Egypt’s most prestigious Islamic institution should fight for its autonomy—but stay out of politics.
The Egyptian uprising facilitated a political vacuum that has recently empowered al-Azhar to play a political role that is not part of its core foundational doctrine. It has persisted in this role mainly because of the institution’s popularity coupled with mistrust in President Mohamed Morsi. This does not, however, warrant al-Azhar interfering in politics and brokering political deals. And though the Grand Sheikh Ahmed Muhammad el-Tayeb, in cooperation with a wide range of Egyptian politicians and intellectuals, has presented several initiatives to end the civil strife in Egypt, little has been accomplished besides a collective diminishing of the institution’s credibility. Al-Azhar has received praise for convening and consulting with diverse groups of Egyptians—from Coptic leaders, Islamists, opposition figures, women, and youth—in ways that the government failed to do, but this praise effectively places an unwarranted approval on al-Azhar playing a political role it should avoid. The institution’s respect and popularity should not be a pretext to meddle in political matters.
Following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, al-Azhar’s leadership took steps to break free from longtime regime manipulation. In June 2011, Grand Sheikh el-Tayeb—alongside a group of intellectuals and politicians—issued an eleven-point paper on Egypt’s future, dubbed the “al-Azhar Document.” This blueprint sketched out post-revolutionary priorities: emphasizing freedom and equality for all, fighting corruption and achieving social justice, reforming education, reducing unemployment, and abiding by international treaties. The document also pressed for the independence of al-Azhar from state control.
In January 2012, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) hastily issued a law changing the process by which al-Azhar’s grand sheikh is chosen—from a presidential appointment to an election by a council of senior al-Azhar scholars. This reinstated the old selection method that the religious institution had used prior to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to make the post a presidential appointment. The law stirred up controversy, however, due to a lack of concrete articles to enforce political and financial independence for al-Azhar. Its approval process—days before the first meeting of the elected Parliament—effectively bypassed legislative oversight. There was also a total lack of transparency regarding the motivation that drove the SCAF to issue this decree; it remains unknown even now what terms and exchanges the SCAF had with the grand sheikh before the passage of this law.
In any case, the spirit of the SCAF-approved law on al-Azhar was enshrined in the recently approved Egyptian constitution. In Article 4, al-Azhar is described as “an encompassing independent Islamic institution with exclusive autonomy over its own affairs.” The article stipulates that the senior scholars’ council is to be consulted on issues pertaining to the application of Islamic law (sharia), but the language does not indicate when or which branches of government must do such consult. Mindful of the institution’s important and powerful role, the State also reserves the right to provide “sufficient funds for al-Azhar to achieve its goals,”—leaving the door open for continued State influence and even coercion. As with several other articles in the constitution, Article 4 concludes ambiguously: “All of the above is subject to regulations of the law.” This provision allows an already vague text to be redefined and restricted by subsequent decrees from the legislature.
Al-Azhar’s new constitutional consultative role might make it vulnerable to influences from both the state and a range of Islamist understandings of Sharia. However, these changes seem nominal in the face of rising popularity of Salafi preachers, who could eventually infiltrate al-Azhar’s leadership and overpower the institution’s typically moderate views. This might explain why the SCAF issued the al-Azhar law to “empower” al-Azhar–as a counterweight to the rising Salafis.
Beyond these core structural and legal changes, al-Azhar faces internal challenges from shifting interpretations and an influx of extreme religious opinions (fatwas) presented by independent untrained preachers as well its own faculty. The latest fatwa from al-Azhar faculty member Mahmoud Shaban, for example, called for the assassination of National Salvation Front (NSF) opposition leaders. Shabaan and other preachers are daily guests of Salafi-oriented satellite channels like Al-Nas and Al-Rahma. At a time of national struggle, such controversial declarations constitute a serious blow to the organization’s ability to represent the middle ground of Islamic opinion, as well as call into question its educational methodology, curriculum, and its ability to stand against such bizarre and atypical opinions from its faculty (and beyond).
What does the future hold for al-Azhar? Though it is too early to assess the impact of the most recent changes, some scenarios can be presumed. One path for al-Azhar is to carefully manage the new status it has attained over the past two years: one of quasi-independence cited in the constitution. The institution would then continue the “soft power” of personality politics centered on the authority of the grand sheikh—a strategy which will probably last as long as the 67 year-old Ahmed el-Tayeb remains in authority. Per the new constitution, the elected Grand Sheikh can remain in power until 80 years of age, and is immune from dismissal.
Another scenario is continued co-option of al-Azhar by the ruling regime or Islamists—or even both. Modern Egyptian leaders have typically understood the legitimacy to be had by pulling al-Azhar to their side. And although the president lost his “prerogative” of appointing the sheikh, he and the government maintain control over the institution’s finances by way of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. At the same time, however, conservative scholars from within can also exert significant influence on the traditionally moderate nature of the institution and its leadership. Last week, the Senior Scholars’ Council elected Egypt’s new grand mufti, Shawqi Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, to succeed the outgoing Ali Gomaa. According to different sources the new grand mufti has no clear political ideology and affiliation. There had been concerns that the new mufti might have been Abdel Rahman El-Bar—a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau and dubbed its own “mufti.” If El-Bar had been chosen this would have been a significant step toward tightening the Brotherhood’s grip over al-Azhar—a prominent fear among opposition forces and politically apathetic Muslims alike, both of whom do not want to see the Islamists monopolize government and al-Azhar.
The third scenario might be the most difficult for al-Azhar to maneuver, is to fight for more independence at the administrative and financial levels it enjoyed before Nasser. Such autonomy would allow the institution to return to its core educational functions and moderate doctrine to stand against extremist interpretations of Islam. Current circumstances, however, prevent this. There is a long way to go to change existing laws that cripple the institution’s independence (specifically Law 103 of 1961, which placed al-Azhar under the Ministry of Religious Endowments) and subsequent legislation that accords the government further oversight.
The muddled political environment, fraught with weak governance and contentious debates about the future, has left a space for al-Azhar to use its credibility in a political role that, tempting as it may be, should not be part of its mandate.
Ahmed Morsy is a Ph. D. candidate at the School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews.