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Al-Azhar and the dinosaurs

“Sheikhs issue religious edicts for the price of two chickens. They are no more than stooges of backwardness, feudalism and capitalism.”

This is how former President Gamal Abdel Nasser described religious scholars from Al-Azhar in an article published in 1961 by the government-sponsored newspaper Minbar al-Islam.

As for popular perceptions, two common Egyptian proverbs describe sheikhs as, “The sultan’s sluggish yes men,” and those who “issue religious responses concerning things as tiny as a pin and permit themselves to unlawfully gain ground.”

But why are individuals who should occupy a dignified position in Egyptian society described in such a damning way? What has become of the nation’s leading Islamic institution Al-Azhar today? And what is the historical role of the state in its transformation?

In an attempt to address these questions, a seminar was organized by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) on April 5 as part of the “Forum on Religion and Freedom.” Ahmed Bassiouny’s documentary, Al Azhar: A Citizen, Imam, and Sultan, produced by Daal for Research and Media — an independent production company that integrates research and media solutions — was screened and discussed during the event.

The basic pretext of the documentary is that the Al-Azhar should act as a mediator between the nation’s leader (sultan) and its citizens. Using historical footage, other archival materials, and a number of interviews, it traces a few key historical moments in the history of Al-Azhar, starting with its origins as a Shia institute, and moving to its leading role during the revolution of 1919, to its deterioration as a result of state intervention and politicization in the wake of 1952. It also engages with material from 2011 onwards, though cautiously.

While the film does a good job of covering a number of complex issues that are pertinent to Al-Azhar’s reformation, including the quality of state-sponsored religious and non-religious education, the range of topics it engages is not met by the depth with which it analyzes them.

Three discussants offered their perspectives at the seminar on the documentary. The first was Daal’s director, Essam Fawzy, who stated that, although it is fair to criticize the film for not tackling the relationship between the administration of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Al-Azhar, “we had to make concessions, because we needed to pitch and sell the film.”

Even if this disclaimer is accepted, the inclusion of Kamal al-Hilbawy and Mazhar Shahin, the first of whom wrongly claimed Al-Azhar’s relationship with the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood was favorable, and the latter is a pro-state demagogue, is unforgivable. There was hardly any mention in the film of “good” sheikhs. The name of martyred revolutionary Sheikh Emad Effat was mentioned only in passing, and there was no mention of someone like Sheikh Hassan al-Shafi’i, who stepped down from his high-ranking position in protest over the 2013 Rabea massacre. 

The second discussant was Basma Abdel Aziz, a writer, psychiatrist, and artist, who recently published, Satwat al-Nass (The Power of the Text), in which she applied critical discourse analysis to a specific body of Al-Azhar’s literature and rhetoric during the intense three months following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013. The findings of the book are pertinent to any discussion of Al-Azhar’s political views, as it carefully examines the linguistic rhetoric used by the institution to claim its role as an unbiased arbitrator of religious affairs, but with the aim of supporting the state. Abdel Aziz cited Shafi’i as being the only courageous interlocutor who dared to speak about the relationship between the state and Al-Azhar. Other than that, Abdel Aziz said nothing about the film.

Hamadallah al-Safty, director of scientific and cultural affairs at the World Association of Azhar Graduates, referenced a number of divergent opinions within Al-Azhar, pointing out that there isn’t one perspective or narrative. In addition to the institution’s adopted Sunni orthodoxy, he cited a plethora of religious perspectives that he said cut through the institution, which oversees the education of 450,000-500,000 students. His discussion oscillated between historical correction (such as explaining how, contrary to the widely held claim, Al-Azhar never fully closed down under Saladin, but only ceased its prestigious Friday Sermon), “to apologia, (claiming that Al-Azhar always distinguishes between the ‘patriotic’ and the ‘political’ regarding public affairs.”

After Safty made his closing statement, I could see the eye rolling and mumbling. Al-Azhar’s alignment with Sisi’s administration was the elephant in the room. As Abdel Aziz wrote in her book:

“It can be said that every patriotic action that is connected to political inputs is political first and foremost. In the case that Al-Azhar chooses to side with one of the parties engaged in a struggle over power, by this it has assumed a political role. As for whether we can describe such a role as patriotic or otherwise, that remains a question for debate.”

Words that were repeated in both the documentary and discussion were “modernization” and “reform” — modernization as a pretext to compel Al-Azhar to submit to, and legitimize, state policies. In order for the state to modernize Al-Azhar, especially under Nasser, it needed to control it, and in order to control it, it needed to remodel it as an extension of itself: an oversized, dysfunctional bureaucracy, permeable to the security apparatus. But there is more to the conversation. According to Malika Zeghal, professor of contemporary Islamic thought at Harvard University, Al-Azhar scholars benefited from their allegiance to the state through forums for public engagement that they previously had no access to.

As “Islam” was bandied around the room, one couldn’t help but ask: Is the Islam called for by Al-Azhar now a neutral and apolitical religion? No one in the room agreed on this either.

In an important paper by researcher Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, Intisar al-dawla ‘ala al-Islam (The State’s Triumph over Islam), he asserts that the control of religion by the state was aided by the codification of Sharia law and the popularity of Islamist movements — including the Muslim Brotherhood — which he maintains all contributed to dismantling an older Islamic order, including Sufism. This echoes Hegel’s notion that the state has overtaken religion to become “God on earth.”

Another elephant in the room was the influence of Saudi Arabia on Al-Azhar, despite the Kingdom spearheading a rival theological school that runs counter to Al-Azhar’s raison d’etre, namely its adherence to the Ash`ari theology, sect-based jurisprudence and Sufism.

During the 2015 Hajj season, when more than 140 Egyptian pilgrims died in a stampede, Al-Azhar didn’t question Saudi Arabia’s safety procedures. Instead it rushed headlong into attacking Iran for criticizing the Kingdom. There is a historical backdrop to this “allegiance” to the Kingdom, which dates back to the 1970s, when Al-Azhar called for external donations to expand and fight “deviant” groups. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait contributed the lion’s share of the donations.

Using Al-Azhar for political ends dates back to the age of empire. According to Reem Meshal in her book, Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian, the Ottoman Caliphate needed Al-Azhar to discipline the populace (to use French Philosopher Michel Foucault’s analytical term). Meshal demonstrated how the Ottomans used Al-Azhar to meter out religious punishment and discretionary penalties (ta`zir). Abdel Aziz also highlights parallels between the patriarchal tone used by statesmen and bureaucrats and religious discourse. No wonder we often hear the younger generation today grouping these aged, repressive, patriarchal and authoritarian institutions under one banner, referring to them all as “dinosaurs.”

Finally, unless Al-Azhar struggles for its independence, allowing it to fully perform its roles, both scholarly and spiritual, as well as to criticize the state, its own fate will be the same as that of the dinosaurs: extinction.

After the film a religious scholar asserted that God, religion, and Sunni traditionalism are bigger than any single institution. He asked me, “What does it matter if Al-Azhar collapses?”

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Tarek Ghanem