MEMRI, By: C. Meital, Aug. 21, 2017:
Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, the most important institute of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, and its head, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayeb, are currently facing a political and media attack led by the institute of the Egyptian presidency, headed by President ‘Abd Al-Fatah Al-Sisi. This is the latest episode in the past two years of ongoing tension between the two institutions, over Al-Azhar’s apparent refusal to comply with the president’s dictates in matters of religion.
One aspect of the attack on Al-Azhar is President Al-Sisi’s direct criticism of Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb; another is criticism of Al-Azhar in the government press; and yet another is parliamentary moves led by Al-Sisi’s associates aimed at limiting the authorities of the Al-Azhar sheikh. There have also been calls for Sheikh Al-Tayeb himself to step down.
The main criticism against Al-Azhar is that the institution has failed to join the ideological war on terrorism that is led by President Al-Sisi. Critics say that Al-Azhar is not complying with Al-Sisi’s major goal, announced in 2014 and frequently reiterated by him, to promote a renewal of the religious discourse in Egypt, and also point out that it is refusing to level the accusation of heresy against the Islamic State (ISIS), which has claimed responsibility for several terror attacks in the country. It is also being said that Al-Azhar’s curricula encourage young people to turn to terrorism. In addition, there is criticism of Al-Azhar’s refusal to change how divorces are handled, as Al-Sisi has also demanded.
Al-Azhar representatives, headed by Sheikh Al-Tayeb, have rejected these criticisms, calling them deliberate lies that damage Islam. To show that it is indeed fulfilling its role and that it is a moderate Islamic institution, Al-Azhar has in recent months held international conventions on the subject of fighting extremism, as well as meetings with young people, and has waged anti-extremism and anti-terrorism campaigns.
It should be noted that despite the harsh criticism of Al-Azhar, and of Sheikh Al-Tayeb, it still has the public’s sympathy, and significant support from many members of parliament.
This report will focus on the tension between the Egyptian presidency and Al-Azhar, as reflected in statements by the leaders of both institutions, in parliamentary activity against it, and in articles in the Egyptian press.
Tension Between President Al-Sisi And Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayeb
As stated, in recent months it has become evident that there is considerable tension between President Al-Sisi and Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayeb, as reflected in the president’s criticism of the sheikh both in public and in closed meetings. Currently, the main criticism against Al-Azhar is that it is not making sufficient efforts to advance the renewal of religious discourse in Egypt, as Al-Sisi has demanded.
President Al-Sisi Repeatedly Reprimands Al-Azhar Sheikh – And Reportedly Threatens To Replace Him There have been several Egyptian newspaper reports concerning President’s Al-Sisi’s displeasure with Al-Azhar’s lack of action on this issue; he has made this clear in individual meetings with Sheikh Al-Tayeb and at public events.
At January 1, 2015 festivities marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad at the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments, Al-Sisi said to Sheikh Al-Tayeb: “The preachers are responsible to Allah for the renewal of the religious discourse and for improving the image of Islam. [On Judgment Day,] I will argue against you before Allah [if you do not do this].”
Following a November 30, 2016 meeting between the two, the independent Egyptian daily Al-Misriyyoun reported on their chilly relationship and noted that the president was furious at Al-Azhar’s failure to vehemently attack political Islam organizations, specifically ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and for its continuing aggressive anti-Shi’ite position.
There are, however, only a few such reports; for the most part, Al-Sisi is careful to express respect for Al-Azhar while at the same time clarifying his position vis-à-vis how it functions. Thus, he told the editors of government newspapers in a May 2017 interview: “Our general line is to protect the institutions of the Egyptian state, to urge them to fulfill their roles, and to develop them in a way that will suit the challenges and dangers that we face. Al-Azhar has a monumental status both inside and outside Egypt, and that is why we insist that it fulfill its role, because both the region and the world need it to do so.”
At a June 21, 2017 event marking Laylat Al-Qadr, the night when, according to Muslim tradition, the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad, Al-Sisi praised Al-Azhar as a source of pride and for the position it has held for over a millennium. He went on to reiterate the need for a renewal of the religious discourse, calling it “a matter of life and death for the people and the ummah.”
On July 26, 2017, four months after the April 8, 2017 Palm Sunday attacks on Mar Girgis church in Tanta and St. Marks Cathedral in Alexandria, Al-Sisi confirmed his decision to establish a Supreme Council for the Fight Against Extremism and Terrorism,” to be headed by him, and whose members would include the parliamentary speaker, the prime minister, the Al-Azhar sheikh, the Coptic Patriarch, various government ministers, the head of Egypt’s general intelligence service, the head of the Administrative Supervisory Authority, and public figures such as former Egyptian mufti Ali Goma’a. However, even though the Al-Azhar sheikh is on the council, Egyptian media members who are close to the regime interpreted the establishment of the council as a blow to Al-Azhar’s authority; some even called it proof of Al-Azhar’s “demise.” The establishment of this council, they said, meant that the institution of the presidency had decided that it itself would act on the matter of renewing the religious discourse, instead of waiting for the Ministry of Endowments or for Al-Azhar to do so.
Another serious dispute between Al-Sisi and Sheikh Al-Tayeb erupted over the issue of talaq – that is, a Muslim husband’s power to divorce his wife on the spot by merely telling her three times “I divorce you.” Al-Sisi again reprimanded Al-Tayeb in public. During a January 24, 2017 speech marking Police Day, he addressed him directly, saying: “You’ve tired me out, my friend.” Al-Sisi went on to call for an end to this divorce practice, which is common in Egypt, and for divorce to be documented legally in order to reduce the rate of talaq divorces in the country. In response, MP ‘Amr Hamroush hastened to prepare a bill regulating divorce.
This demand by President Al-Sisi, which also garnered support from the Egyptian media, was perceived by the Al-Azhar institute as an affront to Islam, an attempt to secularize Egypt, and an attempt to circumvent the authority of the institute. In an announcement, Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars clarified that “by virtue of Al-Azhar’s religious responsibility and its status in the Egyptian ummah, as determined by the constitution of Egypt,” it had in recent months convened to discuss current social issues, among them the issue of divorce in a religious context, and that it had decided that talaq is permitted. In this way, the council made it clear that Al-Azhar does indeed have decision-making authority in matters of Islamic law.
Al-Azhar cleric Dr. Yahya Ismail said: “The war against Islam and its rulings is an old war. There is an ongoing, focused campaign to secularize Egypt…” He added: “This is a conspiracy against Islam and its guidelines… The rulings and conditions regarding divorce are known… The game of [legally] documenting divorce is an old one, and it is Christian clerics who were behind it [and who] tried to persuade some of [Egypt’s] presidents in this matter…” Al-Azhar lecturer Ahmed Karima also criticized Al-Sisi’s demand, saying: “Who will successfully eradicate this [talaq]? Only Allah or His Messenger… “
Following the media uproar over the divorce issue, there was an attempt to calm the waters by both sides, and to show that things had returned to normal. On February 26, 2017, Al-Sisi stressed, in a meeting with Sheikh Al-Tayeb, that Al-Azhar is like a lighthouse for moderate Islamic ideology. Al-Tayeb advisor Muhammad ‘Abd Al-Salam also denied that there was any disagreement between the two institutions of Al-Azhar and the presidency.
Measures Against Al-Azhar: A Bill To Limit Al-Azhar Sheikh’s Authority And Establishment Of A Committee To Examine Al-Azhar Curricula
One manifestation of the anger at Al-Azhar was recent parliamentary measures against it and its sheikh aimed at limiting his authority and independence. Recently, MP Muhammad Abu Hamed, known to support Al-Sisi, proposed a change to the 1961 Al-Azhar Law regulating the authority of both the institute and its head. This bill was supported by parliamentary speaker Ali ‘Abd Al-A’al, who argued that the bill did not harm Al-Azhar.
The main points of the amendment bill proposed by Abu Hamed make it clear that it is aimed at limiting the Al-Azhar sheikh’s authority and at increasing governmental control of the institute itself. For example, Section 2 of Abu Hamad’s bill states that the Al-Azhar sheikh is the Grand Imam of all Muslim clerics and that he represents the institute, but also states that his term is six years and that he can be reelected only once. The 1961 law did not mention the length of the sheikh’s term. Also according to the bill, the candidates for the position of sheikh are to be selected not just by Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars, as has been the case to date, but jointly by the council and Al-Azhar’s Academy of Islamic Research. Further, according to Section 5 of the bill, if two-thirds of the members of Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars feel that the sheikh is not fulfilling his role appropriately, he is to be sent before an investigative committee comprising seven of this council’s leading members. This committee has the power to warn him, reprimand him, or “revoke his authority.” The original 1961 law included nothing regarding internal oversight of the Al-Azhar sheikh.
Section 8 of the bill authorizes the president to appoint the imam and preacher of Al-Azhar’s mosque, from among three candidates that are to be put forward by Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars. Also, Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars is to determine the content of the Friday sermons delivered at Al-Azhar mosque, and set regulations for religious, social, and cultural activities at the mosque.
It should be noted that an addition to the general definition of Al-Azhar’s role focuses on the importance of its role in developing religious discourse in a manner highlighting humane principles and unifying the Muslim ummah, and undermining the sources of the extremist discourse that crudely interprets Islam.
Abu Hamed said of the bill that in today’s circumstances it is inconceivable that the Al-Azhar sheikh cannot be fired, and emphasized that three senior members of Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars are MB members.
A further parliamentary step taken against the Al-Azhar institute relates to its educational curriculum. The chairman of the Religious Affairs Committee in the parliament, Osama Al-‘Abd, said that the committee has established a working group to examine the curriculum at the institute as part of a process to renew religious discourse in Egypt.
Despite Abu Hamed’s bill and the examination of the curriculum, it is evident that there is much support in parliament for Sheikh Al-Tayeb. Abu Hamed’s bill was criticized by several MPs who said that they had been unaware the law harmed the status of the Al-Azhar sheikh and asked that their signatures be removed from the bill. Further, MP Osama Sharshar wrote a memorandum to the parliamentary speaker that was signed by the majority of the 406 MPs demanding that the bill be opposed and not submitted because it was clearly aimed at harming one of the institutions of Egyptian society. Al-Azhar is a red line, he said, much like the military, and firing the Al-Azhar sheikh is practically heresy.
For his part, Abu Hamed rejected the MPs’ request that their signatures be removed, and said that he would try to enlist the support of additional MPs and re-submit the bill during the next parliamentary session. In this context, parliamentary sources revealed to the Egyptian daily Al-Shurouq that top-echelon officials had ordered that the bill be shelved. Nevertheless, on several additional occasions Abu Hamed stressed that he intended to submit the bill, and that he had the signatures of 80 MPs who support it.
On May 9, a delegation of MPs met with Sheikh Al-Tayeb, who thanked them for their opposition to those aiming to harm Al-Azhar and warned that any affront to it was a blow to Egypt’s position as defender of Islam and its moderateness.
Allegations In Media That Al-Azhar Is Not Acting Against Terrorism; Calls For Sheikh Al-Tayeb To Resign