Al-Azhar University’s ‘democracy’ call leaves room for Islamism

by - 29th June 2011

Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed Al-TayebThe Egyptian Revolution and its chaotic aftermath, in which outcomes are difficult if not impossible to predict, has produced an intellectual ferment among Muslim scholars as well as in political and street life.  

Much ‘new thinking’ – to borrow a phrase from the Russian transition from Communism – is not what it seems, but is de rigueur in a revolutionary context pitched inevitably against ‘the old’.

Ahmad Al-Tayeb, the head of the Sunni university of Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest and most authoritative Islamic educational institution has been responsible for a surprising stream of apparent initiatives.

He was appointed to succeed the late Mohammed Sayed Tantawi early last year.  That is, Al-Tayeb gained his position thanks to the favour of the former Mubarak regime.  He therefore has a particular incentive to appear as a figure embracing ‘the new,’ even if ‘the new’ is poorly-defined, ambiguous, and even menacing.

In mid-April, al-Tayeb called for an – ambiguous - rapprochement with the more mystical Sufi orders to which Sunnis are traditionally averse [see box below].

In mid-June, Al-Tayeb and Al-Azhar made overtures to end the civil conflict in Libya.  They invited representatives of Mu’ammar Al-Qhadhafi’s regime and of the Libyan resistance to meet at Al-Azhar under the aegis of the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).  Al-Tayeb called for a ‘council of elders’ in Libya, comprising ‘scholars and thinkers,’ to suggest solutions leading to a free choice of leaders by the Libyan people.  But it is extremely doubtful that either side in the Libyan war would pay attention to such a project for conciliation.

Soon thereafter, Al-Tayeb and Al-Azhar took a bolder step, issuing an 11-page declaration repudiating the concept of an ‘Islamic state,’ and calling for Egypt to become a ‘modern, democratic, and constitutional state.’   The document denounced ‘a religious or theocratic state’ as something foreign to Islamic history, and warned that such a government would be autocratic and inflict suffering on humanity.

However, the Al-Tayeb/Al-Azhar position left room for an accommodation with Islamists, stating that a ‘civil’ society grounded in Islamic principles and supporting Islamic jurisprudence would be acceptable.  According to French media, Al-Tayeb argued for shariah as the ‘essential source of legislation’, with Jews and Christians granted separate judicial status, their own courts, and ‘protection of places of worship for the followers of the three monotheistic religions.’

The London Financial Times reported that the document was written with the participation of Egyptian Coptic Christian representatives.  The text appealed for criminalisation of ‘incitement of religious or ethnic conflict.’

In reality, there is nothing new about shariah dominance in law, with autonomous Jewish and Christian tribunals; these are the principles embodied in the dhimma, or compact for governance by Muslims over People of the Book, developed in the first Islamic century.

The dhimma is a source of acrimonious debate and condemnation by non-Muslims, who claim that it reduces non-Muslims to second-class citizenship.  The dhimma does not exist in a single Islamic society today, and it would appear that its revival in Egypt would signify a step backward, rather than forward.

The Al-Tayeb/Al-Azhar statement on politics and Islam also pledged the university’s backing to universal democratic rights, free and fair elections, recognition of a country’s citizens as the sole originators of legislation, and guarantees for the rights of women, children, and minority communities.

Al-Tayeb further affirmed the university’s belief in social justice, quality education and health care, scientific advancement, elimination of illiteracy, and economic development.  In addition, he called for ‘freedom of expression in art and literature within the context of Islamic philosophy and morality.’  The latter is somewhat anachronistic, considering that Egyptian writers have participated in global modernist movements for decades.


But in its most startling feature, the Al-Tayeb/Al-Azhar declaration called for Al-Azhar to be separated from control by the Egyptian government, and pointed out that ‘Al-Azhar… has throughout its history been used by rulers to promote their agendas among the faithful.’   Al-Tayeb demanded that the Grand Shaykh of the University – the position he occupies – should be elected by the supreme clerical committee of the institution, rather than being selected by the Egyptian authorities.  But this also represents a return to old, rather than an introduction of new, practice.

The declaration was interpreted as a challenge to the large and well-organized Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the main Egyptian opposition movement for decades, as well as to the Saudi-inspired fundamentalist Wahhabis, who call themselves ‘Salafis,’ and who have emerged since the Egyptian Revolution as a more radical competitor to the MB.  A representative of the Brotherhood, Rashad Bayoumi, nevertheless described the statement to the Financial Times as  ‘exemplary.’

The ‘new’ conceptions of Al-Tayeb and Al-Azhar come as Egyptians are preparing mass demonstrations, scheduled for 8 July, to demand adoption of a constitution prior to the September vote.  Numerous citizens have expressed fear that a constitution written after the election would reflect the Islamist influence of the MB and result in erection of an ‘Islamic state.’

The Al-Tayeb/Al-Azhar declaration on the future of Egypt also called for the country to regain its past status as a leader of the Muslim world.

Notwithstanding its large population and importance in international diplomacy, however, it is doubtful how much the transformation of Egypt, even in the direction of democratic, civil society, will affect the rest of the Islamic lands.

The relatively-painless Egyptian Revolution was followed by the outbreak of the Libyan civil war, horrendous atrocities in Syria, and chaotic political violence in Yemen.  Continuity between the Egyptian example and the conditions in the other Arab countries has already been broken and is unlikely to be healed by an evocation of the prestige of Al-Azhar as a guide for the Muslim world.  Rather than North Africa, the sources of the greatest possible impact on Muslim political change remain in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian clerical system of rulership is now rejected by the overwhelming majority of its subjects.  Successful democratisation in Egypt would very likely provide a new impetus for mass protest in Iran, as well as for reform in Saudi Arabia.  In that manner, change in Egypt could have a positive impact.

Finally, Iran has more influence over radical Islamists than any other country, and the collapse of its dictatorship would do most to close the cycle of ideological agitation that began in Tehran in 1979.  In addition, rulings and opinions adopted in Mecca and Medina carry more weight among the world’s Sunnis than the commentaries issued at Al-Azhar.

Egyptians, Muslims, and the whole world will soon have opportunities to gauge the seriousness of the country’s Islamic elite about their progress, as well as the strength and nature of the MB within the Egyptian populace.

Until a constitution is drafted and elections are held, all analysis is speculative.

Al-Tayeb makes ambivalent overtures to Sufis

Al-Tayeb’s commitment to change at Al-Azhar attracted attention in mid-April, two months after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, with the announcement that the head of Al-Azhar supports a ‘World Union of Sufi Scholars,’ and would provide the ‘full moral support’ of the university to the ‘Union.’

Such an entity would represent something entirely new within Islam, but announcement of its inauguration carried with it an element of ‘orthodox’ Sunni suspicion toward the spiritual Sufis, whose influence in Egypt is significant and long-lasting.

The ‘Union’ was presented as an alternative to ‘the current rise of extremist radical interpretation[s] in Islam,’ but it also would ‘work to reform Sufi orders’ and ‘fight against heresies and evils’ attributed to Sufis.In other words, it proposed to support the Sufis against the radicals, while legitimizing the ideological attacks on the Sufis by radicals.

The ‘World Union of Sufi Scholars’ would be headed by Dr Hussein Al-Shafei of the Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. The ‘World Union’ intends to organise a ‘League of Sufi Youth’ directed by Sufi teachers, and recruiting for ‘community service.’

One might ask immediately how the Sufi orders around the Islamic world, many of them jealous of their independence from clerical or state control, would appreciate efforts to ‘reform’ them, especially if such a campaign were to be based on accusations of ‘heresy and evil.’

While from one perspective the ‘Union’ might be seen as a progressive step toward recognition and protection of the Sufis, the tone of the announcement suggested something more divisive. That would be an imposition of clerical authority on the Sufis through Al-Azhar, based on ‘purification’ of the Sufis by application of stricter shariah and theological standards.

Al-Tayeb’s overture to the Sufis embodied the ambivalence seen throughout the Egyptian Islamic leadership as it adapts to post-Mubarak reality and prepares for elections scheduled for September.