New Era At Al-Azhar? After The Death Of Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, The Grand Sheikh Of Al-Azhar

29 March 2010

By Gihan Shahine

The appointment of a new top cleric at Al-Azhar has provoked heated debate on how to reverse the decline of the Sunni Muslim world's most prestigious seat of learning. Gihan Shahine explores future prospects

The sudden death of Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's most prestigious seat of learning, and the appointment of a new scholar at its helm has opened up a Pandora's Box of questions about the future of this religious institution, whose edicts have been respected by Muslims for a thousand years.

For many years, Al-Azhar has been losing public credibility, being seen as little more than a mouthpiece for the Egyptian government, and many wonder whether changing the top cleric will mark a new beginning for this historic institution.

Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, who has served as president of Al-Azhar University since 2003, has been appointed as Al-Azhar's top cleric by presidential decree. The appointment of the French- educated scholar, who was also Egypt's mufti until September 2003, has provoked mixed reactions. Whereas some have welcomed him as an enlightened scholar with a philosophical background that will allow him to improve the image of Al-Azhar, critics are nevertheless apprehensive about El-Tayeb's affiliation with the government as a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and his commitment to Sufism.

Many are concerned about El-Tayeb's tough stance against the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, which remains officially outlawed despite popular support.

For his part, El-Tayeb has been appearing throughout the Egyptian media since his appointment, promising that Al-Azhar will work to regain its former role of uniting Muslims worldwide, and he has dismissed allegations of pressures on Al-Azhar to toe the government line.

However, analysts insist that no matter who is appointed at the helm of the prestigious institution, Al-Azhar will not regain its historical prestige as a result of changing the institution's grand sheikh. Many agree that it is only the dynamics inside Al-Azhar itself and the wider political environment that can bring about the desired change.

Although there have long been calls among Muslims worldwide that Al-Azhar needs to restore its image by appointing a grand sheikh who does not necessarily follow the Egyptian government line, many still agree that this can only happen if the institution is independent of the government.

Many analysts argue that the state miscalculated when it effectively took over Al-Azhar because this caused the institution to lose its credibility, leaving a vacuum that could be filled by other often faulty and foreign schools of thought, making religion into a way of seeking power by other means.

Dependent on the state for funding, Al-Azhar's scholars have been turned into government employees who are sometimes more worried about their livelihoods than the integrity of their religious views, critics charge.

The institution's grand sheikh and mufti, Al-Azhar's two most prominent voices, have been appointed by the government since the 1952 Revolution, and whereas the mufti can be replaced at any time, the grand sheikh remains in office for life. As a result, Al-Azhar's credibility has been damaged, sometimes even lost, over the past half century of its existence.

Before 1952, the grand sheikh was elected by a committee of senior clergy, and his authority -- spanning a spectrum of religious activities from issuing edicts and managing waqfs (religious endowments) to establishing new mosques and assigning a sheikh to deliver sermons -- was independent of the state.

As a result, Al-Azhar enjoyed a unity that gave it unmatched strength and harmony, reflecting positively on all aspects of Egypt's political, social and spiritual life.

In his book The Mission of Al-Azhar in the 20th Century, Ahmed Khaki, deputy education minister in the 1960s, describes how "Al-Azhar established its intellectual and political leadership in Egypt by fighting the injustices of the country's Ottoman overlords" at the beginning of the modern period.

According to Khaki, the institution's leadership was courted by Napoleon Bonaparte at the end of the 18th century, who recognised the need to take Al-Azhar's views into account during the French campaign in Egypt. Napoleon "fully appreciated the political leverage of Islam, to the extent that it was said he had read the Quran. He realised that Muslim political and social thought were essentially derived from the Holy Book," Khaki wrote.

From that time forward, Azharites were very far from toeing the government line, according to Sheikh Gamal Qotb, former head of Al-Azhar's fatwa council, who retired from the institution in 2001. Instead, "they would correct the ruler when he was in the wrong and support him when he was right, but they would never seek an official position in the regime." This was a system that, according to Qotb, lasted for "more than 800 years."

The dismantling of Al-Azhar began at the turn of the 20th century, when the waqfs and fatwa council were removed from the mother institution with the appointment of Sheikh Mohamed Abdu as Egypt's mufti in 1897. The mufti and the minister of religious endowments became figures of almost equal authority to Al-Azhar's grand sheikh.

Designed as a political decision meant to provide the government with alternative sources of fatwas in cases where it did not agree with the opinion of the grand sheikh, this not only weakened Al-Azhar, but also undermined its credibility.

In 1913, the Ministry of Religious Endowments was officially attached to the cabinet by virtue of a decree issued by the British ambassador to Egypt. The ministry operated under dual British- French supervision, which meant that Egypt's ruler, the khedive, "had control over preachers, who were appointed and paid by the Ministry of Religious Endowments," Qotb said. "Any preacher who criticised the khedive was immediately dismissed and replaced."

Al-Azhar itself soon became dependent on state funding, and since the 1952 Revolution the grand sheikh has been appointed by the government. This loss of independence has progressively turned the institution into "a government institution with little public credibility," Qotb said, meaning that, "the carpet has been gradually removed from under it."

Al-Azhar's increasing dependence on the government also placed a tight lid on its academic life, "creating an environment of 'inner depression' and self-censorship, in which professors felt reluctant to modernise their views," Qotb said.

A 1961 law forced Al-Azhar schools to teach the same textbooks taught in public schools in addition to their own curriculum of Islamic teachings. Many analysts agree that this undermined the standards of Azharite scholars, since the load on students became too heavy and Islamic teachings were removed. The Azharite schools stopped teaching the different schools of religious thought, and the result was a fragmented curriculum that produced insufficiently skilled scholars.

Al-Azhar University also expanded to include faculties of science, engineering and medicine, which, according to novelist and long-time observer of Al-Azhar Gamal El-Ghitani, produced a deplorable situation in which "many Azharites do not now master the Arabic language and do not know the Quran by heart," weakening their moderate version of Islam in the face of extremist modes of thought.

The drop in academic standards at Al-Azhar was compounded by the state's using the institution "as a tool to justify its authoritarian policies and garner public support for the regime," according to Nabil Abdel-Fattah of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

According to Abdel-Fattah, in the 1990s Al-Azhar retracted an earlier fatwa legitimising nationalisation when the government wanted to change its economic policies. Al-Azhar again contradicted itself when it first slammed any reconciliation with Israel following the 1967 setback, and then legitimised it when former president Anwar El-Sadat sought a peace treaty with Israel in the 1970s.

"Which Al-Azhar should we believe -- that of the 1960s, the 1970s or the 1990s," Abdel-Fattah asks. In the same vein, the former grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Tantawi, was accused of double standards, in that while he described boycotting the presidential elections as an illegitimate act, he was accused of staying quiet on issues like corruption in the Agriculture Ministry and the alleged use of carcinogenic pesticides.

"The regime's systematic violations of human rights, the state security agency's abuse of prisoners, the widening gap between rich and poor, the president's remaining in power for more than 24 years, and the possible transfer of power to his son," have all been ignored by Al-Azhar, according to Abdel-Fattah.

Tantawi was also a controversial figure who was criticised for his liberal fatwas that seemed to satisfy few in the Muslim world, whether conservative, liberal or secular. Tantawi was sometimes lambasted by critics for being a government official willing to compromise his views for the sake of state policies during his long term in office.

Critics said that although the state used Al-Azhar as its mouthpiece, in many cases Tantawi himself volunteered with fatwas pleasing to the regime. Al-Ahram columnist Fahmy Howeidy is just one of many critics of the opinion that Tantawi "used to fear the regime more than he feared God."

Two controversial fatwas issued by Tantawi that brought much criticism were those to do with the legitimisation of the barrier on the Egyptian border with Gaza, which some consider was issued in favour of the regime at the expense of the lives of Palestinian Muslims, and his ban on the wearing of the niqab, or full face veil.

Although there is almost a consensus among scholars that the niqab is not a religious obligation in Islam, critics argue that it may still be considered a virtue and that banning it is not based on the Quran or hadith (prophetic sayings). Many claim that the ban was imposed in an attempt to please secularist circles in the regime.

Yet, even secularists were not pleased with the apparent irrationality of the ban. One incident that took place in an Azhar girls' school in Cairo saw Tantawi rebuking a young girl for wearing the niqab, reportedly telling her that she was not beautiful enough to hide her face and that as a religious scholar he knew better than her parents.

Tantawi also shot himself in the foot when he supported a French decision last year to ban the niqab in public places in France. He had earlier refrained from commenting on a French ban on the hijab, on the grounds that he could not interfere in the affairs of a foreign country, and he was not among the first to denounce the Danish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohamed, triggering waves of wrath across the Muslim world, that appeared some years ago.

Tantawi was also bogged down in controversy for toeing the government line when he issued a controversial edict that equated the boycotting of elections with "withholding testimony" in the run-up to a referendum on amending Article 76 of the constitution.

Tantawi's earlier retraction of a fatwa issued by a senior Al-Azhar cleric urging Muslim and Arab states to boycott the Iraqi Governing Council also led to criticism. Tantawi rejected the earlier edict, which bore Al-Azhar's official seal, 10 days after it was issued and immediately after meeting with David Welch, the then US ambassador to Egypt.

"No Egyptian cleric has the right to pass a verdict on the affairs of another country," Tantawi said.

There were calls in liberal, conservative and secularist circles for Tantawi to resign after he shook hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres at a UN- sponsored meeting. Tantawi was generally not against normalisation with Israel, and he was a critic of suicide bombing as an act of resistance to the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The late grand sheikh was often thought of as a pro-Western scholar, and it is little wonder that Tantawi's death brought forth "an outpouring of grief from Western leaders," as the US magazine Newsweek put it in its obituary.

US President Barack Obama mourned the loss of a "voice of faith and tolerance", and Tantawi was "an important voice for dialogue among religions and communities," in the words of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called him "a premier figure in the effort to foster intellectual and interreligious dialogue".

In the Muslim world, intellectuals and Islamic thinkers have warned against the dangers of decreasing credibility and academic standards at Al-Azhar, causing Muslims around the world to seek alternative sources of religious edicts and learning. On the educational level, many students now opt for alternative Islamic universities in Syria, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, while the declining standards of an Al-Azhar education, according to Abdel-Fattah, have meant that countries like Tunisia and Turkey do not even acknowledge the ancient university's degrees.

Some people, already despondent at the policies of the government and the weakening of Al-Azhar, have sought foreign models of Islam, such as Shiism, Wahabism, or Sufism, in an attempt to find a solution to the political, economic and social dilemmas facing the country. For Qotb, the danger of these "foreign schools of thinking resides in the fact that they were born in other cultures, and as such they carry thoughts that are sometimes alien to Egyptian society."

Meanwhile, the decline in Al-Azhar's educational standards has resulted in a generation of Azharite sheikhs who are unable to reach out to young people, leaving the ground open for alternative sources of fatwas that may not always be correct.

Even with the appointment of a new top cleric of the institution who may be "more pious, eloquent, modern, well- read, and creative than his predecessor," many would perhaps agree with Howeidy that chances remain dim for Al-Azhar to restore its former prestige so long as political liberties, human rights and freedom of expression are curtailed.

"The demise of Al-Azhar is only a reflection of an overall weakness in the state," Howeidy said. As such, a change in the grand sheikh can only be "cosmetic and a change in the image rather than the core, which is the best we can hope for at the moment."





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