clear that we had to choose between two bitter choices,” he said, adding that he had chosen the less harmful solution to the political impasse the country had come to in opting to end Islamist rule.
Al-Tayeb had earlier called upon the ousted president to step down to end the bloodshed. More remarkably, perhaps, is the fact that the grand imam had also, and for the first time in Al-Azhar’s modern history, adopted a discourse that did not toe the government line.
Instead, Al-Tayeb was vocal in his support of the massive 30 June protests that ended the one-year Brotherhood rule, issuing several statements that praised the “peaceful protests”.
“The Egyptian people have surprised and inspired the world through the elegant expression of their peaceful demands,” Al-Tayeb said in a statement that stood in sharp contrast to those he issued during the 25 January Revolution, which clearly toed the government line.
Al-Tayeb also condemned reports of “the infiltration of gunmen into the anti-government protesters” who were demanding that Morsi step down. Although he did not specifically condemn attacks on Brotherhood offices nationwide, he insisted on the importance of “self-restraint”.
Al-Tayeb and Pope Tawadros II had reportedly declined an appeal by Morsi to issue statements dissuading their followers from joining the 30 June Revolution, according to Ahram Online.
“The carefully worded demand and the politely put refusal were made during an otherwise tense meeting that took place at the now heavily secured presidential palace,” the website wrote.
Al-Tayeb issued a religious edict saying that “peaceful opposition against a ruler is permissible according to Sharia Law” and “has nothing to do with belief or lack thereof”. However, he added that “armed opposition and violence would be a great sin”, though not an act of apostasy (kufr).
The edict was seen by Morsi’s supporters as perhaps giving the green light to the massive public dissent against Morsi, due to Al-Tayeb’s “historic opposition” to the Brotherhood.
Al-Tayeb said that he had to issue this statement since Al-Azhar, “which has always worked to unify the nation, finds itself compelled to comment on fatwas [religious edicts] issued by those who intrude on its jurisdiction.”
Some Islamist groups had earlier called those opposed to Morsi “infidels” in pro-Morsi protests ahead of the 30 June protests. A video of a popular Islamist preacher was posted on YouTube saying that those who were planning to join the 30 June protests were “unbelievers” because people should obey a ruler who was democratically elected.
The grand imam was quick to lambast such fatwas, insisting that “opposition has nothing to do with faith or disbelief”.
AL-AZHAR AND THE 25 JANUARY REVOLUTION: Such statements, however, stand in sharp contrast to those made by Al-Tayeb during the 25 January Revolution that brought down former president Hosni Mubarak. When the protests peaked, Al-Tayeb called for the “need to end the demonstrations and curb the bloodshed”.
Al-Tayeb’s statements at the time also kept silent about the bloody attacks orchestrated by the former Mubarak regime to scatter the demonstrators. Instead of condemning the attacks, Al-Tayeb rejected “civil strife”.
Sheikh Said Amer, head of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee at the time, which issues religious rulings, also told the independent daily Al-Shorouk that such 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.”
The subsequent change in the institution’s position has given Morsi’s supporters, as well as some critics inside the institution, a reason to claim that the grand imam’s fatwa should be viewed in the context of his historic opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and former brief affiliation to the policies committee of the now-dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP).
“The grand imam advised the Tahrir youth hours before [Mubarak’s stepping down] not to go to the square, fearing for their precious blood at the hands of a regime we all knew the true nature of. If only those who are now threatening the blood of Egyptians could similarly understand the meaning of protecting innocent lives,” Islamist preacher Safwat Higazi told a pro-Morsi rally in a statement later criticised by Al-Azhar scholars.
Meanwhile, the country’s liberal opposition and the protesters have praised Al-Azhar’s statements as indicating that the institution is now regaining its former grandeur and its independence from the state as a result of an amendment to the 1961 law bringing it under state control by Egypt’s former interim military government.
“Al-Azhar, as was the case with many other institutions, was simply part of the ‘republic of fear’ under Mubarak’s rule,” explained political analyst Adel Amer. “Al-Azhar was under the tight grip of state security, which used to review sermons and even infiltrate into university classes and listen to lectures.”
Today, however, the institution is no longer under the scrutiny of state security, Amer said. Thanks to the new Al-Azhar law, the institution’s grand imam has to consult senior scholars belonging to different schools of jurisprudence and known for their piety and academic achievements before he issues an edict, but he does not have to consult the state authorities.
“Al-Azhar is no doubt regaining its credibility, which was severely damaged under Mubarak. This is one of the major achievements of the 25 January Revolution,” Amer said. “For the first time in decades, the prestigious institution is not simply toeing the government line.”
A HAVEN FOR CONFLICTING POWERS: Since the 25 January Revolution, as Egypt’s political elite has become apparently increasingly bogged down in seemingly endless feuds over the Islamist-versus-liberal identity of post-revolutionary Egypt, Al-Azhar has emerged as perhaps the only universally respected institution capable of bringing about national unity, or at least dialogue, among the different views.
Such national dialogue has resulted in the production of several important documents providing guidelines for the relationship between Islam and politics in the country’s post-revolution period and in any new constitution.
The Al-Azhar documents have generally reiterated the institution’s support for the freedoms of religious affiliation, expression and belief, together with, and most importantly perhaps, the support for the rights of women and religious minorities that some have feared could be compromised under Islamist rule.
These documents have not only quelled fears of threatened liberties, but they have also been seen as an attempt on the part of Al-Azhar to reassert itself as the guardian of moderate Islam in the face of the rise of political Islam and Islamist rule.
When deadly clashes erupted following the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, killing at least 60 people, Al-Azhar asserted itself as the one national institution that the polarised political powers trusted and the only one capable of promoting national unity and dialogue among them.
The dialogue, which ended with a ten-point plan to renounce violence and stop the clashes in what was dubbed the “Al-Azhar Document on Renouncing Violence”, did not actually stop the bloodshed at the time, but it was another sign that Al-Azhar was gradually regaining its spiritual and religious leadership in Egypt and the Muslim world after the 25 January Revolution.
In the same vein, when more than 51 supporters of Egypt’s ousted former president Morsi were killed last week at the hands of the security forces in one of the deadliest episodes of violence since the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution, the grand imam again stepped into the fray with a reconciliation initiative aiming to stop the bloodshed and release detainees in order to avoid a possible “civil war”.
Five prominent Brotherhood figures have been jailed since Morsi’s fall, and Morsi himself is being held in detention in an unknown location.
The grand imam even took the unusual step of announcing that he would remain in seclusion until the bloodshed had stopped, a step sometimes taken by Coptic popes in cases of violence against Copts.
“Al-Tayeb’s announcement that he was going into seclusion was a symbolic but dramatic stance by a figure seen as a moral compass by many Egyptians and expressing his disgust with all sides in the events,” according to Reuters.
However, the move did not please Al-Tayeb’s critics, who saw it as little more than a political tactic to indicate his impartiality.
In defiance, perhaps, of what he saw as Al-Tayeb’s pro-military position, Sheikh Hassan Al-Shafie, a top Al-Azhar cleric and member of the Senior Scholars Association, broke his silence recently by releasing a statement saying that the 30 June Revolution was “a carefully plotted military coup under public cover that started a year ago when Morsi took over the presidency”.
Al-Shafie claimed that the protesters killed at the hands of security forces last week were not “terrorists”, as they have been described in the Egyptian media, adding that he personally knew ten people who were at the scene at the time of the massacre and insisting that the protests had been peaceful.
“I have spent 50 years of my life fighting terrorism, and I can safely say that those protesting in support of the ousted president are not terrorists,” Al-Shafie insisted.
His statement was ignored by the media, but Al-Shafie also said that he would not engage in the Al-Azhar reconciliation initiative without the release of all those being held in prison as a result of the 30 June Revolution, including Morsi himself, and the provision of state protection to pro-Morsi protesters in the same way that the military has been protecting the opposition to Morsi.
AL-AZHAR’S FORMER GLORY: This schism inside the institution aside, many observers, especially in the liberal and secular camp, still consider Al-Azhar’s recent initiatives to be reminiscent of the good old days when Al-Azhar established its intellectual and political leadership by fighting the injustices of rulers at the beginning of modern times.
According to a book entitled The Mission of Al-Azhar in the 20th Century by Ahmed Khaki, a deputy education minister in the 1960s, the institution’s leadership was “courted by Napoleon Bonaparte at the end of the 18th century, who recognised the need to take Al-Azhar’s views into account during the French campaign in Egypt”.
Napoleon “fully appreciated the political leverage of Islam, to the extent that it was said he had even read the Quran. He realised that Muslim political and social thought were essentially derived from the Holy Book,” Khaki wrote.
From that time forward, Azharites were very far from toeing the government line. Instead, many observers of Al-Azhar insist, the institution’s sheikhs would correct rulers when they were wrong, support them when they were right, and never seek official positions by doing so. This was the modern version of a system that had lasted for more than 800 years.
Al-Azhar scholars took historic roles in standing up “to the French Expedition and the British occupation” and “against oppressive rulers,” according to researcher Ibrahim Al-Hodaibi.
In a recently-published Ahram Online article, Al-Hodaibi gave examples such as those of “Sheikh Al-Biguri, who was famous for his firm position against Abbas Helmi, and Sheikh Al-Dardeer, who led strikes by students, sheikhs and merchants to protest at levies, along with Sheikh Al-Bishri, who fought for the independence of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Al-Kharashi, whom Egyptians sought out to resolve their problems, and Al-Attar, Al-Nawawi, Al-Sharkawi, Aleesh and other Al-Azhar sheikhs and senior scholars who upheld its traditional doctrine.”
LOSS OF INDEPENDENCE: However, the gradual demise of this independent role started with the institution’s dismantling at the turn of the 20th century, when the waqf and fatwa councils were removed from the mother institution with the appointment of Sheikh Mohamed Abdu as Egypt’s mufti in 1897.
The mufti and the minister of religious endowments subsequently became figures of almost equal authority to Al-Azhar’s grand imam.
Intended as a political decision meant to provide the government with alternative sources of fatwas in cases where it did not agree with the opinion of the grand imam of Al-Azhar, this move not only weakened Al-Azhar, but also undermined its credibility, according to Sheikh Gamal Kotb, a former head of the Al-Azhar fatwa committee.
In 1913, the Ministry of Religious Endowments was officially attached to the cabinet by virtue of a decree issued by the British ambassador to Egypt. The ministry operated under dual British-French supervision, and Egypt’s ruler, the khedive, had control over the country’s preachers, who were appointed and paid by the Ministry of Religious Endowments.
Any preacher who criticised the khedive was dismissed and replaced.
Al-Azhar itself soon became dependent on state funding, and since the 1952 Revolution the grand sheikh and the mufti, the institution’s two most prominent voices, have been appointed by the government. While the mufti can be replaced at any time, the grand imam of Al-Azhar remains in office for life.
This loss of independence then progressively turned the institution into a government institution with little public credibility, meaning that the carpet was gradually pulled out from under it. Dependent on the state for funding, Amer explained that “some Al-Azhar scholars felt compelled to build their edicts on weak traditions for fear of losing their livelihoods” if they offended the state authorities.
There has been a near-consensus among analysts that Al-Azhar was used by late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and late president Anwar Al-Sadat to justify and garner support for their policies.
Al-Azhar still managed to keep some of its credibility, however, even as this was further lost under the former Mubarak regime, which used the institution as a tool to justify its authoritarian and autocratic policies. Al-Azhar’s former grand imam, the late Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who served a long term in office from 1996 until his death in March 2010, was widely criticised for having issued many controversial, sometimes even provocative, fatwas pleasing to the former regime.
In the meantime, Al-Azhar’s increasing dependence on the government also placed a tight lid on its academic life, which, according to Kotb, created an environment of “inner repression” and self-censorship, in which professors felt reluctant to modernise their views.
The 1961 law also forced Al-Azhar schools to teach the same textbooks as those taught in public schools, in addition to their own curriculum of Islamic teachings, undermining the standards of the institution’s heavily-loaded students.
The result was that a generation of Al-Azhar preachers was formed that had few skills and little credibility to reach out to the people, leaving the ground open for alternative, sometimes unreliable, sources of fatwas, and other foreign schools of thought.
The fact that few people among Egypt’s largely-religious population actually heeded Al-Tayeb’s calls to end the 25 January protests is perhaps an indication of how the official institution of Al-Azhar was “perceived to be part of a corrupt and repressive regime” at that time, as the late political analyst Hossam Tammam noted at the time of the revolution.
This loss of credibility and the creeping state control over Al-Azhar have also been widely blamed as one of the reasons behind the rise of political Islam in Egypt.
“Over recent decades, the state’s control over Al-Azhar has made it into a tool to justify its methods of governance in a way that put the institution into conflict with the Islamists,” according to Al-Hodaibi. Al-Azhar was thus turned from “a religious authority to an opponent in the eyes of the Islamists, who tended to seek alternative sources of knowledge”.
“This also contributed, along with other social and economic factors, to the creation of grassroots social and religious currents that are alien to Egypt’s character,” Al-Hodaibi added. “Some of them found space to manoeuver in the fragmented Al-Azhar, and from there they launched into wider social realms that redefined Al-Azhar and its doctrine in the minds of many.”
REVOLUTIONARY TURBANS: However, soon after the ouster of the corrupt Mubarak regime, the tsunami of political and democratic changes sweeping the country reached the corridors of Al-Azhar.
After the ouster of Mubarak, thousands of Al-Azhar scholars protested against their loss of independence and the intervention of the state security into their work before the offices of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which ruled the country during the transitional period.
“Many institutions, including Al-Azhar, were suppressed under the former regime and thus felt they were freer and could strike out on their own when the president was forced out,” wrote senior Carnegie researcher Nathan Brown in a study entitled “Islam and politics in the new Egypt”.
“For many such institutions, the revolution provided an opportunity to throw off presidential shackles and press for fuller autonomy. Stifled institutions could now speak more freely.”
Al-Azhar, in particular, had always been considered the guardian of moderate Islamic discourse in the Sunni world, and many inside and outside the institution had always insisted that its loss of public credibility could lead to extremism.
With that in mind, the grand imam has sought to use his political agility and, perhaps, good connections — due to his former brief membership of the former ruling NDP — to grab the chance for renewed independence from the state.
Al-Tayeb hastened to bring pressure for the amendment of the 1961 law, helping the institution to regain part of its autonomy and relative independence from the executive, with the help of SCAF, the latter passing a new law regulating Al-Azhar only four days before the then Islamist-dominated parliament convened its first session.
THE NEW AL-AZHAR LAW: This law, kept under wraps until it was passed by SCAF and ratified by the cabinet, stipulated the reinstitution of the 40-member Senior Scholars Authority at Al-Azhar, granting this the authority to elect a new grand imam, instead of having him appointed by virtue of a presidential decree, as well as nominating the mufti.
Brown explained that “Al-Tayeb made sure that the law was issued in accordance with his view of the institution’s proper structure and centrality.”
Critics charged that the new law was tailored to help current officials remain in place, however, since it stipulated that the current grand imam would select the members of the Senior Scholars Authority and that these would then elect the next one. The law in its current form also maintains a previously controversial article stipulating that the grand imam remains in office for life.
In the meantime, the law does not give Al-Azhar financial independence from the state, and it ignores calls that the institution should regain the control over religious endowments that it had in the past.
There is agreement that the law was kept under wraps, and away from the scrutiny of Islamist MPs, because it was designed in such a way as to allow the grand imam to protect the traditional wasati (moderate) identity of the institution and of the old elite away from any possible penetration by the Brotherhood or the Salafis.
In that vein, many welcomed the election of mufti Shawki Allam, in succession of Sheikh Ali Gomaa, by the Senior Scholars Authority for the first time in modern history as a great stride towards Al-Azhar’s independence from the state.
Just as important, perhaps, as the fact of the election, is the fact that Allam, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at the University of Tanta, has no political affiliations or ties with any political groups, yet another sign that Al-Azhar’s Dar Al-Ifta has been trying to regain its purely religious role and credibility by steering clear of politics.
AL-AZHAR AND THE BROTHERHOOD: Yet, these recently-acquired legal and legislative powers can also be seen within the larger framework of the murky relations between the Brotherhood and Al-Azhar.
“From Mohamed Ali to Mohamed Morsi, modern Egyptian leaders have understood that any attempt to control the state without the endorsement, if not blatant co-option, of key institutions such as Al-Azhar is an ill-fated pursuit,” noted researcher Ahmed Morsi in a study entitled “The Grand Sheikh and the President” published by the Middle East Research Institute.
The fact that Al-Azhar was trying to assert its independence was thus seen by the researcher as a “headache” for the ousted president, posing “a range of direct and indirect challenges to his [now removed] authority and, more broadly, to the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.”
According to Ahmed Morsi, the friction between the Brotherhood and Al-Azhar dates back to the British occupation of Egypt when Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna “was sceptical about the weak role of Al-Azhar in opposing the British occupation of Egypt”.
“Unlike Mohamed Abdu’s call for Islamic revivalism and critical thinking, Al-Banna advocated a stricter version of Islam, as he believed that all of Egypt’s ‘illnesses’ — such as poverty, corruption and occupation — were a result of adopting Western values and failing to adhere to Islam,” Ahmed Morsi wrote.
This friction then developed into antagonism when the Brotherhood members were attacked and imprisoned by the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. According to Ahmed Morsi, Al-Azhar seemed to toe the Nasser government’s line at the time, issuing “several statements that portrayed the Brotherhood’s ideology as a threat to social cohesion”.
Many Brotherhood members have perhaps found it difficult to forget this, or have “never forgiven Al-Azhar for this betrayal or the way that Al-Azhar became a tool of subsequent regimes against the Brotherhood”, the researcher speculated.
Al-Tayeb himself was known for his hardline stance against the Brotherhood when it was still an outlawed opposition group. In 2006, Al-Tayeb condemned a military-style parade by Brotherhood students on the Al-Azhar University campus in his capacity as the then president of the University, charging that they had worn black facemasks “like Hamas, Hizbullah and the Republican Guard in Iran”.
Ultra-conservative Salafis, who largely supported Mohamed Morsi, were similarly unhappy with Al-Tayeb’s previous support of his predecessor’s ban on the niqab, or full face veil, among female Al-Azhar students on the grounds that this was not a religious obligation in Islam.
Observers referred to an incident when Al-Tayeb was seated at the back during Morsi’s inauguration ceremony at Cairo University, later apologised for by Morsi as an “organisational error” after the grand imam walked out of the ceremony in protest at what he saw as an act of disrespect and perhaps a case of Brotherhood coolness toward him.
There was also the claim that the Brotherhood was attempting to impose its hegemony over the ancient institution, as was the case with other institutions during Morsi’s rule, a claim that Brotherhood members have repeatedly denied.
Amer said that at least 5,000 Al-Azhar members, ranging from lecturers to administrative personnel, who were suspended from their work in Al-Azhar due to their direct or indirect affiliation to the Brotherhood or Salafist groups, were re-institutionalised under Morsi. As Brown illustrated in his study, “the farther one moves down the hierarchy of Al-Azhar, from deans to faculty to the student body, the more numerous Brotherhood followers and even Salafis become.”
In the viewpoint of Amer, the revision to the 1961 law under the SCAF was intended to keep those not adhering to the moderate Al-Azhar tradition away from penetrating the Senior Scholars Authority that elects the grand imam and mufti.
Whereas the Salafis have been accused of trying to seep into Al-Azhar’s ranks, Adel also speculated that “imposing Brotherhood hegemony over the Sunni world’s most prestigious institution was also part of the Brotherhood agenda, which would ultimately help them attain their dream of building a new caliphate.”
That said, however, “the Brotherhood made no move to change the law, and Al-Tayeb proceeded very cautiously with his appointments to the body,” Brown noted. The grand imam selected the members of the body in a way that “clearly leans heavily in Al-Tayeb’s direction”, however, even if Morsi, “in one of his first official actions, signed off on the sheikh’s appointments.”
Al-Azhar also received Salafist support in its bid to expand its legislative powers in the now-invalidated new constitution. This stipulated in Article 4 that Al-Azhar was the sole institution in Egypt with authority over Islamic religious matters.
The institution also seemed to be keen on using its legislative powers when it insisted it had the right to review the controversial Islamic bond (sukuk) law before it was passed by the former regime. Al-Azhar forced “an embarrassed Morsi” to include nine amendments to the law, which were approved by the now-dismantled Shura Council and ratified by the ousted president in May.
Al-Azhar student protests over a recent food-poisoning scandal in Al-Azhar dorms, during which Al-Azhar students called for the dismissal of the University’s president and his top aides, some of them even going so far as to call for the removal of Al-Tayeb, have also been seen in this context.
The liberal opposition has speculated that the Brotherhood, which has dominated the Al-Azhar student unions, staged the student protests in an attempt to discredit the grand imam and perhaps replace him with a Brotherhood sympathiser.
It then itself staged massive protests in support of Al-Tayeb, who the opposition suddenly rallied around when it perceived that he could act as a guardian against a perceived Islamist threat, using slogans like Al-Azhar “is a red line”.
SHOULD AL-AZHAR BE ENGAGED IN POLITICS?: The “new centrality” enjoyed by Al-Azhar in Egypt’s political life is also likely to “keep the battle for control of the institution very much alive”, again risking its autonomy, Brown speculated.
“If anything, pressure from inside and outside the institution is likely to become stronger,” Brown said, adding that Al-Azhar may find itself “at risk of becoming a political football, or perhaps a better sporting metaphor would be to describe it as potential political playing field.”
Many voices from within Al-Azhar itself are already critical of the grand imam for what they feel to be his exaggerated engagement in politics, and, according to Brown, “the bulk of Al-Azhar scholars seem to feel that their proper role is to serve as an independent voice for Islam and the public interest.”
Al-Hodaibi is among those contending that the stratification of the centuries-old institution, and its getting bogged down in politics, has actually alienated the university from its proper educational role.
“The legitimate Al-Azhar was not the Al-Azhar of the 20th century that was under the control of the state, but the independent institution of learning that thrived long before, teaching the Sharia through substantiated motoon (textbooks), shorouh (textbooks with the annotations of a scholar from a different generation) and hawashi (annotated textbooks with the further detailed notes of a scholar from a different generation),” Al-Hodaibi wrote in Ahram Online.
“Its scholars belonged to the doctrinal beliefs of Al-Ashari and Al-Matreedi, the four imams of jurisprudence, and the seven schools of Sufism, which established balanced identities, balancing doctrinal belief and behavioural choices, and school, place and familial affiliations.”
However, argues Amer, the recent rise of the Islamists to power was the reason why “Al-Azhar felt compelled to engage into politics”. Amer contends that Al-Azhar will also have an important role to play in the coming period, defining the religious aspects of post-Morsi Egypt.
Yet, Al-Hodaibi insists that for Al-Azhar to be successful in defending moderate Islam it should focus on educating students and others in its original doctrines. Instead of engaging in politics and getting into confrontations with the Islamists, Al-Hodaibi suggests that Al-Azhar should focus instead on attracting the younger generations of Islamists and properly educating them.
“That is the only way to protect Al-Azhar’s tradition and wasati Islam,” Al-Hodaibi insisted.