Just days after the death of al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb was appointed as his successor, however some people have criticized his appointment because he is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party [NDP]. They claim that no NDP member should be appointed guardian of the most important religious institution in Egypt, and one of the most important religious institutions in the world, regardless of his religious and scholarly expertise.
Things have not changed much, and the al-Azhar religious institution, with its mosque and university, its scholars and endowments, has always been a place of conflict for rulers and religious figures and competing ideology. There is a major conflict taking place within Islam today between moderate, conservative, and extremist groups. This is a power struggle in which religious figures are being used as proxies; a struggle of religious figures competing for power. Therefore it is not odd that the state would choose a member of the ruling party to trust with the most important pulpit in Egypt. The experience of former al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Tantawi was not easy, and despite his knowledge, wisdom, and the fine way that he dealt with people, Tantawi was not spared criticism from opposing religious figures who targeted him with abuse and insults and showed no mercy in their campaign against him and al-Azhar.
The Islamic history of Egypt is epitomized by the conflict over al-Azhar. Al-Azhar was built by the Fatimids as a political minaret, however after Salahuddin re-conquered Jerusalem and restored the Al-Aqsa Mosque; he closed al-Azhar in order to put a stop to the Shiite Fatimid expansion. The battle over the post of al-Azhar Grand Sheikh continued under various different caliphates. During the Ottoman caliphate, al-Azhar attempted to prevent the Turkification of Egyptian religious society. During the French invasion of Egypt, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte agreed a deal with al-Azhar that the Grand Sheikh would be the ruler of Cairo before he had even crossed the Nile. Even Jamal Abdul Nasser – following the Egyptian Revolution – utilized support from al-Azhar to oust President Muhammad Naguib and appoint himself as leader of Egypt. However once this task was accomplished, Nasser marginalized al-Azhar and changed the system from a religious system to a civil one. The religious establishment was marginalized until Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Sadat who thought he could ally with al-Azhar against the remaining Nasserites, which is ultimately something that he paid for with his life.
Today Egypt is in dire need for al-Azhar to be a beacon of moderation, especially as Islamic extremism has infiltrated Egyptian universities and mosques. This is something that was inferred by many people when the new Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar said that he wanted to promote moderate Islam. The Islamic world and indeed many Muslim communities in Europe have fallen under the influence of Islamic extremism. This extremism has not only destroyed the fabric of Egyptian society over the past 30 years, but has also extended its influence to distant countries that were previously known for their religious moderation and tolerance such as Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Dr. al-Tayeb may have promised to remove his western suit and put on the al-Azhar robe and even grow out his beard in line with the traditions of al-Azhar, but he has also promised to promote moderate Islam, and this is something that he has considerable experience of. Dr. al-Tayeb studied at universities in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and France, and he has mingled with a variety of religious groups, Muslims and non-Muslims, and he is well aware of the complex and problematic differences between different religions and even different sects. Sheikh al-Tayeb today has the opportunity to build a tolerant and moderate project for Islam in order to save the Muslims from extremism.