Egyptian lawmakers reject attacks on Al Azhar

Al Azhar is engaged in reform efforts aimed at combating the spread of extremist ideology

Gulf News, by Ramadan Al Sherbini, May 11, 2017:

Cairo: A group of Egyptian lawmakers this week visited grand imam of Al Azhar Shaikh Ahmad Al Tayyeb in a sign of solidarity with the leader of the venerable seat of Islamic learning against increasing criticism from secularists.

The lawmakers significantly labelled their visit “Al Azhar and its imam are a red line”.

“The visit emphasises unqualified support for the holy Al Azhar and the grand imam for their efforts in confronting the extremist and terrorist groups,” MP Ahmad Idriss, a member of the visiting delegation, said following Tuesday’s visit.

A press statement from Al Azhar, meanwhile, said the visiting legislators expressed “rejection of any affront to the exalted institution and its symbols”.

In the wake of suicide attacks at two churches in Egypt that killed 46 people last month, Al Azhar has been harshly criticised in pro-government media for teaching curriculum allegedly promoting radicalism and sectarianism.

The detractors also accused Al Azhar of failing to respond to repeated calls by President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi to update the religious discourse in order to help fight violent militancy.

“There is a group inside Al Azhar that is loyal to the [now-banned] Muslim Brotherhood and its ideology,” Khalid Montasser, a well-known secular writer, said.

“Why is this group allowed to continue to control Al Azhar until now? The Shaikh of Al Azhar has to declare his position about whether he is on the side of the civil state or the Brotherhood group controlling Al Azhar,” added Montasser in a recent TV interview.

Al Azhar has repeatedly denied having any sympathisers for the Brotherhood that was outlawed in Egypt months after the army’s 2013 overthrow of Islamist president Mohammad Mursi.

Shaikh Al Tayyeb, an eminent moderate Islamic scholar, has in a recent appearance on Egyptian state television condemned criticism of his institution as a “systematic campaign” aimed at wrecking “original” centres in the Islamic nation, mainly Al Azhar.

The campaign against Al Azhar also came after the Council of Senior Scholars, an affiliate of the 1,000-year-old institution, rejected a suggestion by Al Sissi for legislation to ban verbal divorce by Muslim men of their wives amid high rates of divorce in the Muslim-majority country.

The council said verbal divorce has been a tradition since the days of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

There has been no official comment on the council’s snub.

However, Mohammad Abu Hamed, a pro-government parliamentarian, has disclosed a draft law that would put a cap on the tenure of Al Azhar head and make his unseating possible.

Currently, Al Azhar Shaikh is elected by the 50-member Council of Senior Scholars with no limit on the terms he can serve.

Abu Hamed suggests in his draft that Al Azhar head holds the post for eight years with a maximum second term. The lawmaker also proposes separating faculties teaching non-religious subjects from Al Azhar and instead putting them under secular academic institutions in the country.

Under a 1961 law, Al Azhar has expanded its education role and set up faculties majoring in medicine, science and pharmacology.

Abu Hamed has defended his draft against increasing opposition inside the parliament.

“The draft bill is aimed at developing Al Azhar and infusing fresh blood into it,” he said in press remarks. “There should be a set of governance rules regulating the election of Al Azhar Shaikh and the relation between Al Azhar Mosque and Al Azhar University.”

He vowed to go ahead with presenting the draft, saying that he has secured the quota required for putting it up for parliamentary debate.

The assembly has set no date for the debate.

Al Sissi, a Muslim, has repeatedly called Al Azhar a “bastion of moderate Islam” and urged it to lead efforts for religious reform.

Late last month, Al Azhar hosted an international conference addressed by Pope Francis of the Vatican in a sign of warming ties between the two institutions.