Al-Azhar’s power play

Following several steps to tighten its grip on Egypt’s mosques, the Ministry of Endowments has unexpectedly decided to shift the affiliation of Al-Azhar mosque, placing it under the auspices of Al-Azhar institution itself.

The move comes amid a general inclination by the state to control the strong presence of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Egypt’s mosques, and curb its religious influence as part of its fierce battle with the deposed group.

Since his appointment by the interim government, Endowments Minister Mokhtar Gomaa has made moves to control the country’s religious sphere following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3. The most prominent of his decisions was to revoke the licenses of 55,000 imams and ban Friday sermons in mosques smaller than 80 meters.

The ministry’s latest decision however brings Al-Azhar’s Grand Mosque back under the supervision of the religious institution after 22 years of state control. In 1992, when the state opted to supervise all the country’s mosques during its battle with extremist groups, Al-Azhar was no exception.

But in its current war against terrorism and ongoing battle with the Muslim Brotherhood the decision seems puzzling.

Researcher at the religious freedoms unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Amr Ezzat believes that such a move does not show a tendency by the state to guarantee more independence for religious discourse as much as it shows the political weight Al-Azhar has managed to gain following a military-proposed political roadmap.

Ezzat’s comment is in reference to Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who appeared with Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he announced the roadmap amid Morsi’s ouster. Since then, Tayyeb has gained major political influence.

“Al-Azhar is no longer a religious institution, it is now a partner on the political scene and makes the same power plays as the state,” Ezzat explains, “Its influence has increased lately because the institution now plays a major role in the legitimization of the current political process.”

He also points specifically to Tayyeb’s personal influence on the process. “He is the one behind appointing Gomaa, who used to work in his office, so in practice, Tayyeb controls the ministry, there are no longer any definitive lines between both institutions,” he explained.

Tayyeb’s influence was palpable in a statement by Gomaa on the ministry’s efforts to bring the administration of mosques belonging to Al-Gameaya al-Shareaya and other religious NGOs under its control.

“We proudly work under the umbrella of Al-Azhar and its Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb to spread the tolerance of Islam across Egypt, based on collaborative religious missions by both institutions,” Gomaa said in the statement issued on January 18.

The position of Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh has always been a powerful tool for state influence over the supreme religious institution.

Former President Gamal Abdel Nasser gained control over Al-Azhar under Law 103 of 1961, through which he placed the institution under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Endowments. This law granted the president the authority to appoint the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar.

Tayyeb was appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak in March 2010 following Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi.

Being a member in the political bureau of the then ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), Tayyeb’s stance towards the January 25 uprising was viewed as being in favor of the Mubarak state. Amid calls for mass protests, Tayyeb described demands as “just and fair,” but warned against possible attempts to disrupt security and the stability of the country.

As the conflict intensified, Tayyeb openly declared that protests were “religiously banned,” since he believed most of the demands had already been met by Mubarak, referring to a decision by the ousted president to authorize Omar Suleiman to practice presidential powers. The grand sheikh justified this move as an attempt to prevent more bloodshed.

As a result, the independence of Al-Azhar was at the heart of the political debate following Mubarak’s ouster, with observers becoming increasingly critical of the politicization of the institution under his rule.

Before the first session of a Brotherhood-dominated elected parliament in early 2012, Tayyeb proposed a draft law stipulating that the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar be no longer appointed by the president, but instead be elected by members of the Council of Scholars, a body dissolved half a century ago and restored in 2012. The draft law was approved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the then de-facto ruler of the country.

In a recent interview, Tayyeb’s deputy Abbas Shouman told state-run daily newspaper Al-Ahram that the ministry’s decision to shift Al-Azhar’s mosque under the jurisdiction of the institution was based on a request by Al-Azhar itself, in a bid to regain control of the mosque’s administration.

Al-Azhar’s request aims primarily at taking the weight of moderating the religious discourse off the shoulders of the ministry, Shouman said.

General coordinator of the Imams without Constraints movement Sheikh Ahmed al-Bahey sees the decision as a step towards giving Al-Azhar more independence.

The movement was launched last year under Muslim Brotherhood rule to call for the independence of imams and fight against what members considered to be the political exploitation of mosques.

Bahey believes that the Al-Azhar mosque is “the symbol of Al-Azhar,” and that bringing it back under Al-Azhar’s jurisprudence is important to ensure the institution’s independence. He added that the decision should be a step towards bringing all Egypt’s mosques under Al-Azhar’s control. “We demand the complete independence of the mosques from the supervision of the ministry. State control of religious discourse is problematic. We have seen how the Brotherhood imposed their tight grip over the religious sphere by controlling the mosques through the ministry,” he explained.

“Egypt’s religious discourse is engineered according to the ruling regime that controls the ministry. It is important to bring the administration of the mosques under an independent body, like Al-Azhar,” he added.

Within the short-lived reign of Morsi, the Endowments Ministry was under strong Brotherhood influence, and faced accusations of manipulating mosques for political gain. The Muslim Brotherhood has long been accused of propagating its political ideas through mosques, as well as mobilizing citizens to vote for its candidates.

Bahey said that there are plans to file a lawsuit to bring the administration of the mosques under Al-Azhar, in accordance with Article 7 in the recently passed constitution. Article 7 stipulates that, “Al-Azhar is an independent, Islamic scientific institution with exclusive autonomy over its affairs. It is the principal reference for religious sciences and Islamic affairs. It is responsible for preaching Islam, spreading theology and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world. The state shall ensure sufficient funds for Al-Azhar to achieve its objectives. The post of Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh is independent and may not be dismissed. The method of choosing the Grand Sheikh from among members of the Council of Senior Scholars shall be determined by the law.”

In its capacity as “the principal reference for religious sciences and Islamic affairs,” Al-Azhar should moderate the mosques not the ministry, Bahey asserted.

“We were told [by Al-Azhar clerics] that this will happen without legal action, but if it does not work, we will take this course,” he added.

However, Ezzat feels increasingly worried about Bahey’s calls, deeming them as attempts to “turn Al-Azhar into a new ministry of endowments.”

“This means another nationalization of the mosques, and another type of control over the religious sphere in Egypt; it will officially turn Al-Azhar into another body that exclusively runs Islam and its affairs and bans practicing outside the scope of the institution,” he said.

Ezzat believes that the legal and the political context in Egypt should open the space for religious pluralism, including the administration of religious discourse inside mosques.

“We have mosques that are in fact independently run by religious NGOs, by individuals, by Salafi groups, and by Sufi Tariqas. Pluralism is already in place, but is always threatened by the state’s iron fist through restrictive legislations. Bringing the control of mosques under Al-Azhar or any other institution is not going to fix the situation, but freeing the religious sphere definitely will,” he explained.


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