A coalition of young sheikhs and imams attached to the renowned Al Azhar university and mosque is pressuring it to end its longtime alliance with the Egyptian government.
Coalition at Al Azhar wants to end alliance with Egyptian government
CAIRO // The upheaval that began last year in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Cairo and Benghazi has left no government ministry or parliament in the Arab world untouched. Now, the ferment has crept into the worldwide centre of Sunni Islamic learning: Al Azhar.
A coalition of young sheikhs and imams attached to the renowned university and mosque is pressuring it to end its longtime alliance with the Egyptian government. In their view, the 1,000-year-old institution has become a tool used by government officials to quell dissent. They have been joined in their demand for reform by the Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential force in Egypt's new, democratically elected parliament.
Deftly taking advantage of their power to appoint Al Azhar's Grand Sheikh, successive Egyptian presidents starting with President Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1961 have benefited from the government-friendly fatwas issued by the institution - to the detriment of the institution, say the reform-minded young clerics.
The struggle among the clerics of Al Azhar over whether the venerable institution should declare its independence from the Egyptian state could have more far-reaching repercussions than the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak. For more than a billion of the world's Sunni Muslims, the views and policies promulgated by Al Azhar are seen as an authoritative counterweight to extremist movements within Islam.
The clash over Al Azhar's ties to the Egyptian government flared in the waning days of Mubarak's rule, with a generation of young clerics seeing the protests for political change in Cairo's streets as an historic opportunity to push for the religious reforms they had long sought.
The grievances of the clerics, who call themselves the Coalition of Revered Al Azhar Pundits, stem from what they feared was the institution's lapse into irrelevance amid a cacophony of powerfully amplified voices competing for the minds and hearts of young Muslims, according to Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy.
"The role of Al Azhar has been diminished over the years because it lost its independence," Mr Masmoudi said. "When Al Azhar and other moderate scholars and leaders lose independence and credibility, the people and especially the youth turn to satellite channel stations dominated by the [extremist] Salafis and the Wahhabis."
After Mubarak was forced from office, Egypt's new rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), were sufficiently attuned to the disquiet at Al Azhar to rush through a law in January that they said would give it greater autonomy.
The law, approved just days before Egypt's new parliament was sworn in, reactivated the Senior Scholars Authority, a group of 40 senior Azhar officials, as the sole body for appointing a new leader.
Members of the Coalition of Revered Al Azhar Pundits remain dissatisfied.
They have criticised the new law, saying it preserves the status quo by allowing the current Grand Sheikh, Ahmed El Tayeb, a scholar appointed to the top position of Al Azhar by Mubarak in 2010, to stay in power until he dies or is no longer fit for his post.
Their calls to overturn the law have received the support of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, which now enjoys the largest bloc of seats in parliament.
"Both the Azhar institution and Scaf will be mistaken if the bill is ratified since it bypasses elected parliamentarians chosen to represent the will of the people and treads on their mandate," Khairat Al Shater, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, said after the law was published.
Rabei Marzouk, a coalition spokesman and the imam of Al Rahman mosque on the island of Zamalek in Cairo, said his group of 11,000 Azhar sheikhs are now working with the new religious committee of the parliament to repeal the law.
"The Grand Sheikh only sees Al Azhar as a university, not as the point of reference for all the Sunni people in the world," Mr Marzouk said. "The new law only creates independence in name. In practice, it is the same as before."
Besides their opposition to Ahmed El Tayeb's lifetime tenure, Mr Marzouk and other dissenters object to a stipulation in the new law that allows the Grand Sheikh to appoint the Senior Scholars Authority, which they say discourages fresh thinking.
The coalition's draft law calls for an immediate election of a new panel, open to voters from a broad cross-section of the Al Azhar community. In turn, the newly-constituted authority would appoint a new Grand Sheikh.
It also calls for the minimum age of the Grand Sheikh to be set at 45 instead of 55 and demands that control of Al Azhar's vast land holdings be returned to the institution. Currently, the government's Ministry of Awqaf manages these real estate holdings.
Supporters of Sheikh El Tayeb dispute the portrayal of him as a yes-man to Egypt's rulers.
A member of Mubarak's now banned National Democratic Party (NDP), the Grand Sheikh supported the revolution from the "early days" of the uprising, recalled Sheikh Hassan Shafi'e, who serves as an adviser to the Grand Sheikh.
Sheikh Shafi'e also cited the position papers published under the Grand Sheikh's guidance that addressed freedom of expression and the need for a democratic and constitutional state.
Furthermore, he said, the push for Al Azhar's independence from the state has "been on our minds for 50 years."
Sheikh Shafi'e defended the measures rushed into law by Egypt's military rulers in January against a background of the unprecedented emergence of Islamist parties and movements on the Egyptian landscape.
They were based partly, he said, on the generals' fears of rapid change within Al Azhar, he said, adding that the military decided to give Sheikh El Tayeb a life term after he recommended that he remain in power only for four more years.
"Scaf believed that such an important religious position is not suitable to be changed so quickly," Sheikh Shafi'e said.
The Grand Sheikh has been at pains to persuade his detractors that he is on the side of change and reform.
After the death of Emad Effat, a prominent Azhar cleric, in street clashes in Cairo in December, he issued a strong statement condemning the attacks carried out against civilians by Ministry of Interior officers.
"That was the first time in 50 years that Al Azhar took a strong position against a government ministry," said Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, the imam of Omar Makram mosque in Tahrir Square and a key supporter of the protests that forced Mubarak to resign last year. "This has given us hope that Al Azhar is taking a new role in Egypt."
Signs of a more expansive Al Azhar were also evident in February, when Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Hamas, was permitted to deliver a sermon at Al Azhar in which he declared his support for the people of Syria. This, too, would have been unthinkable under Mubarak, who believed Hamas and Islamist movements in Egypt were the biggest threat to his regime.
Finally, to make the naming of his successor more democratic, Sheikh El Tayeb has chosen only five of the 40 members of the Senior Scholars Authority in consultation with the Islamic Research Complex, the body in charge of issuing fatwas from Al Azhar, Mr Shafi'e said. Those five will choose 16 more members, after which the body of 21 will choose the remaining 19 members.
Abdallah Schleifer, an emeritus professor of journalism at the American University of Cairo and long-time commentator on Arab and Islamic affairs, believes Sheikh El Tayeb is keen to make amends.
"This new activist role is at least in part to compensate for his membership in the NDP," Mr Schleifer said. "It is a blot on his reputation that perhaps he hopes to erase with his activism."
Whatever lies ahead for Al Azhar and the struggles over its governance are key for the future of Egypt and for the rest of the Islamic world, insisted Mr Masmoudi of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy.
"A successful democracy in Egypt will necessarily require Al Azhar to become independent of the state, both morally and financially, and will also require that Al Azhar … focuses its energies and attention on building a new interpretation of Islam, that is both modern, tolerant, and democratic," he said. "I think this is possible, but it will take time and will not be easy."