Dalia Rabie
Last updated: 12 November, 2012

Al-Azhar – an age-old institution in a new Egypt

With the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt, the role of Al-Azhar – the leading religious establishment within Sunni Islam – is by default becoming more vital. However, its relationship with the current government is yet to be defined, with pundits divided on whether the age-old institution’s sovereignty is threatened.

Founded under the Fatimid Dynasty and having withstood various political and social currents, Al-Azhar’s independence was often brought into question.

An Azhar scholar, who prefers to remain anonymous, explains that the institution is on a downward spiral, which he traces back to the era of Muhammad Ali, followed by the French and British occupations, up until Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule. He said that while the institution’s status and role has fluctuated throughout its history, it will continue to deteriorate if it was to remain under state control.

The scholar cited Law 103 of 1961, under Nasser’s rule, which “seized” the institution by placing it under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Endowments. This law granted the president the authority to appoint the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar.

“As long as Al-Azhar is under state control, it will be easily swayed by any political current,” he lamented, “it will not only follow the president, it will follow what is lower than the president.”

He attributes restoring Al-Azhar’s methods and dominion to the current Grand Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, but said that it is unfortunately going unnoticed.

Since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and under El-Tayeb, Al-Azhar has carved itself a more prominent role in the “new Egypt,” demonstrated in several measures, the most prominent of which was the issuance of a statement known as the “Azhar Document,” outlining the institution’s vision on important political, social and economic issues.

The document, which includes 11 articles, was the outcome of discussions between Al-Azhar officials and several high-profile intellectuals and religious figures.

Moreover, earlier this year El-Tayeb proposed a draft law stipulating that the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar will no longer be appointed by the president, but will instead be elected by members of the Council of Scholars, a body dissolved half a century ago but restored this year.

The draft law was approved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the then de-facto ruler of the country.

The council includes scholars from Egypt and the Islamic world appointed by El-Tayeb. In their first meeting headed in September, members of the council highlighted the need for Al-Azhar to achieve full independence.

The latest of similar measures was Al-Azhar’s decision to work with the Ministry of Education to reform the educational system in Egypt late last month. In a statement released by Al-Azhar, El-Tayeb highlighted the importance of education saying this is a new era of modern Egypt.

But the anonymous Azhar scholar said that El-Tayeb’s efforts are accomplished in the shadow of a revolution, adding that he fears that he is being looked at as a remnant of the former regime.

He predicts that this may be used as an excuse to replace him, a concern also shared by Diaa Rashwan, political analyst and director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, who believes that the Muslim Brotherhood might seek to eventually have one of their own sit as the Grand Sheikh.

Under Mubarak, Al-Azhar was criticized for serving the regime’s interests. However, according to Abdel Moety Ibrahim, founder and official spokesperson of Azhareyoon Bila Hodood (Azharis without Borders), the days when Al-Azhar pandered to the ruler are long gone.

Azharis without Borders is a movement that was started in late 2011 to restore Al-Azhar’s position as the main source of reference for Islam.

The new generation of Azhar graduates is charged with a post-January 25 mentality that will refuse to serve the president, Ibrahim explained. He said that the differences between Al-Azhar and the current ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, are political rather than differences in the “mentality.”

“We are all Muslims, we are all brothers,” Ibrahim said, “There are no religious differences.”

He said that Egyptians by nature lean towards religiosity but prefer moderation, so in turn no one objects to implementing Sharia.

However, Al-Azhar will stand up against any attempts to manipulate interpretations of Sharia to serve personal agendas, he said.

Ibrahim said the current regime is unlikely to influence Al-Azhar that has been subjected to, and still includes, different currents and ideologies.

“With all due respect to the Muslim Brotherhood, but their members do not exceed three million people, Al-Azhar is a lot stronger than to be affected by any ideology,” he said.

The Muslim Brotherhood have a turbulent history with Al-Azhar, even though the group’s founder Hassan El-Banna was a graduate of Al-Azhar himself and to this day a large number of Brotherhood members attend the university.

In 2006 a group of Brotherhood-affiliated students dressed in militia outfits held a martial demonstration on Al-Azhar’s campus.

El-Tayeb, who was the head of the university at the time, condemned the act, likening it to that of groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

While Rashwan acknowledges the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Azhar, he believes it is unlikely to affect the latter’s sovereignty.

Rashwan said that although there are Brotherhood elements inside Al-Azhar, it will remain an independent institution.

On the other hand, Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, explained that although the Muslim Brotherhood says it wants an independent Al-Azhar, not one subject to political pressure, “they also want one to empower the scholars within the institution in a manner that might weaken the current (Grand Sheikh).”

Brown, who has written extensively on Arab politics, including a research paper titled “Post Revolutionary Al-Azhar,” for the Carnegie Endowment, said that it is yet unclear what the Muslim Brotherhood would do in practice.

The Muslim Brotherhood has denounced the law that reinstates the Council of Scholars, approved by SCAF. According to Brown, the group’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party wanted to change the law, but did not make it a priority when the parliament convened. President Mohamed Morsi also formally issued a decree appointing those named by El-Tayeb to the council.

“For this reason, I suspect that is not an immediate priority. But I think over the longer term will want to keep the council but make it elected by the scholars within the Al-Azhar and they will also want to strengthen its oversight of Al-Azhar as a whole,” Brown explained.

Article 4 of the draft constitution guarantees Al-Azhar’s independence and states that the Council of Senior Scholars is to be consulted on issued related to Islamic Sharia, after Al-Azhar rejected last September a proposal making it the final reference for the interpretation of the principles of Sharia and Islamic jurisprudence.

This came following a meeting with different political parties as well as the Coptic Church, where they agreed to keep Article 2 as is in the would-be constitution. Article 2, the subject of much contention, stipulates that Islam is the religion of the State, Arabic is its official language and the principles of the Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation.  

On the other hand, earlier this month, Al-Azhar ‘s representatives in the constituent assembly were quick to object to another recent proposal for the article on Al-Azhar to include provisions for electing the Grand sheikh and determining an age for his retirement.

The coming period will be vital in determining Al-Azhar’s status in Egypt and the Arab world. However, for Azharis without Borders, it is time for the institution to work towards other goals such as uniting Muslims together and restoring its leading role on a global scale.

Ibrahim said that it will not be limited to a political or religious role, but will rather work on reaching out to people, since “the coming phase especially needs Al-Azhar.”