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Egypt's al-Azhar challenged amid pressure to reform

Al-Azhar, Egypt's top Islamic authority, has been at the centre of a messy collision [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 April, 2017

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Al-Azhar, Egypt's top Islamic authority, has been at the centre of a messy collision between politics and theology since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi began campaigning for religious reforms.
The Grand Imam of al-Azhar is prepared to resign if a set of new religious reforms pushed by the president are passed, a source at Egypt's top Islamic authority said.

According to information obtained by The New Arab, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb has instructed his aides and some of al-Azhar's top scholars to escalate their defence of the religious institution and its independence against a campaign led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who seeks religious reforms with profound implications for Islamic doctrine.

A former army chief who overthrew his Islamist predecessor in 2013, Sisi believes that Islamist extremists have not been properly challenged on theological grounds.

"He thinks that extremist ideas have thoroughly infiltrated Muslim societies and they are latent" but could set off "a tidal wave of devastation," said a member of a foreign delegation that met Sisi.

Privately, however, many of al-Azhar's clergy and professors resent the former army officer's attempt to reshape Islamic thought.

"The religious establishment – not all of it but most of it – is pretty resistant to the idea of somebody from outside interfering or stipulating how religion and religious discourse should function," said H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.

The tensions mounted when Sisi demanded in January that the clerics look into amending divorce procedures to invalidate the Islamic practice of verbal divorces.

Al-Azhar's top body, the Council of Senior Scholars, flatly refused.

Following three Islamic State group suicide bombings of churches that killed dozens of Coptic Christians in December and April, the pressure doubled on al-Azhar.

Critics lambasted al-Azhar and Tayeb in talk shows and newspapers for failing to counter the extremists and not reforming its university and high school curriculums.

Encouraging secular reformists

Sisi's calls for reforms emboldened secular and modernist critics of al-Azhar as well as clerics seeking influence with the president.

One such cleric, endowments minister Mokhtar Gomaa who runs the country's mosques, decided to impose a written Friday prayer sermon on all preachers to weed out extremist rhetoric, which Sisi had demanded.

Al-Azhar mutinied, forcing Gomaa to back down, and Sisi distanced himself from the attempt.

Tayeb, however, is not worried about the state media's role in the reformist campaign as much as he is worried about "ambitious" religious scholars known for strong ties with security authorities, the source said.

We found that the curriculum of al-Azhar and its institutions contains many ideas that lead to violence or even incite violence.
- Mohamed Abu Hamed

Secular and reformist critics of al-Azhar also felt encouraged by Sisi. One, Islam al-Behery, went so far as to attack canonical Sunni books as inspirations for extremism.

Behery and other critics pointed to classical manuals of Islamic jurisprudence taught at al-Azhar that contained antiquated rulings on slavery, women and non-Muslims that may be jarring to a modern reader.

The institution's professors say their students understand that those texts were written in a different age and not all their content applies in a modern context.

After an uproar by al-Azhar, Behery ended up serving a prison sentence for "insulting religion". 

Limiting al-Azhar's powers

Another worrying factor for al-Azhar is a new proposed law that seeks to impose sanctions of the Grand Imam if he "infringed his duties", as well as to limit his time in office to a maximum of two six-year terms.

The new law, proposed by MP Mohamed Abu Hamed, also aims to separate non-religious faculties from al-Azhar University to form a new non-religious university named after Imam Mohammed Abdu.

"We found that the curriculum of al-Azhar and its institutions contains many ideas that lead to violence or even incite violence," Abu Hamed told AFP.

Al-Azhar rejects the accusations, pointing out the conferences it has organised to counter extremism and a monitoring group it set up to challenge their ideology.

"The criminals who commit these crimes do not include a single suicide bomber who studied even for a single day in al-Azhar," Tayeb's deputy Abbas Shoman said in a newspaper interview.

Under the current system, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar is elected through a vote from three candidates nominated by the senior scholars committee, without any interference by the president.

However, the new legislation aims to restore the president's power to select the Grand Imam from the three nominated candidates.

The criminals who commit these crimes do not include a single suicide bomber who studied even for a single day in al-Azhar.
- Abbas Shoman

The bill, which will be discussed in parliament next month, has already been met with strong opposition by members of the parliament’s religion committee.

Committee secretary Omar Hamroush rejected the proposed legislation as "contradicting the status of al-Azhar", describing it as a "part of the campaign against the institution".

Hamroush added that everything related to the Grand Imam of al-Azhar is being regulated by the Constitution, saying that the Grand Imam is immune to such regulations and that any issues can be handled by the institution itself.

Ahmed Zarae, spokesperson for al-Azhar University, told Daily News Egypt that the new law "aims to destroy al-Azhar" and must not be approved, calling on critics to stop interfering with the institution's internal affairs.

"In a time when international universities are allowed to be established, someone calls for the closure of the oldest university in the world: the university that protects and holds the identity of the nation," Zarae said.

Dating back almost 1,000 years, the prestigious institution runs one of the world's oldest universities and many schools across the country, and thousands of international students from as far as China come to study religion and return home as clerics.

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