March 20, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1505

Dispute At Al-Azhar's 'International Conference On The Renewal Of Islamic Thought' Reflects Institution's Long-Standing Rejection Of Religious Reforms In Egypt

March 20, 2020 | By Y. Yehoshua*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1505


Table Of Contents

  • Introduction

  • Al-Azhar Sheikh Slams Cairo University President's Initiative For Reexamining Islamic Heritage

  • Al-Azhar Rejects Egyptian Religious Endowments Minister's Initiative For A Modern Reading Of The Sunna Of The Prophet Muhammad

  • Severe Tensions Between Egyptian President, Al-Azhar Sheikh, Against Backdrop Of Al-Azhar's Opposition To Initiative To Renew Religious Discourse In The Country

  • Al-Azhar Sheikh Opposes Accusing Terrorist Activists Of Heresy: "If I Accuse ISIS Of Heresy, I Will Be Like Them"

  • Al-Azhar Opposes Initiative To Standardize Friday Mosque Sermons

  • Al-Azhar Opposes Reform Of Personal Status Law

  • Closing Statement Of Al-Azhar's International Conference For Renewal Of Islamic Thought Reflects Its Refusal To Advance The Initiative Of Religious Reform

  • Sheikh Al-Tayyeb's Extremist Positions As An Obstacle To Religious Reform In Egypt


In January 2020, Al-Azhar – which is the leading religious institution in Egypt and in the Sunni Muslim world – held an International Conference on the Renewal of Islamic Thought, under the sponsorship of President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi. The conference dealt, inter alia, with the renewal of religious discourse, an initiative that Al-Sisi's regime has been trying to promote for years as part of its efforts to combat terror and extremism in the country.

The conference was extensively covered in the Egyptian media, mainly due to a severe confrontation that took place during it between the president of Cairo University, Prof. Muhammad Othman Al-Khosht, and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. The latter responded forcefully to Al-Khosht's suggestion that the Islamic heritage be renewed and brought in line with the modern age, stating that the conflict between modernity and Islamic heritage is a Western invention meant to hold the Muslim world back, and that an "accursed and vicious machine" is directing the way people view Islam.

Al-Tayyeb's statements reflect Al-Azhar's stubborn refusal to comply with Al-Sisi's repeated calls for a "religious revolution," and are another example of its long-standing opposition to all the regime's reform initiatives, both those aimed at eradicating extremist and terrorist discourse and those pertaining to the personal status laws. The conference's closing statement, which was read out by Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayyeb, reflects the institution's conservative views and its refusal to join the efforts to promote a modern religious discourse in Egypt.

This refusal of Al-Azhar to comply with the regime's reform efforts is not surprising, since it is in line with statements made by the head of this institution, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, on various issues. In statements to the media over the years, Al-Tayyeb has claimed, for example, that there is no proof that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks, that Islamist terror organizations are a new product of imperialism, that the Palestinians are entitled "to blow up whatever they want," and that Christians are "infidels."

The rejectionism of Al-Azhar and its leader is an obstacle to any present or future effort of renewal and reform in Egypt, and have evoked criticism from the regime and the establishment media. However, the difficulty experienced by the regime in renewing the religious discourse stems not only from Al-Azhar's and Al-Tayyeb's opposition to these efforts, but also from the unwillingness of Al-Sisi, who presents himself as a believing Muslim and whose wife wears the hijab, to openly clash with Al-Azhar in order to enforce his initiatives. His reluctance presumably stems from fear of undermining Al-Azhar's status.

The Egyptian regime and Al-Azhar – and in particular Al-Sisi and Al-Tayyeb themselves – have developed a mutual dependence that has prompted them to form unwritten understandings regarding the relations between them. Al-Sisi owes his position to Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayyeb, who supported him at a crucial moment when in 2013 he ousted the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime, headed by Mohamed Morsi, from power, and who has continued to support him throughout his presidency.[1] At the same time, the suppression inside and outside Egypt of the MB – a movement that challenges Al-Azhar's position in the Muslim world and seeks to dominate the Islamic discourse – has enabled this institution to gain power in Egypt and throughout the Islamic world. Preserving the strength and prestige of Al-Azhar, which for over a millennium has been the leading institution of Islamic learning throughout the Muslim world, is crucial for preserving Egypt's standing in the Arab and Islamic world, amid competing countries and Islamic forces such as the Saudi Arabia-based Muslim World League and the International Union of Muslim Scholars, which is identified with the MB and is supported by Egypt's rivals, Turkey and Qatar.

While opposing reforms enacted through official regulations and legislation, Al-Azhar is willing to promote the renewal of the religious discourse only on the informational level. Its representatives attend many conferences and initiatives worldwide devoted to interfaith dialogue and eradicating extremism, and launch various campaigns for promoting women's status in Egypt in ways that conform to the conservative interpretation of the Islamic shari'a. These measures allow Al-Azhar and its head to present themselves as promoting a moderate religious discourse without actually engaging in any significant reforms along these lines.

Al-Sisi respects Al-Azhar's independence in religious matters, and believes that reforming the religious discourse in Egypt requires the cooperation of its head. Hence, he is careful to stress that he is not trying to impose his will on Al-Tayyeb, but rather asking for his help "as a [fellow] Muslim, not as the leader" of Egypt. In this he differs starkly from the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, for example, who enacted reforms pertaining to women's status in bold defiance of the oppressed Saudi clerics.

Al-Tayyeb, for his part, is likewise careful to avoid an open clash with the regime. While not cooperating with the regime's reform efforts, he also avoids challenging the regime's authority or overstepping the boundaries of his role. For example, when he presented a non-binding proposal, drafted by Al-Azhar, for a new personal status law, he was careful to note that "Al-Azhar is not a legislative [body]."

It seems that the regime's efforts to renew the religious discourse will not be successful as long as its mutual relations and understandings with Al-Azhar remain as they are. In other words, no progress on this front will be made as long as Al-Sisi refuses to engage head-on with the religious establishment, as did the reformist leaders Kamal Ataturk in Turkey and Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia (which could cost him his presidency), and as long as the authority to reform the religious discourse remains in the hands of the recalcitrant Ahmad Al-Tayyeb.

Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb attends Al-Sisi's announcement of the ouster of the MB regime (Source: Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, January 1, 2014)

This report reviews Al-Azhar's opposition to the various initiatives for renewing the religious discourse and the tension between Al-Azhar and the regime in this context, as well as the closing statement of the International Conference on the Renewal of Islamic Thought, and Al-Tayyeb's positions on various issues, as reflected in MEMRI reports published over the years.

Al-Azhar Sheikh Slams Cairo University President's Initiative For Reexamining Islamic Heritage

Egyptian media reported on a verbal clash that took place recently, on January 28, 2020, at Al-Azhar's International Conference on the Renewal of Islamic Thought in Cairo, between Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb and Cairo University President Prof. Muhammad Othman Al-Khosht, on the issue of renewing Islamic heritage.

At the conference, which was sponsored by Egyptian President Al-Sisi, Al-Khosht called for renewing Islamic heritage to suit the modern era, as part of the implementation of the plan led by President Al-Sisi to renew the religious discourse in the country. Al-Khosht's call was abruptly, harshly and contemptuously dismissed by Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. The verbal clash sparked a media uproar in the country.

At the conference, Al-Khosht had called for rebuilding the religious discourse by including new, modern terminology, and not settling for a renewal of the existing traditional religious discourse. He compared this to building a new house when one no longer wishes to live in one's father's house, saying: "I love my father's house but I would not like to live there. [Similarly,] I appreciate our ancient heritage but I want to create a new one to live by." To his mind, drawing up a new religious perception requires partners not only from the classical religious institutions, such as Al-Azhar, but also from other institutions – the humanities and the social sciences.

He explained: "The religious sciences are in a state of stagnation. They are based on duplication and copying... There is no critical analysis, no scientific analysis, and no use of methodologies from the humanities or social sciences. All the battles of the old days are being repeated. We still live in the times of the fitna [internal strife] of the Caliph 'Othman [ibn 'Affan].[2] The same old battles are present today. All the battles of ISIS are identical to the battles at the advent [of Islam], because we have been unable to enter a new era. So I call for the development of the religious sciences, and not for their revival, because such revival means to adopt the religious sciences of the past en bloc... In the framework of the renewal [of religious thought], we must depart from the closed circle [of religion] and open up to other circles of the humanities and social sciences… We are now in the age of interdisciplinarity."

Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb vehemently rejected Al-Khosht's proposal, saying in response that the term "renewal" is not modern at all, but is taken from Islamic heritage. He rejected Al-Khosht's metaphor of the new house, saying: "You said that [religious] renewal is like renovating your father's house, which you love and appreciate but do not want to live in, so you leave it and go live in another house. That is not renewal but neglect, abandonment, and declaring one's lack of connection to one's father's house. The renovation must be carried out within the father's house, according to the modern way of building." He added: "Sir, the [Islamic] heritage that is being derided today... [is what] took a bunch of Arab tribes that used to fight each other and that couldn't tell right from left, and, over the course of 80 years, enabled them to place one foot in Al-Andalus and another in China. That is because they focused on the strong points of this heritage... How did the Islamic world advance before the French invasion [in 1798]? What set it in motion? Wasn't it the shari'a and the [Islamic] heritage?... Therefore, describing [Islamic] heritage as something that bequeathed weakness and backwardness is unfair to the [Islamic] heritage."

Al-Tayyeb stated further that today the implementation of Islamic heritage is strictly limited to personal status matters, saying to Al-Khosht: "Between me and you, do you think that [Islamic] heritage is implemented today? I do not think so. We eat like the Europeans with a knife and fork using both our hands. We use European and American cars... We think like Europeans. Our school curricula are like theirs. [Islamic] heritage... is implemented maybe in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and nothing else... I was expecting people to say that the heritage is missing from our lives."

Al-Tayyeb also told Al-Khosht: "This war between heritage and modernity is also made up in order to hold us back... You must be from a village. Go ask any villager behind his plow if what ISIS is doing is a part of Islam. He will surely tell you that what it does is not a part of Islam. We, as scholars and clerics from Al-Azhar, have said it more than once, and held one, two, or 10 conferences. We have said that Islam and the Muslims are innocent of this terrorism. Even so, we had to face constant accusations about the terrorist nature of Islam, and had to hold conferences to say that terrorism is not a part of Islam. There is an accursed and vicious [propaganda] machine that directs the way people think [about Islam]."

He added that the fitna during the era of the Caliph 'Othman ibn 'Affan mentioned by Al-Khosht was "against the backdrop of politics, not a backdrop of heritage" and that "politics abducts religion when [people] want to achieve a goal that displeases the religion."[3]

To view the clip of Al-Khosht's and Al-Tayyeb's statements on MEMRI TV, click here or below:

Al-Azhar Rejects Egyptian Religious Endowments Minister's Initiative For A Modern Reading Of The Sunna Of The Prophet Muhammad

Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayyeb's objections to Al-Khosht's call for a reexamination of Islamic heritage are reminiscent of Al-Azhar's opposition to a similar initiative, over a year ago, raised by Egyptian Religious Endowments Minister Muhammad Mukhtar Gom'a, an associate of President Al-Sisi. Gom'a called for a new, modern, and enlightened reading of the Sunna – the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – without clinging to its literal and traditional interpretation. His call was also an attempt to implement President Al-Sisi's call for far-reaching reform in the extremist religious discourse in the country.

In a June 29, 2018 article in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, Gom'a explained his motivation in proposing his initiative: "There are those who stop at the literal [interpretation] of the [religious] texts and do not go beyond their verbal meaning, in order to understand their intent and aims... Had we better understood them and presented them to people, we would have changed the negative image imparted by their mistaken interpretation and understanding by the extremist terrorist organizations, and also the perceptions of those who hold the misunderstandings and the fixed views."[4]

Al-Tayyeb objected vehemently to this call to reinterpret the Sunna, seeing it as an attempt to cut back or eliminate the status of the Sunna – which called "three-fourths of the religion" – in Islamic jurisprudence. He termed this "deviation from the straight path" that had been voiced in the past in India by "those close to the colonialist apparatuses" and now was being voiced in Egypt.[5]

Minister Gom'a, for his part, harshly criticized the initiative's opponents, among them Al-Tayyeb. A statement issued by the Religious Endowments Ministry said: "We must reexamine and draw [conclusions] with regard to what is appropriate for the spirit of our time and our circumstances. No one can disagree with this but an ignoramus, an obstinate man, or someone who trades in the religion of Allah with the intent of distorting it or using it to serve his violence and extremism..."[6]

In a December 7, 2018 article in Al-Ahram, titled "The Jihad of the Clerics," Gom'a wrote: "The order of the hour now requires clerics to rectify their misperceptions and the image of Islam and the Muslims, to act to disseminate the correct Islamic thought, to meet their obligations to advance solutions, views and interpretations that are in line with the spirit of the time and its innovations. This [should take place] alongside preservation of the principles of the religion and a clear differentiation between sacred principle and human thought that is written about the sacred text [i.e. interpretation], whether this human thought is connected to an understanding of texts from the Quran or from the Sunna of the Prophet, or comprises religious or philosophical opinions, rulings, and conclusions..."[7]

Severe Tensions Between Egyptian President, Al-Azhar Sheikh, Against Backdrop Of Al-Azhar's Opposition To Initiative To Renew Religious Discourse In The Country

Al-Azhar's opposition to the call for a reexamination of Islamic heritage, as proposed by Cairo University President Prof. Al-Khosht, and to the call for a rereading of the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad put forward by Egyptian Religious Endowments Minister Gom'a, reflect the ongoing refusal by Al-Azhar – the most important religious institution in Egypt and the leading institution in the Sunni Islamic world – to comply with the call by Egyptian President Al-Sisi for significant religious reforms in the country as part of the fight against extremism and terrorism by his rivals inside and outside Egypt – the MB and Salafi-jihadi organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Since he took power, Al-Sisi has been calling on clerics in Egypt to help establish a "religious revolution" in the country.[8] In a speech at Al-Azhar on December 28, 2014, marking the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, he said: "There is a need for a religious discourse that is in keeping with the time... I am addressing the religious scholars and clerics. We must take a long, hard look at the current situation. I have talked about this several times in the past... It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world... It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the whole world.

He continued: "Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world's population of seven billion, so that they can live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at Al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions... [But] you cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from the outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionize our religion."

Also in his speech, Al-Sisi addressed Sheikh Al-Azhar, saying: "Honorable Imam, you bear responsibility before Allah. The world in its entirety awaits your words, because the Islamic nation is being torn apart, destroyed, and is heading to perdition. We ourselves are bringing it to perdition."[9]

To view a clip of Al-Sisi' statements on MEMRI TV, click here or below:

In another speech, a month later, Al-Sisi reiterated his argument regarding the clerics' responsibility for reexamining the existing religious discourse: "The tolerance of Islam has not been clear to the world in the past 20 to 30 years. The terrorist attacks and the ugly image of the Muslims shown to the world have made us say that we need to take pause, and cleanse our religious discourse of the erroneous notions that have led to this extremism and terrorism. This can only be done by the scholars of Al-Azhar, and by religious scholars who care about Islam, and about the situation of the Muslims vis-à-vis the world... No religious discourse can clash with its environment and the world. Therefore, we Muslims must reexamine our [religious] discourse."[10]

While at first it did appear that Al-Azhar intended to play a significant role in implementing Al-Sisi's call, together with other religious institutions such as the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the official government Dar Al-Iftaa institution that issues fatwas (religious rulings), the presidency's optimism about this gradually evaporated and Al-Azhar and its head were accused of not investing maximal efforts in advancing the renewal of the religious discourse in the country. Al-Azhar's rejectionism, which impeded the regime's reform efforts, led to severe tensions between it and the presidency and also to Al-Sisi's direct and public criticism against Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayyeb.

In many of his speeches over the years, particularly at festivities marking the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Al-Sisi has implored clerics to take part in his religious revolution initiative. For example, during the January 1, 2015 celebrations by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, he addressed Al-Tayyeb, saying: "The preachers are responsible to Allah for renewing the religious discourse and improving the image of Islam. I will testify against you before Allah [on Judgment Day if you do not do so]."[11]

In particularly harsh criticism, and against the backdrop of Al-Tayyeb's opposition to Minister Gom'a's initiative for a reexamination of the Sunna, Al-Sisi said at the 2018 official ceremony marking the Prophet's birthday: "I ask you [Al-Tayyeb] to awaken. This is the fourth or fifth time I have spoken with you about this, and I am speaking with you as a Muslim, not as a ruler. Who has caused more damage to the world – those who called for relying on the Quran alone [i.e. the reformists], or us, who are acting according to the Sunna based on a mistaken and extremist understanding? What is the reputation of the Muslims in the world?"

He continued: "I call on our clerics and intellectuals to invest more efforts in their role [in advancing] enlightenment. Let us call for the supreme values that Islam and the Prophet encourage us [to adopt], that advocate work, constructiveness, and [gaining] skill, and to use them to deal with those who call for extremism and terror. Despite these efforts by the clerics and intellectuals, and their central role in the doctrinal and cultural battle, we expect additional efforts in this area, for a rereading of our doctrinal heritage, a realistic and enlightened reading. [Thus] we will glean, from this rich heritage, what benefits us in our time, what is appropriate for the spirit of the time, and contributes to lighting the path to a bright future for our homeland, our nation, and our generations to come, with Allah's help..."[12]

Al-Azhar Sheikh Opposes Accusing Terrorist Activists Of Heresy: "If I Accuse ISIS Of Heresy, I Will Be Like Them"

It seems that neither the Egyptian regime's pressure on Al-Azhar to recruit it to carry out significant reforms in the Islamic discourse, nor Al-Sisi's and his officials' public criticism of Al-Azhar, have borne fruit. The subsequent attempts to hobble Al-Azhar also appear to have had no effect.[13] Al-Azhar continues to cling to its traditional positions and rejects any initiative aimed at renewing the religious discourse that the regime is trying to advance. The main criticisms against Al-Azhar concern its refusal to join the ideological struggle against terrorism – that is, it is refraining from instituting moderate Islamic interpretation that will help the regime defeat extremism and fight terrorism.

The horrific terror attacks in Egypt in the last decade, in which many Egyptian security personnel were killed, led to many calls in the Egyptian media to accuse extremist jihadi activists of heresy. While several clerics inside and outside Egypt have complied with this call, Al-Azhar senior clerics have adopted a cautious approach in the matter of accusing terrorists of heresy, refusing to do so.[14] They have harshly criticized these organizations, calling ISIS a terror organization that is deviating from Islam, and have carried out informational campaigns to undermine their legitimacy. However, they have stopped short of complying with the demand to declare terror activists heretics. They say that a Muslim remains a Muslim as long as he does not recant his shahada – the declaration that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger – and that accusing someone of heresy can only be done by a shari'a judge.

Ostensibly, it would be possible to see this argument by Al-Azhar as a pragmatic approach that enables renewal in that it does not expel any Muslim, whoever he may be, from the Muslim fold, including those who keep none of Islam's commandments. But Al-Azhar has not offered to justify its refraining from making accusations of heresy with this argument; it has only presented it as a move reflecting strict adherence to religious precepts.

Another explanation given for not accusing terror organizations of heresy is that it could open up a Pandora's box and lead to internal wars within Islam, with various groups accusing each other of heresy. It was also claimed that such an accusation against ISIS and its ilk would make Al-Azhar itself no different from the terrorists, who readily make such accusations against their fellow Muslims. Likewise, Al-Azhar's refraining to rule on this matter stems from the fear of entering into direct conflict with these organizations, and the fear that such a fatwa would be used against activists from other movements, such as the MB.[15] "If I rule that they are heretics, I will be like them," said Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayyeb in response to Cairo University students' question as to why he had not released any announcement declaring ISIS activists heretics.[16] His deputy, 'Abbas Shuman, said on the same matter: "As far as I know, throughout Al-Azhar's history as an official institution, it has never accused any person or movement of heresy. This is not Al-Azhar's mission." On another occasion, he said: "I confirm that ISIS's actions are terrorist, and are not compatible with the correct Islam. The evil of this organization must be fought, even with the use of force that will lead to its elimination. But its members must never be declared heretical."[17]

Al-Azhar's refusal to accuse terrorist activists of heresy has been harshly criticized in the Egyptian state media, and is perceived as unwillingness to cooperate in the fight against the terrorism that is spreading in Egypt and worldwide. For example, the Egyptian poet Fatma Na'out wrote in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm: "Is it not time for Al-Azhar to realize that the magic wand that will bury terrorism in Egypt, defeat ISIS around the world, and defend the lives of Christians in Al-'Arish is solely in its own hands? Issuing one clear and decisive fatwa proclaiming ISIS heretical will remove this human shield that provides shelter for the ISIS monsters... You, honorable Al-Azhar, without meaning to, have turned the ISIS [fighter] into a Muslim brother that it is one's duty to assist, [even if he] sins, without condition or reservation, so long as he is a Muslim..."[18]

Karam Gabr, head of Egypt's National Press Authority, wrote in Al-Akhbar: "The criminal terrorists, whom Al-Azhar refuses to accuse of heresy, have no religion and no homeland. They do not believe in Egypt, its soil, its skies, its flag or its anthem. They are a criminal terrorist gang that seeks out every swamp of blood and fire to carry out its black terror and barbaric crimes... I no longer agree with the claim made by a cleric I respect, that 'if we proclaim ISIS [members] to be heretics we provide them with an excuse to do the same.' They do not ask for our consent or permission, and they have already proclaimed us infidels and ruled that good, devout people deserve to be slaughtered."[19]

Furthermore, media have claimed that Al-Azhar's curricula themselves foster extremism and terrorism, and that Al-Azhar therefore is not acting to eliminate extremism in the country.[20] Former culture minister Gaber 'Asfour addressed this issue, calling Al-Azhar's education system "atrophied and backward" and adding that it produces terrorists. He said: "Al-Azhar, for the most part, aside from a small minority, has become Salafi in its attitude. Do not believe that they will do something they don't believe in. They work against development. How can they renew the religious discourse when they are the ones who caused it to stagnate?..."[21] Columnist Ahmad 'Abd Al-Tawab wrote in Al-Ahram: "Al-Azhar's curricula continue to this day to teach the institution's students to accuse anyone disagreeing with them of heresy, and to define building churches as a crime."[22]

Al-Azhar, for its part, rejected the Egyptian regime and Egyptian media accusations that it encourages extremism, even stating that its officials were part of the regime program for eradicating extremism and acting to renew the religious discourse. Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayyeb said: "Some media are waging a deliberate campaign against Al-Azhar."[23] Likewise, Dr. Ahmad Omar Hashem, a member of Al-Azhar's Council of Senior Scholars, clarified that there are no calls for extremism, violence, or terrorism at Al-Azhar or in its books, and that any criticism of the institution is incorrect.[24]

Al-Azhar Opposes Initiative To Standardize Friday Mosque Sermons

Another initiative opposed by Al-Azhar was the Religious Endowments Ministry's move to standardize Friday sermons in all mosques across the country funded by the ministry, and to obligate the preachers to read the sermon from texts drawn up by it. According to the Religious Endowments minister, this would be part of the strategy of fighting the ideas of extremist Islam and stopping preachers from addressing political issues in their sermons.

Al-Azhar explained its opposition to this initiative by calling it against Islam and saying that it was an attempt to restrict the freedom of its preachers, some of whom are employed by the Endowments Ministry. It released an announcement stating that the Al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, which is headed by Al-Tayyeb, "unanimously" opposed the standardized sermon initiative.[25] Al-Azhar members did not hold back on the subject of their opposition to it: Al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars member Dr. Hashem called it "wretched,"[26] and Al-Azhar professor Dr. Ahmad Karima said that it was "an improvised, indiscriminate, and vague decision,"[27] and warned that "the preachers will become news anchors."[28]

In light of Al-Azhar's opposition, President Al-Sisi intervened in the crisis between the institution and the ministry, and shelved the initiative.

Al-Sisi and Al-Tayyeb praying together (Source:, May 17, 2019)

Al-Azhar Opposes Reform Of Personal Status Law

The Egyptian regime was also enraged by the refusal of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb to assist in preparing the ground for a reform in Egypt's personal status laws. Al-Tayyeb regards these laws as the only domain in which the directives of Islam are currently implemented, as he said recently at the International Conference on the Renewal of Islamic Thought. Hence, he was willing to promote the reform on the informational level, but not to go further by supporting legal amendments in this domain.

As part of this approach, he opposed the initiative to pass a legal amendment requiring divorces to be registered with an authorized state official (ma'dhoun). According to shari'a law, a husband has the absolute and exclusive right to dissolve the marriage by declaring his wife divorced, orally or in writing. The divorce is then valid whether it was performed with full intention or on an impulse. The divorce rate in Egypt is one of the highest in the world: nearly half of married couples separate within only five years,[29] a situation that has grave consequences for the women and their children and also places a heavy burden on Egypt's court system. In an attempt to reduce the divorce rate, President Al-Sisi called for passing the abovementioned legal amendment, requiring divorces, like marriages, to be registered with an authorized state official. This initiative is based on the assumption that if required to divorce before an official, husbands will take the matter more seriously, thus reducing the number of divorces, in particular impulsive ones.

To be successful, such a reform requires Sheikh Al-Azhar to support it, as the former sheikh of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, did when the Mubarak regime amended Personal Status Law No 1 in 2000 by introducing khul' divorce. Khul', as defined in this amendment, is a procedure through which a woman can divorce her husband in court even without his consent, if she declares that she detests him, returns the initial dowry paid at the time the marriage was contracted, and waives all financial rights granted her by the shari'a. The Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy, at that time headed by Tantawi, ruled that the amended law was compatible with Islam, even though all four Islamic schools require the husband's consent for such a divorce, whereas the Egyptian law did not require this. Al-Azhar's ruling was a case of ijtihad  ̶  a new interpretation of the shari'a – based on the principle of the public good (maslaha). Moreover, Tantawi even participated in a parliament debate on the legal amendment in order to persuade the MPs to support it, saying: "The Islamic shari'a treats men and women equally... It does not state that men are made of gold and women of silver, or vice versa... How can I live with a woman who does not want me? This is a matter of common sense, as clear as day."[30]

But unlike the 2000 reform initiative, Al-Sisi's current attempt to reform the divorce laws met with opposition on the part of Al-Azhar, which ruled that verbal divorce is valid "without any conditions, witnesses or registration."[31] This prompted Al-Sisi to publicly rebuke Sheikh Al-Azhar in January 2017 at an event marking Police Day, saying: "Honorable Imam, don't we need a law that will regulate divorce, instead of [the practice of] verbal divorce, so that divorce will be performed before an authorized [state official] and people will have a chance to reconsider? Is this not the case, Honorable Imam? You have exhausted me!"[32]

Some 18 months later, at a youth conference in July 2018, Al-Sisi again referred to this initiative, which had been shelved due to Al-Azhar's opposition, saying: "The divorce rate in Egypt has reached 44%... Officially, there are nine million children [in Egypt] who do not have a [married] father and mother, and there are another 15 million who are not officially [registered as such]. That is, [parents] divorce in secret, and do not register [the divorce]... When I said, let's pass a law requiring divorce to be registered, I was attacked. But I am not angry. Given 1,400 years of human social development, don't I have the right, as a society and as a president, to protect society?"[33]

To avoid the appearance of thwarting the regime, Al-Azhar launched a media campaign involving a series of 16 informational videos for men on the dangers of divorce and on creating harmonious family life that actually reflected its opposition to reform in this domain.[34]

A request by the current Egyptian parliament for Al-Azhar's opinion on Egypt's personal status law, which has been under discussion for some time, led Al-Azhar to take the initiative and draft its own proposal for a personal status law. Al-Tayyeb explained: "Al-Azhar is not a legislative [body], but when it comes to laws rooted in Islamic law, it must not leave [the task of drafting them] to those who lack [Islamic] scholarship." Al-Azhar's draft law, which the parliament is not legally obliged to even consider, sparked a wave of criticism against this institution, which was accused of overstepping its role. The content of the draft was also criticized, for instance the absence of any restrictions on polygamy. Although Al-Tayyeb has expressed opposition to polygamy on several occasions, Al-Azhar opposes placing legal restrictions on it (other than the traditional restrictions stipulated in Islam).[35]

It should be noted that, as part of its self-perception as the leading religious authority in the Arab and Muslim world, Al-Azhar also weighs in on initiatives for reforming personal status law outside Egypt. In 2017 it opposed the initiative of then-Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi to pass a law granting equal inheritance shares to men and women. Al-Azhar, which essentially backed the Tunisian MB's position on this issue, stated that the Islamic inheritance laws (which discriminate women in comparison to men), are texts whose meaning and validity are certain, so there is no possibility of changing or reinterpreting them. The deputy sheikh of Al-Azhar at the time, 'Abbas Shuman, characterized Essebsi's initiative as "a scatter-brained [idea], rather than a welcome innovation" in Islamic shari'a.[36]

Al-Sisi expresses support for Al-Azhar in a meeting with Al-Tayyeb (Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Egypt, February 10, 2016)

Closing Statement Of Al-Azhar's International Conference For Renewal Of Islamic Thought Reflects Its Refusal To Advance The Initiative Of Religious Reform

At the close of Al-Azhar's International Conference on the Renewal of Islamic Thought, sponsored by President Al-Sisi, Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayyeb read out the conference's closing statement, presenting the institution's religious position on a series of controversial issues as part of its "path towards ideological and jurisprudential renewal." This document reveals the narrow scope Al-Azhar is willing to allow for this kind of renewal, and the wide gap between the regime's expectations and Al-Azhar's actual positions. The document's opening statements are designed to give the impression that the institution favors renewal, but an overall examination of its attitude on matters requiring jurisprudential reform and legal amendments shows that Al-Azhar in fact opposes such initiatives.

Whereas Article 1 of the statement creates the impression that Al-Azhar is mobilizing to advance a more moderate and flexible religious discourse, reservations appearing in Articles 2 and 3 belie this impression. Article 1 states: "Renewal is a crucial element in the Islamic shari'a and an integral part of it, [enabling us] to adapt ourselves to new developments that emerge over the ages and to realize public interests..." However, Articles 2 and 3 draw a distinction between a class of issues that are not open to reconsideration at all, and a restricted class of issues, based on particular religious texts, which are the only ones amenable to reform. Moreover, these articles place the right to determine which issues belong to which class exclusively in the hands of the religious scholars. These articles state: "It is absolutely forbidden to [issue] new [rulings] regarding texts whose meaning is verified and certain [i.e. on which there is an explicit ruling]. But texts whose meaning is only surmised [i.e. on which there is no explicit ruling] are subject to ijtihad [jurisprudential interpretation] and the rulings regarding them can change to suit the time and place, and human norms, as long as the renewal conforms to the general goals and principles of the shari'a and to the interests of the public. [Religious] renewal is a sensitive task, and only those deeply rooted in the science of [Islamic] jurisprudence can do it well. Those lacking such qualifications must refrain from engaging in it..."  

The closing statement sets out Al-Azhar's traditional approach to fundamental Islamic precepts such as hakimiyya (implementing Allah's rule), jihad, hijra, khilafa, and others, which are pivotal to the ideology of Salafi-jihadi movements like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and are precisely the concepts that Al-Azhar is being asked to reevaluate. In contrast to the regime's expectations, Al-Azhar's position on these issues, as reflected in the closing statement, involves no juristic innovation, bold thinking, or unique interpretation. Rather, it sticks to the traditional interpretations that have been given for years, and conforms to the positions of other conservative religious schools, such as the Wahhabism of the Saudi religious establishment.

Moreover, in this document too Al-Azhar maintains its traditional position of refusing to condemn the members of terrorist organizations as infidels. Article 7 states: "Takfir [accusing fellow Muslims of heresy] is a trial that [Muslim] societies have faced in the past as well as in the recent period, and only those who defy the divine law and those ignorant of the tenets [of Islam] advocate engaging in it. Jurisprudential texts clarify that accusing others of heresy is [an act that] can come back to harm those who engage in it, and they will be held responsible, for takfir is a judgement [with implications] of life and death, which is the prerogative of Allah alone. If there is a 99% chance that someone uttered a heresy, but a 1% chance that he did not, that person must be given the benefit of the doubt and must not be accused of heresy. This is based on the principle that an absolute certainty [in this case, the person's identity as a Muslim] can only be refuted by an absolutely certain fact."  

Although the document proclaims that "the state in Islam is a modern, constitutional democratic nation-state," that Al-Azhar "does not recognize [the notion of] the so-called religious state," and that citizenship is a right granted to all "regardless of faith, religious school, race or color," Article 9 states that "atheism is a danger designed to threaten the stability of societies that respect the sanctity of religions, and is one of the weapons of the ideological invasion which, in the name of religious freedom, seeks to destroy religion and weaken the social fabric, and is in fact one of the direct causes of extremism and terror."

The document's positions on personal status also reflect Al-Azhar's lack of openness and its opposition to enacting gender equality in Egypt. It purports to display openness on some issues pertaining to women's status, but reserves the right of the clerics to place restrictions on them as they see fit. For example, Article 26 ostensibly presents a lenient approach, proclaiming that women are free to travel without a mahram (a male relative acting as chaperone), but then immediately qualifies this statement. It says: "A woman in our present age is entitled to travel feely without a mahram when this is safe and when she is accompanied by others, or when she is traveling in a way that precludes her being exposed to undesirable things." Article 27 says, in a similar vein: "A woman may undertake any position for which she is fit, including high-ranking state positions." While ostensibly proclaiming that women may occupy senior state positions, it reserves the right of the clerics to decide on the positions for which women are "fit." This ambiguous wording allows Al-Azhar to avoid issuing a religious ruling on the crucial question that has been debated quite frequently in Egypt, of whether a woman may serve as president.[37]

The document also addresses the issue of divorce, which, as stated above, is the object of reform efforts by the regime with which Al-Azhar refuses to comply. It does not explicitly mention the regime's initiative, aimed at reducing the divorce rate, of requiring divorces to be registered with a state official. It only advises against divorcing on impulse. Article 28 states: "Capricious divorce without a significant, religiously-valid reason is a forbidden act that the laws of Islam punish – whether it was done according to the will [of the husband] or by the request of the wife – because of the harm it does to the family and in particular to the children, and because it contravenes the moral [perception] of the shari'a... It must be avoided as much as possible in order to minimize the chaos caused by divorce. Islamic law requires the couple to seek mediation before going through with a divorce, and the clerics qualified to issue religious rulings, must follow the most lenient directives in clarifying the shari'a law on the divorce cases presented to them." That is, according to Al-Azhar, it is possible to apply the most lenient rulings allowed by the shari'a, but rulings must nevertheless remain within the framework of the shari'a.

Article 29 implicitly addresses the issue of women's inheritance, regarding which Al-Azhar has opposed all reform initiatives. It says: "There is a need to compensate anyone who contributed to the family's finances, such as a wife who combined her wealth with that of her husband or sons who worked in their father's business, etc. They should receive a share of the inheritance before it is divided up [according to the laws of Islam], according to what they merit, if [the exact extent of their contribution] is known. If it is not known, then according to the opinion of experienced and wise [individuals]..."[38]

Sheikh Al-Tayyeb's Extremist Positions As An Obstacle To Religious Reform In Egypt

As stated above, Al-Azhar's positions on the reform efforts of the Egyptian regime are in line with the perception of the head of this institution, Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. Al-Tayyeb frequently stresses that under his leadership Al-Azhar is advancing a message of moderateness, and that he belongs to the wasati (middle-road) current of Islam. In April 2018, for example, he said that "Al-Azhar's message is one of wasatiyya and moderateness"[39] and that "Islam's wasatiyya is the solution to all the Muslim world's problems."[40] However, it must be noted that the wasati school of Islam is also that of the MB and clerics like Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradawi, who support extremism and terror.[41]

Al-Tayyeb's public statements on various topics over the years, many of which were translated and published by MEMRI, include extremist pronouncements which indicate that he is not interested in leading reform. For example, he said that there is no proof that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and hinted that Israelis may have been involved in them. He said further that the Muslims had initially condemned the attacks, but since then their feelings have changed, and the U.S. has exploited them to harm Muslims.[42] On another occasion he said that the fundamentalist terror movements are a new product created by imperialism in the service of global Zionism.[43]

He has said that "martyrdom operations, in which the Palestinians blow up targets of the Israeli occupation, are actions that are 100% permitted according to Islamic religious law," that suicide attacks by Palestinians against Israeli targets are a legitimate form of self-defense, and that as long as "the barbaric enemy" Israel continues to attack them with Western and American backing, the Palestinians are entitled "to blow up whatever they want."[44] He also stated that there is Islamophobia in the West and that it is a result of "modern colonialism" and a desire to take over the Muslims' resources.[45]

Al-Tayyeb, who today often participates in interfaith dialogue, and even meets with Pope Francis, spoke against such dialogue in the past, called Christians "infidels,"[46]  and stated that a non-Muslim cannot head a Muslim country because this contravenes the religion, common sense, and democracy.[47] He has also declared that unrepentant apostates should be killed.[48]

In addition to calling sexual freedom and homosexuality in the West diseases,[49] he has also condemned what he called the West's efforts to force Muslims to accept the "perversion" of homosexuality in the guise of promoting human rights, and added that the West will be punished like Sodom and Gomorrah for allowing same-sex marriage. On wife-beating in Islam, he said that it applies only to "rebellious women" and that "it's not really beating, it's more like punching... It's like shoving or poking her."[50]  


* Y. Yehoshua is Vice President for Research and Director of MEMRI Israel.


[1] Al-Azhar and Al-Tayyeb's support of Al-Sisi drew intense fire from prominent clerics identified with the MB, such as Sheikh Yusouf Al-Qaradawi. In fact, it caused Al-Qaradawi to resign from Al-Azhar's Council of Senior Scholars. Upon his resignation he said: " I expected Sheikh Al-Azhar to reembrace the truth and renounce this oppressive and tyrannical regime which, within [mere] days or weeks did what [Gamal ] 'Abd Al-Nasser, [Anwar] Sadat and [Hosni] Mubarak did not do in 60 years."  Al-Sharq (Qatar), December 2, 2013.  

[2] The murder of the Third Caliph, 'Othman ibn 'Affan, in 635, led to internal war in Islam.

[3] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt),;; Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), January 28, 2020.

[4] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 29, 2018.

[5] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), November 19, 2018. Al-Tayyeb was criticizing both Gom'a's initiative and a lawsuit that was being used at the time to pressure Al-Azhar to reexamine Islamic heritage. Ahmad 'Abdu Maher, a liberal jurist and researcher of Islam, had filed a lawsuit  charging Al-Azhar to reexamine the ninth-century Al-Bukhari collection of hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that is considered the most reliable and that constitutes a basis for fatwas, and remove what he considered to be counterfeit hadiths in it. . Maher even threatened to sue Al-Azhar Sheikh Al-Tayyeb personally if he did not do so. See Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), October 27, 2018.

[6] Al-Watan (Egypt), November 23, 2018.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 7, 2018.

[8] The term " renewal of the religious discourse"  was originally coined by 'Adly Mansour, the former chief justice of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court who was appointed Egypt's interim president following the July 2013 ouster of the MB regime headed by president Muhammad Morsi. He explained that the aim was " a conscious and responsible renewal... that will deal with the problem of extremism and the mistaken or defective understanding of Islam..."  Albawabnews. January 12, 2014. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1265, Three Years Into Al-Sisi's Rule: Difficult Challenges At Home And Abroad, August 16, 2016.

[11] Al-Watan (Egypt), January 1, 2015. See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1326, In Egypt, Clashes Between The Institution Of The Presidency And The Institution Of Al-Azhar, August 21, 2017.

[12] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), November 19, 2018.

[13] Over the years the regime has been trying to pressure Al-Azhar, but to no avail. For example, a bill for limiting the powers of the institution and its head did not pass; an initiative for oversight of its curricula was not implemented; and an attempt by the Religious Endowments Minister to force imams in mosques to read from a prepared standard text for Friday sermons failed. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1326, In Egypt, Clashes Between The Institution Of The Presidency And The Institution Of Al-Azhar, August 21, 2017. At the time of this writing, the Egyptian parliament is voting on a bill regarding Dar Al-Iftaa (the official fatwa-issuing body, officially subordinate to the Justice Ministry). The bill includes an amendment of the procedure for selection of the country's mufti that is aimed at giving Al-Sisi the power to choose him from among three candidates presented by Al-Azhar, instead of Al-Azhar choosing him. See, February 22, 2020.

[14] For Al-Azhar's position against accusing terror activists of heresy, and statements by clerics claiming that extremist jihadis are indeed heretics, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7376, Egyptian Religious Establishment Continues To Refuse To Accuse Islamic Terrorist Organization Activists Of Heresy, March 9, 2018, and MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5910, Al-Azhar: The Islamic State (ISIS) Is A Terrorist Organization, But It Must Not Be Accused Of Heresy, December 21, 2014.

[16] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 1, 2015. See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7376, Egyptian Religious Establishment Continues To Refuse To Accuse Islamic Terrorist Organization Activists Of Heresy, March 9, 2018.

[17] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 17, 2014. See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5910, Al-Azhar: The Islamic State (ISIS) Is A Terrorist Organization, But It Must Not Be Accused Of Heresy, December 21, 2014.

[18] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 26, 2017. See also MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1302, Against The Backdrop Of Copts Fleeing Sinai, Egyptian Establishment, Al-Azhar Is Criticized For Helplessness In Dealing With ISIS, Discrimination Against Copts, March 13, 2017.

[19] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), June 8, 2019. See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8244, Head Of Egyptian National Press Authority Condemns Al-Azhar For Ongoing Refusal To Proclaim ISIS Heretical, August 27, 2019.

[23], April 21, 2017. See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1326, In Egypt, Clashes Between The Institution Of The Presidency And The Institution Of Al-Azhar, August 21, 2017.

[24] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 20, 2017. See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1326, In Egypt, Clashes Between The Institution Of The Presidency And The Institution Of Al-Azhar, August 21, 2017.

[25] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1263, Egypt's Al-Azhar Opposes Ministry Of Religious Endowments Plan For Uniform Friday Sermon, August 4, 2016.

[26] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 31, 2016. See also MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1263, Egypt's Al-Azhar Opposes Ministry Of Religious Endowments Plan For Standardized Friday Sermon, August 4, 2016.

[27] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 27, 2016. See also  MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1263, Egypt's Al-Azhar Opposes Ministry Of Religious Endowments Plan For Standardized Friday Sermon, August 4, 2016.

[28] Al-Watan (Egypt), July 22, 2016. See also MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1263, Egypt's Al-Azhar Opposes Ministry Of Religious Endowments Plan For Standardized Friday Sermon, August 4, 2016.

[29] See Al-Sisi's statements, Al-Watan (Egypt), July 28, 2020.

[30] Al-Ahali (Egypt), January 19, 2000. See also minutes of Egyptian People's Assembly Session No. 22, January 16, 2000; Sameh Sayyed Muhammad, Al-Khul' bayna al-madhahib al-fiqhiyya al-'arba'a wal-qanun al-masri (Cairo: Dar Al-Majd, 2002), 466-7.

[31] Al-Hayat (London), February 8, 2017.

[32] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), January 24, 2017.

[33] Al-Watan (Egypt), July 28, 2018.

[34] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), September 8, 2018.

[35], December 31, 2019.

[36], August 16, 2017.

[37] The MB, for example, opposed allowing a woman to serve as president of the country. On this see a MEMRI report on the MB's draft political platform of 2008, which stated that " the burdens of presidency must not be placed on a woman's shoulders - any more than supervising and leading the army - since they contradict her nature and the rest of her social and humanitarian roles."  MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 409,  Public Debate on the Political Platform of the Planned Muslim Brotherhood Party in Egypt, April 10, 2008.

[38], January 28, 2020.

[39] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), April 29, 2018.

[40] Akhbar Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 30, 2018.


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