The Middle East Channel

The battle for al-Azhar

The battle for al-Azhar

Since becoming Egypt’s first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi has surprisingly done virtually nothing in the area of religion. He has appointed a new minister of education from the Muslim Brotherhood, but thus far has not pushed religious educational institutions toward a more Islamist approach. Over the past week, however, several controversial moves have sparked a public confrontation over Al-Azhar and the future of Egypt’s religious establishment. The battle for Al-Azhar could have profound repercussions for Egypt’s Islamic politics — and for the broader world of Sunni Islam.

Al-Azhar University, the oldest Sunni Muslim educational institution in the world, dominates Egypt’s mainstream Islamic institutions. The Azhar establishment has been viewed inside and outside of Egypt as tolerant, welcoming of engagement with modernity, and respectful of pluralism, within and without Islam. It’s been generally suspicious of the modernist Salafism that informed the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It frowns upon the politicization of religion, and its faculty broadly considers the modernist Salafi methodology favored by the Brotherhood unsound or weak. It is far more stridently opposed, openly so, of purist Salafism of the Saudi variety for creedal, juristic, and spiritual reasons. This is not new. When purist "Wahhabi" Salafism was first established in the 1700s, it was regarded as a heterodox movement by the Sunni religious establishment of that time on account of its extremes. Much of the Azhari establishment still considers it as such. Thousands of students come from around the world to study at the Al-Azhar every year, making it a key counter-weight to the Saudi universities that promote purist Salafism.

This accords with popular religious feelings in Egypt. Most Egyptian non-Islamist political forces recognize the importance of moderate religious institutions such as Al-Azhar in a country where religion is important for 96 percent of the Egyptian population (based on recurring Gallup polls). Al-Azhar enjoys the confidence of nearly all Egyptians (95 percent). The success of Islamist political movements does not mean that Egyptians embrace radical conceptions of Islam. For instance, in the aftermath of the January 25 uprising, some zealous Salafi adherents took advantage of the lack of security, and attempted to demolish the graves of Sufi saints in Egypt, against the decrees of the Azhari establishment. They were met with stiff resistance from the locals: culturally, Sufism is as ingrained into the traditional Muslim culture of Egypt as it is in the Azhar establishment.

But many Egyptians nonetheless have reservations about the Azhar’s structural flaws, the drop in educational standards, and the overall lack of faith in public educational institutions due to poor government policies. These have resulted in a substantial number of graduates, and even faculty, who are ignorant of its historical creed, as well as those actively opposed to it. Moreover, the deconstruction of much of its independence from the state, begun under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser but continued under successive administrations, has damaged the credibility of the Azhar domestically as well as internationally. Its firm institutional stance against al Qaeda-style radicalism worldwide, however, has overshadowed much of that criticism. Moreover, non-Islamist political forces consider the Azhar to be a bulwark against the more politicized MB or the puritanical purist Salafis who seek to dominate the post January 25 religious space.

Al-Azhar has taken center stage at several key moments in the revolution. The first was the day after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak when Sheikh al-Azhar announced that Azhar scholars would choose his successor, and any other successor after that, instead of the president of the republic. This followed long-standing criticism that Al-Azhar suffered from reliance on the state, and enjoyed little independence vis-à-vis the regime. The next moment came with the issuance of a constitutional principles document, which was built on the basis of consensus with many different political forces in society, with Al-Azhar acting as the convener. Not long thereafter, nearly every political and civil force in the country declared Al-Azhar, including the MB and most Salafi movements, to be the "Islamic frame of reference." These moves gave many Egyptians hope that Al-Azhar would recover its independence from the state, and speak truth to power when the situation called for it.

The new round of controversy began when a well-known Salafi cleric tweeted that he had been approached by Prime Minister Hisham Qandil to be the new minister of religious endowments, and had accepted the post. Such a new minister could encourage the official propagation of Salafism on the grassroots level through the imams and mosques under the ministry’s control, rather than maintain the traditional Azhari approach. There were other unconfirmed reports that the new government was considering appointing a MB leader as mufti in due course — another key role within the religious establishment of the Egyptian republic. The next logical and final step would be to install a Salafi in the role of Sheikh al-Azhar. Or to put it another way: to "Salafize" Al-Azhar’s establishment leadership.

The response of the Al-Azhar was firm: public denouncements were made, with letters being released to the press that indicated the opposition from within Al-Azhar to the proposed appointment. In the end, it was an Azhari who was appointed officially today, as the result of Al-Azhar’s pressure. In taking their criticism public, Al-Azhar stayed within the realm of legitimate civil activity for non-state actors in the new Egypt. What complicates matters are the reports that Sheikh Al-Azhar went to the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to express his disapproval at the appointment. A couple of days later, it was clear that the new government had backed down — but possibly at the expense of Al-Azhar being indebted to the armed forces for intervention in a civil and religious affair.

There are difficult times ahead for Al-Azhar’s establishment. There appear to be three options for it, the first being the obvious one of sacrificing its independence from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements, and allow the "Salafizing" of the establishment to take place. As noted above, this has serious implications. The second would be to align with the non-civil forces in the deep state whose aim is to minimize MB and Salafi influence in Egypt, which would also involve sacrificing its independence in the process. The more difficult route would be to chart another course, where it is engaged in critique of both the deep state and the MB. This would be, of course, the path chosen by individual prominent Azharis, such as Sheikh Emad Effat, who was popularly recognized as the "Sheikh of the Revolution." He was killed in the midst of clashes with military forces on Cairo’s streets in December 2011.

Many questions remain. Did the first post-Mubarak, civilian led government consider changing the religious establishment in this manner, especially with this kind of appointment? Does this represent a deepening of influence of purist Salafism within the Muslim Brotherhood? Does the MB intend to use its partisan political power in the future to accomplish "religious engineering" within Egypt? Is that a role that any Egyptian political power should have? But also –will Al-Azhar University withstand the pressures in this new religious space, and if so, how? Is it equipped to maintain its current official creed and simultaneously increase its independence from the state, calling its institutions and leaders to account when the situation calls for it? Clearly, the Egyptian revolution is not over yet, and its outcome will not only affect Egypt.

Dr. H. A. Hellyer is a geo-strategic expert on the MENA region, and was previously at Gallup, the Brookings Institution, and Warwick University. Follow him at www.hahellyer.com and @hahellyer.