As Al Azhar is thrown to politics, extremists are the only winners
The spread of extremism in Muslim societies in the past century can be attributed to a largely overlooked trend: the demise of religious institutions that once had global reach.
Moderate, diverse and transnational learning centres became localised and inward-looking because of momentous events such as the abolition of the caliphate system in Istanbul, the occupation of Jerusalem, the monopoly of Wahhabist ideology in Mecca and Madina, the dominance of the Khomeini doctrine in Qom and the weakening of the Najaf learning centre by Baathists and Khomeinists. These institutions have in many ways lost their religious global reach and yielded to provincialism.
Al Azhar University in Egypt, arguably the last bastion of pan-Islamic rationalism, appears to be facing a similar fate.
The newly approved Egyptian constitution has granted Al Azhar a codified independence and consultative powers. But, ironically, these provisions will prove to be to the detriment of Al Azhar's religious influence by dragging it into local political and religious bickering. Religious groups will seek to take over the centre and impose their own ideologies to bolster their political and religious standing.
Since it was established by the Fatimids in 972 to promote Ismaili doctrine, and then turned to a university three years later, Al Azhar has been involved in Egyptian affairs under the watchful eyes of the state. Abbas Hilmi, the last Khedive of Egypt, demanded that Al Azhar refrain from political activism, "riots" and "chaos of thought", and instead dedicate itself to "useful religious knowledge because it is a religious institution above all". The first time Al Azhar was officially integrated into the state was after the 23 July Revolution that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy, when its work and finances were legally regulated. Gamal Abdel Nasser instructed Al Azhar to "mobilise the public in all Islamic countries against Israel and the colonisers".
But despite such political interference, no previous leaders or occupiers sought to overhaul its basic doctrine, which endured since the institution adopted Sunni doctrine in the 12th century. Early Muslim rulers - Ayyubids, Mamluks and Ottomans - either shunned Al Azhar or did not interfere in its education system.
The situation is different now with the rise of Islamists in Egypt. In a video released last week, Sheikh Yassir Al Borhami, the deputy leader of Egypt's Salafi Calling movement, revealed a plot to oust Al Azhar's chief sheikh constitutionally.
The constitution has officially made Al Azhar into an Egyptian institution, instead of an Egypt-based Islamic institution that could be presided over by non-Egyptians, as was the case before. "Independence" does not mean sovereignty or immunity from takeover.
The institution is simply too important to fall in the hands of extremists. The university has branches in the United States, United Kingdom, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Somalia, Sudan, Palestine and Kuwait. And Azharite communities exist throughout the Muslim world, from Mauritania to India, and have been staunch advocates of tolerance, coexistence and dialogue. Al Azhar ascribes to the Asharite school, a religious doctrine that was responsible for rationalising Islamic theology in the 10th century.
Because global Azharites are not organised, Al Azhar's role in Egypt will likely weaken its branches and communities in other countries, making them susceptible to local influences. Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies are already spreading fast across the Muslim world, in tandem with the rise of Islamists in politics in several countries in the Middle East. Azharite communities, in countries where a power shift is taking place such as Syria, are also likely to be overshadowed by Salafist-leaning clergy.
Al Azhar traditionally has been an antidote to fundamentalist and sectarian trends. For decades, "moderate Islam" was attributed to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, but true moderation is represented by fundamentally rational institutions such as Al Azhar. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies do not ascribe to an ideology that upholds moderation and rationalism.
The Brotherhood, for example, is essentially a strand of Salafism, which is pragmatic only in its tactics; its susceptibility to extremism, fundamentalism and sectarianism is clear. Many committed members of the Brotherhood hold extremist and sectarian views, and groups affiliated with it have endorsed violence as a political strategy.
Al Azhar, on the other hand, is a truly rationalist and moderate school. If extremist ideologies take over the institution, they are likely to tamper with its curriculum, which would have global implications: the Asharite school has played a significant role in curbing extremism in Islamic societies for centuries.
What makes the eclipse of Al Azhar a deeply worrying possibility is that it is part of a wider trend, along with the rise of religious extremists. Mecca and Madina used to be places where Muslims exercised tolerance and coexistence through tutoring circles that represented all schools of thought; they are now exclusively Wahhabi requiring strict compliance with that definition of pure Islam.
A similar transformation has occurred in Najaf, Qom, Damascus and other learning centres. Jerusalem once was a centre where Muslims from across the spectrum worshipped together, with members of other faiths. These centres have now retreated to their locales and are subject to local politicking and narrow religious understandings.
This trend of provincialism among Islamic institutions has created a profound religious crisis that is likely to deepen if the institutions continue to lose their global reach. And yet little has been done to prevent or compensate for their demise.
On Twitter: @hhassan140
Updated: January 2, 2013 04:00 AM