In his book “Al-Azhar: the Sheikh and the Mosque,” Helmy al Namnam writes: “The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar ascended the pulpit to sing the praise of Bonaparte while delivering the Eid sermon ... Sheikh [Abdullah] al-Sharqawy warned worshippers and all Muslims that God’s wrath will strike anyone who thinks of ‘disobeying the orders of the Mamluks’ vanquisher’,” highlighting Al-Azhar’s full support of Napoleon Bonaparte during the French expedition from 1798 to 1801.
By delving into old and classical history textbooks, famous writer Namnam gives a controversial account of Al-Azhar’s relationship with the government since the 10th century. The narrative shows that the institution has always sided with the authorities, centuries before it was entirely subordinated to the ruler under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s.
The year 2012 comes to an end with evidence to suggest that the same old strategy continues.
Led by the French-educated and liberal-minded Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Al-Azhar was thought to be a potential line of defense against religious political groups. But the institution ended up rubber-stamping a constitution designed by the new Islamist ruling elite, despite controversial articles that are believed to give ultra-orthodox groups leeway in imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia.
“Historically Al-Azhar’s clerics, especially senior ones, always adopted the same strategy of not opposing the ruler,” says Hazem Kandil, an assistant sociology professor at Cambridge University.
“Whether the ruler was good or bad, French or British, Al-Azhar always remained aloof from political conflicts to do its job, which is spreading the correct understanding of religion in society,” he adds.
In 1798, an uprising that was dubbed centuries later as “Cairo’s First Revolution” erupted against French invaders. Rather than unequivocally supporting the nascent national movement, Al-Azhar senior scholars — who were already close to Bonaparte — sought to mediate to end the fighting.
Almost three centuries later, history repeats itself. The 25 January revolution breaks out to oust former President Hosni Mubarak and Al-Azhar’s leadership is reluctant to side with protesters, content instead to preach calm in the midst of violence.
“This consistency in Al-Azhar’s attitude comes from Islamic jurisprudence itself,” says Kandil, who is an expert on Islam and politics. “Jurisprudence is neither averse to revolutions nor supportive of despotism.”
But Islamic law holds that if the “balance of power” is not in favor of revolutionaries, rebellion is to be avoided, because it might lead to “bloodshed and infighting.”
“If you are incapable [of ousting an unjust ruler], injustice is better than infighting,” adds Kandil.
“When religious scholars make this trade-off, most of the time they conclude that a rebellion against the leader can lead to killings and destruction,” he continues.
Approving an Islamist constitution
Employing the same logic, Al-Azhar has sided with the new Islamist political elite, argues Kandil.
Al-Azhar’s position on the Islamist-designed constitution could be seen as the first manifestation of the subordination of Egypt’s religious institution to Islamist rulers.
Al-Azhar’s leadership believes that allying with the Brothers’ opponents won’t lead to a positive outcome, but will only instigate chaos, explains Kandil.
The constitution fell short of gaining the support of secular and democratic groups due to certain clauses that sow the seeds of theocratic rule, and that entitle the president to sweeping powers.
Representatives of different Egyptian churches, as well as secularists, withdrew from the Constituent Assembly that drafted the constitution. Some liberals had expected Al-Azhar to follow suit, given the liberal leanings of its grand imam and his reaction to the first Constituent Assembly formed in March 2012.
Back then, Al-Azhar joined liberals in pulling out of the Islamist-dominated assembly. Its withdrawal was seen as the last nail in the controversial body’s coffin. Shortly thereafter, a court disbanded the assembly.
Major developments occurred afterwards that might have influenced Al-Azhar’s decision. With the rise of Islamists to the top echelons of the political system, the institution found its comfort zone.
“For [Al-Azhar scholars], the Muslim Brotherhood is already in power and has a lot of influence in the whole country, and within Al-Azhar itself, while its opponents are divided and weak,” says Kandil.
Namnam adds another dimension that explains Al-Azhar’s dilemma.
“Scholars, including Tayyeb, have their own doubts about liberals and secularists. They believe that these people are against Al-Azhar, religion and Sharia per se,” he says.
An alleged deal
Last month, a video featuring Salafi Dawah leader Yasser Borhamy addressing his followers went viral. In the clip, Borhamy said that a deal had been struck between Al-Azhar’s scholars and the Islamist architects of the constitution. The deal stipulated that the latter approve of a Salafi-dictated clause guaranteeing a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia in return for an article prohibiting the sacking of the grand imam.
Al-Azhar issued a statement denying these claims.
“Nobody knows what deals were made backstage,” says Amr Ezzat, Freedom of Religion and Thought program officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “But reality shows that Al-Azhar and the ruling elite always exchange favors.”
Similar transactions were made under the generals who ruled the country in the interim following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, contends Ezzat, who believes the Al-Azhar Declaration — passed in 2011 to heal the rift between Islamists and secularists over the shape of the new order — came as a favor to the military.
“Al-Azhar was trying to help the generals foment some national consensus,” argues Ezzat.
In return, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces rushed to issue a set of amendments to the Al-Azhar law days before the Islamist-dominated Parliament convened in January 2012, according to Ezzat.
The law had tightened Tayyeb’s grip over Al-Azhar and set no retirement age for the grand imam.
Back then, the Brothers and Salafis voiced vehement opposition to the law and vowed to alter it. Their opposition had exposed their intentions to get rid of Tayyeb and pave the way for internal elections that could lead to the ascent of their allies within the 1,043-year-old institution.
While Tayyeb may see some protection in the constitutional article that prohibits his dismissal, observers hold there is no guarantee he could survive. The Brothers and Salafis could circumvent this constitutional obstacle by passing a law that sets a retirement age for the grand imam.
“The Brothers and Salafis will not let people like Tayyeb remain in Al-Azhar. They will force him to resign or ally completely with them,” claims Kandil.
A secular delusion
By siding with the Brothers and Salafis over the constitution, Tayyeb shocked many liberals who had high hopes that the French Sorbonne alumnus could employ his religious weight to stand up to the ruling party.
Secularists were “hiding behind Al-Azhar” and sought to have it spearhead “the battle” over Sharia against Islamists, argues Namnam.
However, this was practically impossible. “At the end of the day, Al-Azhar is a state institution that cannot antagonize the president or the government,” Namnam says.
Secularists should have “the courage” to fight their own battles, he holds.
Secular hopes about Al-Azhar were initially boosted by a number of initiatives that Tayyeb launched in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster. The Al-Azhar Declaration passed in summer 2011 was seen as the first of Tayyeb’s attempts to guard against extremist thought.
The document envisaged a “modern” and “democratic nation-state” based on a constitution that ensures full separation of the branches of the state and guarantees full equality for all citizens, regardless of their religion. The document also stipulated that the universal principles of Sharia should be the primary source of legislation, a blow to Islamist movements that insist that specific Islamic commandments should shape the law. Later, Tayyeb passed a progressive document endorsing freedom of thought and expression.
Many liberal leaders had celebrated these documents, but Ezzat believes they were wrong in betting on Al-Azhar. “The idea held by civil forces that Al-Azhar could serve as a shield against extremist Islamist ideas was a big illusion,” says Ezzat.
Al-Azhar has a lot in common with Islamists, he argues.
“Al-Azhar thought is very traditional, and the problematic content in Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi discourse has its roots in Al-Azhar itself,” explains Ezzat.
“Until now, Al-Azhar curricula includes Jihad, Jizya (tax paid by non-Muslims), slavery ... The status of women embraced by Islamists coincides with what is being taught at Al-Azhar,” he contends.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.