Al-Azhar’s declaration: A new leap into politics?

Al-Azhar’s recently declaration backing a democratic civil state has triggered questions over the political role that the world’s oldest and most prestigious Sunni institution might play in post-Mubarak Egypt.

After deliberations with fellow clerics and intellectuals with different political and religious leanings, Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb last week issued an 11-clause document declaring the institution’s official position on the prospective political order.

The statement envisions a “modern” and “democratic nation-state” based on a constitution that ensures full separation among the different branches of government and guarantees equality for all citizens. The document also calls for respecting freedom of thought and opinion and voices support for human rights, including children’s and women’s rights.

“This is more of a revolutionary change in the relationship between religion and the state on one hand and Al-Azhar and public life on the other,” said Georges Fahmi, a PhD candidate with the European University Institute, who recently wrote a dissertation on the role of Egypt’s religious institutions in politics.

By using the phrase “modern nation-state,” Al-Azhar dealt a blow to Islamist voices that call for the revival of the pan-Islamic caliphate, said Fahmi. Also, by affirming the state should derive legitimacy from a constitution that the people design, Al-Azhar is distancing itself from some Islamist political movements, which holds Shariah, or Islamic Law, as the constitutional foundation of any Muslim society, added Fahmi.

Another controversial assertion in the charter, according to Fahmi, is the reference to “the general principles” of Shariah, rather than the strict injunctions of Shariah – stoning or decapitating adulterers, for example. By referring to general principles of Shariah, Al-Azhar is providing room for a modern interpretation of Islamic values such as freedom, justice, and equality, rather than citing specific articles in the traditional Islamic penal code.

“The document comes at a juncture where three forces are struggling over Egypt’s identity,” said Fahmi, referring to Islamists, civil parties, and a third, more minor group composed of die-hard secularists that renounces Islam altogether. The second group recognizes the principles of Shariah but does not subscribe to a literal, rigid implementation.

“With this document, he [the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar] is backing the civil bloc that wants a modern and civil state which derives its principles from Islam,” said Fahmi, who believes that in return, Tayyeb expects these civil forces to back his fight against conservative clerics who remain an impediment to reforming the religious establishment.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which belongs to that civil bloc, had issued a statement welcoming Al-Azhar’s declaration as “an important step” that put the nation on the right track toward “progress.”

However, not all Islamists met the declaration with the same fervor. Hardline Islamist lawyer Mamdouh Ismail, who is in the process of founding the Egyptian Renaissance Party, refused to comment on it.

“I will not comment on anything issued by Al-Azhar as long as it is not independent and remains headed by a person who was a member [of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party],” said Ismail in reference to Tayyeb.

In 2010, Tayyeb was appointed grand imam after the death of Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi. His open-mindedness, tolerance, exposure to the West and staunch opposition to radical interpretations of Islam raised hopes that he would spearhead genuine reform inside the religious establishment. However, he had reportedly encountered strong resistance from hawkish scholars.

“Tayyeb has read the moment well…The next step will be to use the backing that he gets from society to reform Al-Azhar,” Fahmi anticipated.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Al-Azhar has been a bastion of moderate Islam in the Sunni world. However, its influence has been waning since former President Gamal Abdel Nasser sought to clip its wings.

In 1952, Nasser’s regime abolished the family waqf  (endowments) and then public endowments, stripping the clerics of their financial independence. A few years later, he brought Al-Azhar under the direct control of the state. The grand imam was no longer elected by his fellow clerics but appointed by the president. In the meantime, Nasser utilized Al-Azhar to bestow legitimacy on his pan-Arab and socialist policies.

The same pattern was maintained by President Anwar Sadat, who came to power in 1970. Sadat further weakened Al-Azhar by opening the door for radical Islamist groups, which promoted Wahhabi thought.

“It was these ideological newcomers that delivered the most debilitating blow to the religious foundations of al-Azhar, the ancient and long pre-eminent Sunni religious establishment whose Ash’ari [predominant Sunni Islam school of thought] theological traditions are famously open to multiple views of Islamic law and are tolerant of Sufism,” Hossam Tamam, an expert on Islamist groups, wrote in a 2010 article.

“As a result, the real decline of Al-Azhar dates to the early 1970s when it began to lose ideological influence in the face of the Wahhabi tide…” wrote Tammam.

After Mubarak held the helm of state, Al-Azhar kept losing its influence to radical groups, which sought to discredit the state-sanctioned religious establishment by arguing that it represented the regime’s interests rather than true Islam. Meanwhile, this same Wahhabi thought had permeated Al-Azhar itself, continued Tammam.

Whether Tayyeb’s charter constitutes a leap in Al-Azhar thought is a contested question. For prominent reformist scholar Gamal Qotb, the document is a mere attempt at “window-dressing.”

“Now we have to ask, does the content of this document reflect on the curriculum that Al-Azhar students are taught? Actually, it has nothing to do with it,” Qotb, a former head of Al-Azhar's Fatwa Committee told Al-Masry Al-Youm in a phone interview.

Meanwhile, Qotb criticized the statement for failing to focus on mechanisms for reform.

“Only in two vague and ambiguous clauses the document talks about the independence of Al-Azhar,” said Qotb, who has been promoting a precise and elaborate reform project since the 1980s. Yet, he complains that his project remains ignored.

To Qotb, a genuine reform of Al-Azhar is the best way to safeguard against radical Islamist groups.

“All [Islamist] groups emerged during the 20th century to compensate for the weakness of Al-Azhar. If Al-Azhar becomes strong and rational again, people will get away from all [Islamist] groups,” he said.

Yet, he questioned the ability of incumbent religious leaders including Tayyeb and Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa to bring about reforms given their shaken credibility. Both clerics had held close ties with the Mubarak's regime and their opposition to the revolution has discredited them in the eyes of many Egyptians.

“How would he [Tayyeb] bring about liberalism or democracy? Do Tayyeb’s and Gomaa’s practices and statements during the revolution carry any indications that they might be able to run things in the next phase?” Qotb asked rhetorically.

The last two clauses of Tayyeb’s document emphasize the need to ensure Al-Azhar's full independence from the government, to have top clerics elect its imam rather than give the president authority to appoint one, to modernize the curricula and to give Al-Azhar the exclusive authority to decide religious matters. In the meantime, the document gives the right to non-Azhar scholars, with enough credentials, to voice opinions on faith-related issues.

According to Hazem Kandil, a lecturer on political sociology, it is important to specify these credentials in order to de-legitimize ill-trained preachers who have monopolized the religious sphere.

“Al-Azhar should specify those credentials because this issue poses major problems,” said Kandil. “With the deterioration of Al-Azhar, people with no credentials came to the fore and talked about religion in audio cassettes and on satellite TV channels and people have been listening to them. They were either affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis or belonged to no organization.

“Al-Azhar should make it clear that scholars who hold al-Alemeyya, the Al-Azhar equivalent of a PhD degree, or any of its equivalents from a foreign university, are the only ones eligible to preach,” contended Kandil.

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