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Al-Azhar in post-revolution Egypt | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Al-Azhar’s stance regarding the events of the Egyptian revolution has aroused religious disagreements and disputes amongst its ulema.

Some of the ulema believe that Al-Azhar did not fall short in its role with regards to the Egyptian revolution, both before and afterwards. They argue it is still the “protector of Egypt” and an inspiration for the revolutionaries. According to these members, the reason that Al-Azhar delayed to declare its official stance towards the revolution was out of fear for the safety of the demonstrators, and the security of the country. They admit that Al-Azhar has showed elements of weakness in the past, but now it has started to regain its strength.

However, other members of the ulema believe that Al-Azhar has been weakened ever since the leading role of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar was undermined during the former regime, and he became submissive to the state. They also stress that Al-Azhar’s lack of financial and administrative independence from state authorities has led to it being cautious in some of its stances. Whilst these ulema agree that Dr Ahmad al-Tayyib’s appointment as the Sheikh of Al-Azhar represents a transformation from the previous regime, this is not one that they aspired for, because ultimately he is a state employee.

In this report, Asharq Al-Awsat investigates the dividing opinions amongst the al-Azhar ulema, in order to gauge the dimensions of this dispute.

Dr Abdul-Rahman al-Barr, professor at Al-Azhar University and member of the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood Group, says: “Anyone who assesses the role of Al-Azhar always looks at individuals, (either Dr Ahmad al-Tayyib, or members of the Islamic Research Council) occupying specific positions within the institution, and considers them representatives of it. If such individuals delay in making a statement about an issue, then Al-Azhar is deemed to have delayed in announcing its stance. If an individual announces a specific opinion, then this is taken as the stance of Al-Azhar in general.”

Dr Al-Barr adds: “Despite the extreme importance of these two symbols [Dr Ahmad al-Tayyib and the Islamic Research Council]; Al-Azhar is far greater than them. Moreover, the Al-Azhar ulema are dispersed across Egypt and the Muslim world, and most of them announce their Shariaa stances in a timely manner.”

Al-Barr points out: “Many of the Al-Azhar ulema in Egypt participated in the events of the Egyptian revolution, and went to Tahrir Square, despite the fact that they were not officially representing Al-Azhar.” He explains: “By associating the stances of individual members of the ulema, with the stance of Al-Azhar, this is unfair to those who belong to the organization. Whoever seeks to know Al-Azhar’s stance towards any issue should focus only on the stance of the official institution, because Al-Azhar’s members have individual motives, and sometimes do not wait for a signal from the Sheikh to undertake their duty.”

Dr Al-Barr went on to say: “This does not mean that the institution refrains from expressing its opinions and stances, for it is required to take the initiative and declare its stances in an explicit and timely manner.” However, Al-Barr believes that “this cannot be completely achieved unless we have total economic and administrative independence from the authorities.”

Al-Barr praised Sheikh Dr Ahmad al-Tayyib’s latest stance by saying: “It was natural that he would wait until after the events of the Egyptian revolution; however, had he been independent, his stance would have more accurately reflected the members of Al-Azhar, and he would not have been bothered about the authorities.”

On the other hand, Sheikh Salim Abdul-Jalil, undersecretary for the Egyptian Ministry of Islamic Endowments, relating to Islamic Dawa affairs, explains: “Now, Al-Azhar plays a purely educational role. Before the July 1952 revolution its role was more extensive, because at the time, conditions were suitable for Al-Azhar to have a political role.” Abdul-Jalil points out: “The 1952 revolutionaries were keen to exclude Al-Azhar from undertaking any political role. This then continued for long decades. It has become clear that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar is appointed by the state, a fact that has restricted Al-Azhar institution from being an independent religious institution.”

Abdul-Jalil continues: “In order to further restrict Al-Azhar, the House of Fatwa was established to share its role. This has led to an overlapping between the two posts of Egyptian Mufti, and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar. Perhaps this came to the fore in many of the stances adopted during the era of former Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, when he was Mufti. He found that the Al-Azhar leadership opposed many of his opinions, and hence when he became Sheikh of Al-Azhar he blocked the role of the House of Fatwa completely.”

Sheikh Abdul-Jalil adds: “When the Egyptian revolution erupted, Al-Azhar, or its ulema in general, did not have a vision of what might occur, and hence Al-Azhar did not participate in the events in a major way, even if some of its members, who also belong to other trends such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafi movement, participated. They did not participate as members of Al-Azhar. It is true that they were wearing the Al-Azhar turban, but they did not speak in its name.”

Abdul-Jalil stresses: “As an official institution, it was natural that Al-Azhar stood by the legitimate authority. The leaders of Al-Azhar have indicated as much, by saying that the change ought to take place according to specific controls, and through legitimate means. They were afraid that society would be exposed to the dangers that any Arab regime would face where there is dissent, and in doing so, Al-Azhar’s role was limited.”

Sheikh Abdul-Jalil said: “I hope that Al-Azhar will soon have full independence, in the sense that it becomes a religious institution, whether its role is educational, issuing fatwas, or Islamic Dawa. I hope that it will not be affiliated with the authorities or the regime, and will be free to issue fatwas according to Islamic code, and not according to the interests of the ruler or anyone else.”

Dr Aminah Nusayr, professor of religion and philosophy at Al-Azhar University, stresses: “The reason for Al-Azhar’s retreating influence is the preoccupation of the imams and preachers with the traditional method of preaching and guidance. This method is outdated, whilst the Salafi Islamic preachers, or the newly appointed Sheikhs, have managed to infiltrate the Egyptian and foreign domain. Thus, the Al-Azhar ulema have lost their role and their status.”

Dr Aminah Nusayr adds: “What happened to the Al-Azhar ulema has in turn reflected on the political role of Al-Azhar. It no longer plays the vanguard role that it played during the past century, where we witnessed the strength of the Al-Azhar Sheikhs. At the time, Al-Azhar was the protector of the Egyptian people, and it inspired their revolutions.”

Nusayr points out: “The institution was struck by weakness when the post of Sheikh of Al-Azhar became subject to government appointment. This has undermined the leading role of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, as he has become subservient to the state, which has blocked his role.” Nusayr says: “Within this context, I remember the former Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, saying “I am an employee of the state,” when he talked about a certain decree that was criticized as being instructed from the regime.”

Dr Aminah explains: “For seven years, I have been calling for the post of Sheikh of Al-Azhar to be appointed through elections. This call has angered many of Al-Azhar’s leaders. At that time I said: The selection of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar must be made by all Muslim ulema, east and west, so that he becomes worthy of the title ‘Imam of Muslims’.” Nusayr adds: “When the Muslims select their own imam, this liberates him from any affiliation, or submission to the policy of the state.”

Dr Aminah reveals: “Liberating the post of Sheikh of Al-Azhar would be a leading and significant development in Egypt. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar would abandon the administrative work that occupies a great deal of his time, and dedicate all his efforts to keeping pace with Muslim issues. He would focus on them together with the members of the Islamic Research Council, and would turn his main preoccupation to updating religious stances, in light of contemporary events.”

Dr Muhammad Abdul-Munim al-Birri, chairman of the Al-Azhar Ulema Front, says: “We have been distanced from the religious arena, and from expressing our opinions regarding jurisprudence issues, because of the lack of freedom within Al-Azhar, and because it was considered some kind of taboo to oppose the opinions of Al-Azhar leaders.”

Dr Al-Birri adds: “A change will only take place within Al-Azhar with the removal of the current leaders, in order to bring in leaders who agree with the mission of Islam, and the Koran. The appointment of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar must be undertaken by honest and sincere leaders.”

The chairman of Al-Azhar Ulema Front points out: “The front has not been distanced from all the political issues that have been taking place in Egypt. For example, it denounced the prevention of veiled women from entering universities, or appearing on television.”

Dr Al-Birri says: “The Al-Azhar Ulema Front did not hesitate to call on the Egyptians to join the demonstrations in Tahrir square, so the unjust would hear their voices. In doing so, the Front cleared its conscience before God Almighty, who does not accept the excuses of anyone who is hesitant in such matters. We told the protestors: Come out to punish the unjust before others come out; come out and mobilize, supported by God’s promise to you, and out of the belief in this promise and in His Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him. What are you waiting for after your dignity has been wounded, your sanctities have been violated, your blood has been held cheap, your honor has been neglected, your will has been falsified, and your leaders have lied?”

Dr Al-Birri adds: “In a statement issued by the front, we said: Had it not been for the [government] crackdown imposed on us, which made us leave Egypt or stay in our homes, you would have seen us at the forefront, and at the head of the marches, joining the good and preventing the evil, in order to repel the harm that has become widespread.”

Dr Al-Birri explains that following the overthrow of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the front issued another statement in which it expressed its sincere congratulations to the people, saying: “The youth success in the January 25th revolution has warmed the hearts of the believers.” The front called on “the Egyptians and all Muslims to turn a new leaf in obeying God Almighty.”

On the other hand, Dr Muhammad Raafat Othman, former dean of Shariaa and Law College of Al-Azhar University, and member of Al-Azhar Islamic Research Council, defends the institution, by saying: “Al-Azhar has not been negligent in following up the events of the Egyptian revolution, and what took place before these events. The Islamic Research Council convened many extensive sessions to follow up the events. Al-Azhar stances have been very clear in criticizing the damaging acts undertaken by some, who infiltrated the revolutionary youths.”

Dr Othman adds: “One of the most significant examples of our participation in the Egyptian revolution was the personal appearance of Al-Azhar’s official spokesman, Ambassador Muhammad Rifaah al-Tahtawi, at the Tahrir Square demonstrations. Also we should not forget that the imam who led the Friday prayers following the fall of the Egyptian president was Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Chairman of the International Association of Muslim Scholars, who is one of Al-Azhar’s sons. Furthermore, many Sheikhs from Al-Azhar participated in the Tahrir Square demonstrations. This means that Al-Azhar was supporting the revolution, and not the regime.”

Dr Othman admits: “During the previous period, Al-Azhar suffered some weaknesses. However, it is clear that it is regaining its strength in the current era. This needs time, and will take place through a number of stages, not in a single leap forward.” Dr Othman stresses: “The overwhelming majority of Al-Azhar members support the steps adopted by Dr Ahmad al-Tayyib towards reform.”

Dr Othman explains: “If some past eras have witnessed negative aspects of Al-Azhar’s performance, with regards to its duties, no one now can criticize Al-Azhar’s stances. Any media outlet or journalist, who asks the Al-Azhar ulema to express their opinion about a political or social issue, finds that the ulema do not hesitate for a single second to express their opinions.”

Islamic thinker Dr Muhammad Imarah, member of the Islamic Research Council, comments: “The situation in Al-Azhar is improving now, and Dr Ahmad al-Tayyib has taken a clear stance toward the events of the Libyan revolution.”

Dr Muhammad Wahdan, professor at Al-Azhar University, stresses: “During its long history, which extends for more than 1,000 years, Al-Azhar has been the protector of the country, and the source from which revolutions have stemmed.” Wahdan says: “The stances of Al-Azhar toward the Egyptian revolution have been clear.”

Dr Wahdan also explained why the Sheikh of Al-Azhar delayed the announcement of his stance toward the revolution: “He was studying the issue from all aspects. He was concerned for the security of the citizens, for the safety of the country, and for the demonstrators.” He also gave an example to illustrate his point: “A skillful carpenter measures seven times, but saws only once.” Dr Wahdan adds: “As for the Libyan revolution, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar issued a clear stance, and he immediately denounced what Colonel Muammar Gaddafi did to his people.”

Dr Wahdan points out: “Those who claim that Al-Azhar has been absent are enemies the institution. The Al-Azhar ulema are characterized by their moderation and tolerance, and some groups and tendencies in Egypt cannot bear hearing its name, because the existence of Al-Azhar stands as an obstacle in front of their evil aims.” Wahdan stresses: “Slandering Al-Azhar is not in the interest of Islam. Those who attack Al-Azhar should go to any country other than Egypt, and then they would know the value of Al-Azhar and its ulema.”

For its part, the Al-Azhar Supreme Council has issued a statement saying that: “Because of what has been noted, over the current period, regarding the rise of some voices from outside Al-Azhar, and by some people who do not belong to Al-Azhar, attacking the institution, its organizations, and its symbols, the council announces to all that the issue of Al-Azhar has been, and still is, of concern only to the ulema working within Al-Azhar for the past 1050 years. They are the ones capable of leading the institution, and developing it.”

The statement, of which Asharq Al-Awsat has obtained a copy, says: “The Al-Azhar Supreme Council announces to all that its ulema are capable and qualified before God, and before the nation, to lead this ancient institution, manage its affairs, and conduct the necessary amendments to the legal and administrative procedures so that Al-Azhar can undertake its scientific and spiritual duties, which it has been performing for more than 1,000 years, as the greatest international rostrum of Islam, its science, and its civilization.”

In its statement, the Al-Azhar Supreme Council urges “the press and all media apparatuses to ascertain the truth of what they relay and publish about Al-Azhar, and its symbols, who are the people who know best the requirements and needs of this great Islamic authority, in order to undertake its domestic and international mission. This mission stems from the role of Al-Azhar in the history of Islam and Muslims, its national and international role, and from the fact that Al-Azhar represents the greatest Islamic scientific authority, and conveys to people of the world the cultural and religious message of Islam, with tolerance and moderation, and without fanaticism or politicization.”