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In March 2010, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, holder of a PhD in philosophy from France's prestigious Sorbonne University, was appointed Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. His ascendance to the highest religious post in the Sunni world raised hopes that liberal reforms would finally reach Al-Azhar, which had seen more conservative schools of thought make inroads in recent years. As expected, Tayyeb quickly began changing the curriculum, searching for ways that Al-Azhar could engage in dialogue and help bridge the gap between Islam and other cultures.
With the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the subsequent emergence of Islamist factions in the political sphere, Tayyeb’s project has begun to creep outside of Al-Azhar’s gates. Over the course of the last year, Tayyeb, born in 1946, has vigorously participated in Egypt's new political life, pushing his own progressive vision of the state. But his endeavor has not been unopposed. Even as Tayyeb's political influence grows, fellow clerics dismiss him as "a dictator" who wants to "hijack" Al-Azhar.
Egypt Independent sat down with Mahmoud Azab, professor of comparative languages at Al-Azhar and one of the most influential minds on Tayyeb’s team, to discuss the Grand Imam’s project.
"Al-Azhar seeks to amend Islamic culture and free it from the impurities that have accumulated over the last quarter of a century," says Azab, Tayyeb's advisor for dialogue. "[Al-Azhar] calls on everyone to rally under its umbrella."
Like his boss, Azab holds a PhD from the Sorbonne, with his degree in Semitic languages. He had taught in France for almost 14 years before he heeded Tayyeb’s call to return to Egypt and serve as his aide in July 2010.
It was the decline of Al-Azhar, the traditional bastion of moderate Islam, that allowed "disqualified," "unaccredited," yet "wealthy" forces to dominate the religious sphere, argues Azab in an oblique reference to the allegedly Saudi-funded Salafi movement.
In the mean time, Azab agrees with many observers that intransigent thought has found its way into Al-Azhar through scholars who, like millions of Egyptian professionals, have spent time living and working in the Arab Gulf countries, which is the seat of Wahhabi thought.*
"Al-Azhar lives in the Egyptian society and on the Egyptian soil, not in the sky or in Mars. Its scholars, students and workers are affected by whatever affects the rest of the society," says Azab, although he believes that such conservative professors constitute a minority.
To reinvigorate Al-Azhar, Tayyeb has revamped the curriculum by reviving the tradition of teaching different schools of jurisprudence. "Al-Azhar will return to its heritage of being open to pluralism so we can have graduates of better caliber," explains Azab.
Al-Azhar speaking politics
A few months after Mubarak's ouster, Tayyeb threw himself into the political arena by issuing an eleven-clause charter in which he declared the institution’s official position on the prospective political order. The declaration, dubbed the Al-Azhar Document, was the outcome of deliberations with fellow clerics and intellectuals with different political and religious leanings.
The document envisaged a "modern" and "democratic nation-state" based on a constitution that ensures full separation between the different branches of the state and guarantees full equality for all citizens regardless of their religion. The document also stipulated that the universal principles of Islamic Sharia should be the primary source of legislation, a blow to Islamist movements that insist that specific Islamic commandments should shape the law.
The charter, which appeared at a moment of frequent feuds between secularists and Islamists, was hailed as progressive and reconciliatory. Tayyeb also succeeded in bringing together these different groups in August and having them endorse his charter as a set of guidelines for the new constitution.
While Tayyeb’s detractors claim that Al-Azhar should not interfere in politics, Azab refuses to describe such moves as "political." In his opinion, Tayyeb and his team are engaged in a "national" mission to heel rifts. He emphasizes that they maintain an equal distance from all political players.
"Al-Azhar is like a father and a reference authority," Azab says. "It does not side with anyone at the expense of the other."
Earlier this month, Al-Azhar released another progressive charter endorsing freedom of expression, belief, creativity and scientific research. This second document appeared after provisional electoral results showed Islamist parties winning over two-thirds of parliamentary seats. Salafis now make up almost one-quarter of the People’s Assembly.
"As we are coming out of an era of weakness and fragmentation, Al-Azhar believes that all social, cultural and scientific aspects of life need to be rearticulated in a robust way…This is what a revolution means for Al-Azhar," Azab says, adding that Al-Azhar is contemplating the issuance of more charters that seek to resolve contentious issues such as women’s rights and the economic system.
By releasing such documents, "Al-Azhar is trying to protect society from a particular jurisprudential trend that may change people’s lives and what they have been used to for decades," says Georges Fahmi, a PhD candidate with the European University Institute and an expert Salafi jurisprudence in Egypt’s religious institutions.
"It is not to protect the status quo but rather to defend an enlightened interpretation of Islam that does not contradict values of modernity," he adds.
The rise of Islamist political parties has inspired fears that new parliamentarians may overhaul Egypt’s legal system and social norms to create a strictly religious state like Saudi Arabia. Women, non-Muslims, tourism and the banking system are some of the people and institutions that are most likely to be affected if such a change occurs.
Al-Azhar law: A point of contention
As soon as Mubarak stepped down, Tayyeb pushed for the amendment of the notorious 1961 law, which brought Al-Azhar under the full control of the president and gave the president the right to appoint the Grand Imam. His demand has been supported by all political factions, including liberals and Islamists.
With this in mind, Tayyeb appointed a commission of legal experts and religious scholars to draft a new bill. Earlier this month, the final draft was referred to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which put it into effect by issuing a military decree. This decree was published in the official record dated 19 January. It included other cabinet-designed bills on the regulation of the presidential elections and development in the Sinai Peninsula.
But according to Sobhi Saleh, a member of the recently-elected People’s Assembly, these laws risk being deemed unconstitutional because they were issued only four days before Parliament was inaugurated. "There was no urgent need to rush and issue these laws," says Sobhi, who is a member of the Freedom and Justice Party, which holds more than 40 percent of seats in the People’s Assembly. "They [draft bills] should have been presented to the People’s Assembly first."
"These decrees do not prevent the People’s Assembly from revisiting the laws, abolishing or amending them," he adds.
Sobhi says that his party supports the law that ensures the independence of Al-Azhar. "We support the philosophy of this law," he said. "But if the wording is flawed, vague or bears multiple meanings we will fix it."
The law emphasizes the political and financial independence of Al-Azhar, and it upholds the 1,042-year-old university and mosque as the highest religious authority. It stipulates that the Senior Scholars Authority shall be reinstated to issue opinions on social and legislative matters that have a religious or moral dimension and to elect the grand imam. But no grand imam shall be elected unless the post is vacant, but the law does not stipulate a retirement age which means that Tayyeb has the right to stay in office indefinitely. It also grants the imam the right to appoint the members of the first SSA.
The law has already drawn the ire of many Al-Azhar clerics, who argue that it aims at tightening the grip of Tayyeb and his team on Al-Azhar.
On the first anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, Sheikh Hashem Islam, a member of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee, stood on one of the stages erected in Tahrir Square and dismissed Tayyeb as a tyrant and a dictator.
As soon as he stepped down, a grey-haired man angrily criticized him and accused the sheikh of seeking to replace the moderate scholar with a fundamentalist one. "You want to hand Al-Azhar over to the wahhabis!" he shouted.
Islam yelled back: "Al-Azhar has always been a symbol of moderate Islam. What you are saying is the propaganda of the [disbanded formerly ruling] National Democratic Party and Mubarak."
"We cannot accept being ruled by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayyeb," said Islam. "He is another Hosni Mubarak with a turban and a robe."
While Tayyeb's academic credentials are unquestioned, he is haunted by his ties with the old regime and his disapproval of anti-Mubarak protests during the 18-day uprising.
"This law was drafted secretly and Tayyeb did not consult anyone on it," Islam told Egypt Independent from Tahrir Square. "He is deliberately isolating scholars whether in drafting the Al-Azhar Document or in the law…Plus, the timing of drafting the law raises doubts. He is stealing Al-Azhar," he said.
After the revolution, several coalitions of young Azhar-sanctioned preachers emerged to demand Tayyeb’s sacking and the independence of the religious institution. They had formulated their own bill, which eases eligibility conditions for the SSA. In the meantime, some rebellious preachers argue that the grand imam should retire at the age of 70.
Azab responds that Al-Azhar's leaders are the ones who should be making such decisions. "Being an imam or a professor who graduated from Al-Azhar is not enough to decide how Al-Azhar should be," says Azab. "Al-Azhar has a grand imam and the IRA that discusses its issues."
Some of these nascent coalitions include Al-Azhar clerics who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood or endorse the Salafi thought. Such political connections have raised fears that the movement seeks to mute Tayyeb’s moderate voice and replace it with a hardcore Islamist one.
“Tayyeb has an institutional interest in grabbing the independence of Al-Azhar before the political regime falls into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists in general,” says Fahmi.
*Correction: This paragraph originally stated that Azab "noted that Al-Azhar was corrupted from within." That was a misrepresentation of his sentiment.