how moderate is al-azhar ?

Few would have failed to notice that the campus of Al-Azhar university  in Cairo and elsewhere has emerged as the worst hotbed of Muslim Brothers activism : almost daily  protests that often degenerate into violence, attacks on professors and public property, setting university buildings on fire and throwing Molotov cocktails at police.

This is Al-Azhar which is often hailed  by all and sundry as the bastion of moderation and “wasati (moderate) Islam” !   How come that its students – or at least many of them —  have become the standrard-bearers of militant  Islam ?

I think the answer is shockingly simple : Al-Azhar is the repository of an ultraconservative doctrine,  the dominant medieval jurisprudence it teaches and which provides the ideal environment for the dissemination of Islamism and it associated practices.

Al-Azhar University

As late professor Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid has argued in his seminal book (Critique of the Religious Discourse [Naqd Al-Khetab Al-Dini]) there is hardly any difference between Islamist and Islamic worldviews as far as the theological underpinings are concerned.
Remeber that it was Al-Azhar that led the charge against the leading light of enlightenment  in Egypt and the wider Arab world, Taha Hussein (1889-1973) , after he published his book on pre-Islamic poetry in 1926, in which he called for  critical examination of tradition.   It was also Al-Azhar that denounced  and disowned one of its most prominent scholars, Ali Abdelrazik  (1888-1967)  for his groundbreaking book (1925) in which he  challenged  the theory  that Islamic sharia provides a recipe for a political order, a cornerstone of the ideology of political Islam.    More recently, it was an Azhar-educated cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who issued the lethal fatwa that led to the assassination of late president Sadat in 1981. Abdelrahman is now serving a life sentence in an American jai for complicity in the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Centre  in 1993.

Repeated efforts druing the 20th century  to modernise Al-Azhar have clearly failed.  Nasser’s attempt to introduce modern sciences (medicine, engineering, physics, mathematics etc ) into the Al-Azhar curriculum   to inoculate its students against the medieval outlook of its theology seem to have not made much headway.   The vast expansion into Azhari education (to include primary and secondary schools across the country) which began during his rule seems to have had the opposite effect. Instead of modernising the religious content,  it spawned trends that want to Islamicise modern science . It has become fashionable to find writers claiming that all modern science was somehow anticipated in the Koran,  or that “Islamic medicine” is superior to the modern one.

This is how Al-Azhar defines its mission in education:  the stated aim of one of its faculties for girls is “to introduce the (female) students to the greatness of Islamic sharia, it’s comprehensiveness, it’s suitability for all times and places, and to deepen their faith in its nobility. ” That is almost identical with the outlook and objectives of the Muslim Brothers or any other Islamist organisation.
And again : the  aim of Al-Azhar’s faculty of medicine is “to contribute to medical training in Egypt through the perspective of Islamic culture in the past and the present”.  In short,  it is the same totalitarian drift to insert religion everywhere.  Isn’t this what Islamism is about !

At the height of the confrontation with political Islam  during the past three years  both the state and the so called secular political parties pleaded with  Al-Azhar to stand up to the Islamists.  In fact, this was more evidence of the intellectual bankruptcy of the state and the secular elite  than of the modern or liberal outlook of  the institution.

They felt confident that Al-Azhar leaders,  who were handpicked by the state,  would be on their side, not because of genuine theological disagreements with Islamist ideology, but out of pure political expediency.

But when Al-Azhar – as the new constitution stipulates – becomes more or less autonomous and chooses its own leaders,  such loyalty to whoever is in power will no longer be taken for granted.  Given the enormous overlap between Islamist ideology and Al-Azhar teachings, there can only be more troubles ahead.

Summoning Al-Azhar to the defence of the modern nation state against Islamism, may work for some time, as long as the state appoints its leaders.  But in the long term, only a genuine reform and modernisation of Al-Azhar religious curriculum can become a bulwark against the atavistic doctrine of political Islam.
As an Egyptian writer once argued , no progress , and no success in the war against terrorism without an overhaul of the way Islam is preached. To this I can add, and none of that can be achieved without an overhaul of Al-Azhar’s religious curriculum.

For this to happen the laws have to change to encourage and protect intellectual freedom and research into Islamic history and jurisprudence  without fear of being branded an apostate and face the fate of scholars such as Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid (1943-2010) who was driven into exile because he challenged the theoretical and philosophical foundations of current Islamic scholarship.  Today, ijtihad (or koranic re-interpretation) takes place only in a very limited scope, such as whether cloning or artificial insemination could be allowed under Islamic sharia.

What’s really needed is to let the doors of ijitihad wide open to criticise the medival jurisprudence taught in all koranic schools across the world, and to encourage new interpretations instead of  the dominant literalist readings of  the Koran, to shake off the medieval legacy, which is holding back the emergence of a new Islam at peace with the modern world.

(This piece appeared in IslamistGate


Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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