Middle East Notes and Comment: Al-Azhar’s Perilous Resurgence
April 20, 2015
Egypt has played an outsized role in the Arab world for centuries, and that role continues. Its population of 90 million dwarfs that of all of its neighbors, and its legions of teachers, lawyers, and physicians scattered throughout the Arab world (and the prevalence of Egyptian singers, movie stars, and newscasters on Arab airwaves) give almost every Arab a personal tie to the country. It was surprising, then, when a senior Arab leader told a visiting delegation recently that “Egypt isn’t Cairo, it’s al-Azhar,” the millennium-old mosque, seminary, and modern university. At one point during Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, this leader said, he considered removing the “books and brains” of Azhar from the country in order to preserve them.
The idea of Azhar as a political football isn’t new, and every Middle Eastern government has sought to use religious authority to buttress its own rule. But Azhar’s political salience generally has been shrinking in recent years. The recent effort to revive Azhar to serve a narrow political purpose is important, even if it is not new.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Azhar is older than the Egyptian state. Empires have come and gone through Egypt—the Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, and Ottomans—while Azhar has endured. It almost did not. As Gamal Abdel Nasser consolidated his power in Egypt in the late 1950s, he saw Azhar partly as an anachronistic embarrassment and partly as a competing power center. Following a series of moves to undermine the power of religious institutions in Egypt in the late 1950s, he expanded Azhar and diluted its influence at the same time. Following a 1961 reform, he added modern faculties such as engineering, medicine, and pharmacy to the traditional concentrations centered on language and theology. Clerics moved on to the government payroll, and enrollment surged. Nasser also made the head of Azhar a presidential appointee, helping ensure that the institution would not be out of step with government needs.
In some ways, Nasser’s move was brilliant. Bringing Azhar into closer line with the government not only helped sustain his religious legitimacy at home, but also gave him a weapon against Saudi Arabia, which played a large regional role as Egypt’s religious and political rival.
But at the same time, Nasser’s moves laid the groundwork for the Islamicization of many of Egypt’s professional syndicates. Classes in the new Azhar mashed together traditional Islamic teaching methods—generally rote memorization—and the scientific method, which involved challenging fundamental assumptions and revising beliefs in response to evidence. A cadre emerged who believed it was proper to have an “Islamic” approach to their professions. In addition, a cadre emerged who had never had exposure in school to Egypt’s non-Muslim population, since Azhari education started in the primary grades and was only open to Muslims.
Doctrinally, Azhar in its new form did not break new ground. Like many Nasserist institutions, its modernity was undermined by the fact that it tended to be overcrowded and underfunded, and the watchful eye of the state was never far away. At the same time, Azhar remained a religious institution that was relatively open to different schools of jurisprudence and to the spiritual Sufi trend in Islam, which Saudi Arabia explicitly barred. In practice, Azhar remained just rambunctious enough to maintain its credibility as a semi-independent institution, but not so rambunctious that Egypt’s leaders lost sleep over its influence.
When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt in 2012, it sought to liberate Azhar from state control. Although Nasser had used the institution to help discredit the Brotherhood in the 1960s, the organization had long called for Azhar’s independence. Rather than move swiftly to capture the institution and put a Brotherhood imprint on Islamic education in Egypt, the Brotherhood gave it more freedom in order to burnish its credibility.
When the Army moved against the Brotherhood on July 3, 2013, the Sheikh of al-Azhar stood next to then-Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in his first public address. In the months since, Azhar has been a prominent player in Egyptian efforts to regulate Islam in Egypt, systematize government control over preachers and sermons, and eliminate radicalism from the Egyptian public.
On January 1, 2015, now-President Sisi used Azhar as a podium to argue for a reform of religious discourse in Egypt. In a speech marking the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday that U.S. conservatives widely hailed, Sisi departed from his text to appeal to the gathered clerics. He spoke passionately but calmly in colloquial Arabic, calling for a rethinking of religious discourse so as to restore the glory of Islam. Given classical Arabic’s sanctity as the language of the Prophet, and given the seriousness that Azhar has given to teaching proper Arabic through the centuries, the president’s decision as a secular leader to deliver a religious message to a clerical audience in secular language was a clear demonstration of where power lies in the new Egypt.
The challenge that Sisi faces, and the challenge that his boosters in the Gulf face, is that the closer religion comes to serving the needs of the state, the less credibility it enjoys. Seen another way, Islam’s credibility is a renewable resource only to the extent that it is seen as an independent entity. Each time clerics improbably support dubious governmental actions, it surrenders some of its authority. An institution that is clearly subservient to the needs of the state will be widely ridiculed as a government stooge.
The Egyptian government has a clear interest in discouraging extremism, which has found refuge in Azhar and other Muslim religious institutions. Like any government, Egypt’s has an interest in regulating extreme speech and extreme actions, whether they are taken in the name of religion or politics. Yet, as much as some see Azhar as an answer to problems facing the Arab world, overreliance on the institution carries within it the seeds of ineffectiveness. Similarly, giving authority to religious institutions creates unintended consequences, as Nasser’s successors discovered. Azhar is a potential resource in Arab battles against extremism, but it is one best used carefully, and sparingly.