Al Azhar’s Shake-up Has Ramifications Far Beyond Egypt

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer Scholar - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

February 15, 2013

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The National.

Last week, as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference hosted its summit in Cairo, media zeroed-in on the cordial welcome afforded the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi. But in terms of domestic affairs, the more important greeting was the one Mr Ahmadinejad received at Al Azhar University.

Whereas Mr Morsi embraced the Iranian leader with a hug, Egypt’s top cleric, the grand imam of Al Azhar, Ahmed Al Tayeb, called on Iran to stop interfering in the Arabian Gulf, and to stop encouraging the bloodshed in “brotherly Syria”.

Al Azhar’s independence is not entirely new, but its political positioning is nonetheless noteworthy. The university’s place in politics could become even more prominent in the new Egypt as internal changes within the institution, and the broader Egyptian-Muslim religious establishment, come to fruition.

Al Azhar defines several things in 21st century Egypt: Al Azhar university itself, its alumni and a series of specific religious trends.

On the level of ideas, there are a handful of main trends within Al Azhar’s alumni body. The first can be described as the “Azhari approach”; this trend is the mainstream of Sunni Muslim thinking worldwide, and informs institutions like the Tabah Foundation in the UAE, the Qarawiyyin in Morocco and the Nahdlatul Ulama in Indonesia. It admits the existence of different approaches in scholastic theology, the main schools of Sunni jurisprudence and Sufism.

The second trend would be akin to the reformist trend of the early 20th century, the politicisation of which gave rise to yet a third trend: the Muslim Brotherhood.

And a fourth trend would be the purist Salafi trend, which emerges from Saudi Arabia.

For these and other reasons, Al Azhar is not only the key institution of religious education in Egypt, but home to the key personalities of the Egyptian Muslim religious establishment that have a profound effect on religion, and increasingly, politics.

The first of these key figures is the minister of religious endowments, the Awqaf, who is an Azhari graduate. He is also a Salafi; Talat Afifi was appointed by Mr Morsi last year.

The second figure is the grand imam of Al Azhar, currently Ahmed Al Tayeb, who heads the entire institution. While Sheikh Al Tayeb was appointed by the former president, his eventual successor is to be appointed by Al Azhar’s Senior Scholars Council (SCC).

The third is the grand mufti, Ali Gomaa. He is due to be replaced next month by a relatively unknown scholar of jurisprudence, Shawqi Abdel Karim, newly nominated through an election by the SCC – a first in modern Egypt.

Dr Abdel Karim has a reputation of humility, non-partisan political leanings and sympathy for the Azhari scholastic trend; as such, the Azhari religious establishment has indicated it is generally pleased with the choice. Considering that until very recently, the SCC was privately indicating it did not know who to nominate, it seems that this choice was arranged with the nominee receiving key support.

Nevertheless, his selection came with some drama, amid rumours that a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, Abdel Rahman Al Barr, was on a preliminary list of nominees. His selection was always unlikely, considering the scholars council is predominantly composed of scholars friendly to the current grand imam, himself known to be less than sympathetic towards the Brotherhood.

It’s possible that Mr Morsi will refuse to approve Dr Abdel Karim as the new mufti, but in doing so he would be left with few choices. The SCC included in its recommendation to Mr Morsi that he consider renewing Dr Ali Gomaa’s tenure – something that would be equally unlikely, considering that the mufti is viewed as hostile to the Brotherhood. As such, Mr Morsi will either put his stamp of approval on Dr Abdel Karim, or refuse to appoint anyone. The latter would signify he favours a more pliable candidate for political reasons.

The new mufti, if he is appointed, will have his job cut out for him. Dr Ali Gomaa was an influential figure before becoming mufti, and he increased the influence of the mufti’s office regionally and internationally by sheer activity. That alone is a difficult act to follow.

Dr Abdel Karim, however, will also have to deal with a very different public arena, where he is not simply the mufti but the holder of a key religious post in a country that is deeply polarised between Islamist and non-Islamist forces. Dr Abdel Karim may not want to be more than a religious scholar issuing non-binding verdicts, as per his job description. But he may have no choice. His selection means the balance of power within Egypt’s religious leadership is still beyond the Brotherhood’s control – something it will be keenly aware of.

For many, the selection of the mufti and what appears to be a more politically assertive Al Azhar leadership hints at one thing: senior scholars of Al Azhar and the grand imam’s position remain, for the time being, secure and independent from the Brotherhood’s influence.

That is not something to be taken for granted. As Egypt’s transition continues to unfold, the internal dynamic within the Azhar will likely be of increasing relevance.