April 15, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 684

In Egypt, Protests and Demands for Change Reach Al-Azhar

April 15, 2011 | By L. Azuri*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 684


The domestic protests and demands for reform and change in post-revolutionary Egypt have not missed Al-Azhar University, which is considered the most important educational institution and religious authority in the Sunni Muslim world. Elements within the institution – ulema, imams, and officials – are demonstrating to protest against Al-Azhar's backing of the Mubarak regime, demanding reforms that will ensure Al-Azhar's independence from the regime and freedom from corruption, so that it can regain its former place of honor in Egyptian society and in the Muslim world.

Another complaint voiced by the Egyptian public against Al-Azhar is that the institution has not been fulfilling its role as a guide for the people in the difficult revolutionary and post-revolutionary period, abandoning the field to radical Islamic elements. Some Salafis have sought to ride the wave of criticism against Al-Azhar, demanding the establishment of an ulema council drawing from all Islamic streams that will advise Al-Azhar in its religious decision-making.

In response to this protest, Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb initiated contacts with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf over amending the Al-Azhar Law so that it would assure the institution's development and independence. A committee was formed to draft the bill, headed by jurist Tareq Al-Bishri. In a gesture aimed at supporting the fragile Egyptian economy, Al-Tayyeb has donated to the Egyptian treasury all the income he has earned at Al-Azhar since assuming his post.

On the other hand, Al-Tayyeb dismissed the criticism of the institution's actions during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in the early days of the revolution, and to date has not responded to the protestors' demands for his resignation so a new sheikh could be elected, rather than being appointed by the president, as had traditionally been the case under Mubarak.

The question of what reforms Al-Azhar will undergo and who will lead them depends on how much the protestors can pressure the military rule and the religious establishments, and the extent to which these will be able to withstand this pressure, using the rationale that replacing Al-Tayyeb will create a vacuum and thus facilitate the rise of political Islam. This rationale plays on the recent fears in Egyptian society vis-à-vis the increasingly louder voices of the Islamic and Salafi streams.

The Muslim Brotherhood has prominently defended Al-Tayyeb. With an eye to gaining legitimacy and appearing to be moderate, and to reassuring the public's apprehensions about it, the movement has expressed support for transforming Al-Azhar into an independent body with global influence – but with Al-Tayyeb as the reformist. Al-Tayyeb is also supported by a stream within Al-Azhar, which wants him to remain in his post.

The following is a review of the criticism of Al-Azhar, and the reactions of the religious establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt:

I. Criticism Against Al-Azhar

1. Al-Azhar is Identified with the Mubarak Regime

Criticism of Al-Azhar came mainly from within the institution itself. Imams, ulema, and other Al-Azhar members have been demonstrating in Cairo and the provinces for several weeks in protest of Al-Azhar's affiliation with the Mubarak regime and its support of this regime during the revolution. At the time, Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, headed by the sheikh of Al-Azhar, called on protestors to avoid violent clashes, bloodshed, and fitna (civil strife), on the grounds that they were forbidden according to shari'a. Al-Azhar also advocated dialogue between the regime and representatives of the youth and opposition forces, and called upon them to resolve the crisis so as to protect Egypt's security and avoid prompting foreign intervention.[1] An exception to this was Al-Azhar spokesman Muhammad Rifa'a Al-Tahtawi, who expressed solidarity with the popular protest, and resigned his post to join the demonstrations.[2]

The World Union of Free Al-Azhar Scholars – recently established by the youth of Al-Azhar – called on the sheikh of Al-Azhar, the Egyptian chief mufti, the minister of religious endowments, and the secretary-general of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy to apologize for not supporting the revolution from the start, and to resign their posts.[3] The Union is also demanding to put an end to the current procedure whereby the Al-Azhar sheikh is appointed by the president, and to hold free elections for the post; to revive the Supreme Clerics Council – a body of Al-Azhar scholars from which the sheikh of Al-Azhar was chosen, until it was dismantled in 1961 by Gamal 'Abd Al-Nasser; to subordinate the Ministry of Religious Endowments to this body, as well as Dar Al-Ifta – the official fatwa-issuing body, which currently belongs to the ministry of legal affairs; to enact changes that will ensure the independence of Al-Azhar from the regime in terms of both policy and budget, and to restore its status in the Muslim world.[4] Al-Azhar members are also protesting the corruption in the institution, and the improper use of charitable funds. In addition, they demand better working conditions and salaries.[5] Some members of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy supported the demand that Al-Azhar become an independent body, and stressed that its leadership must incorporate Muslim scholars from all over the world, not just from Egypt, so as to restore its authority in the Muslim world.[6]

Egyptian intellectual Al-Sayyed Al-Babili, a regular contributor to Egypt's government newspapers Al-Ahram and Al-Masa, expressed sympathy with the demands of the Al-Azhar youth. In an article in the independent Egyptian daily Al-Misriyoun, Al-Babili wrote: "The march that was attended by a thousand Al-Azhar imams, who demanded the independence of Al-Azhar from the state, is a clear message that we must restore Al-Azhar's position, honor, and enlightened role... The public began to treat the Al-Azhar scholars as belonging to the regime and to dismiss them, instead of respecting and honoring them... This is evident in the emergence of leaders from [various] religious movements, who espouse an extremist ideology that spawned acts of violence and terror and which, at some point, almost plunged the state into devastating sectarian fitna...

"Since it is the regime that appoints the sheikh of Al-Azhar, it could not consider Al-Azhar as the voice of Islam and the Muslims, but [only] as one of its subordinate institutions, which must enact its policies and fulfill its goals, among them the call to the public to obey the leader and refrain from opposing him. That is why we have witnessed a great decline in the internal and external roles of this honorable [institution]. The statements and opinions it published were received with apathy, because the public saw them as mirroring the regime's publications and propaganda.

"Now the situation has changed... and the demand to liberate Al-Azhar has become a necessity of this new reality... Its liberation [should] begin from the top, by electing the sheikh of Al-Azhar from among all the scholars... It is time to amend the Al-Azhar Law in full, and to restore the Supreme Clerics Council, so as to usher in a new phase wherein the position and honor of the scholar are restored."[7]

Dr. Sa'id Al-Lawandi, a columnist for Al-Ahram (formerly a mouthpiece of the regime), claimed that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar had embezzled public funds, and called on him to resign: "The charity coffers and donations are intended for the poor, for orphans, and for renewing the [Al-Azhar] institutions, but Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb gave his advisors grants from those funds... and used them to pay for his medical trips to France. Let us not forget that he helped his son, who works as an engineer, visited him, and stayed with him in France for several weeks, with the knowledge and blessing of former president Hosni Mubarak. Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb is a remnant of the previous regime, and he should resign, since he held this position under the previous president... The sheikh of Al-Azhar must leave immediately, since the official documents [proving his corruption] will pursue him..."[8]

2. Al-Azhar is Letting Political Islam Take Over the Revolution

Another accusation directed at Al-Azhar is that it has failed to take the reigns and guide the Egyptian public in this trying time, but instead has left the scene to the scholars of the Islamist movements. As an example, critics pointed to the fact that on February 18, following the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Friday sermon at Al-Tahrir Square was given not by an Al-Azhar sheikh but by Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars and formerly a high-ranking official in the Muslim Brotherhood.

An Al-Ahram editorial pondered the disappearance of Al-Azhar from the Egyptian scene. It said: "Where is Al-Azhar? How could it let anyone and everyone ride the wave of the pure revolution of the youth in Al-Tahrir Square and lead it wherever they chose? Al-Azhar was present for all [Egyptian] revolutions [in the modern age]. It led, directed, and fanned the flames of resistance among the masses. Where is it now? How could it let others take the podium in Al-Tahrir Square and deliver a Friday sermon in its stead? Al-Azhar is still a source of inspiration for Egyptians and Muslims worldwide who are revolting for their freedom, so why has its voice gone silent now, and why has its enthusiasm waned?...

"Al-Azhar was and is the best representative of moderate and mainstream Islam. The public needs it, in order to prevent ambitious thugs, miscreants, and hotheads from hijacking the revolution and taking it over. We are in the eye of the storm. Each of us feels deprived and blames the other. So what is the solution? There are many, but first among them is that the respected Al-Azhar resume its role of leadership..."[9]

Criticism has also been voiced regarding Al-Azhar's failure to take a clear stance vis-à-vis the referendum on constitutional amendments. Al-Azhar has been accused of not intervening in the conflict between those who held that voting for the amendments was an Islamic religious duty (including the Muslims Brotherhood and the Salafis), and those who opposed the amendments, chiefly the Copts, on the grounds that they transform Egypt into a religious state. Ghada Zein Al-'Abadin, a columnist for the government daily Al-Akhbar, wrote: "Where do the members of the respected Al-Azhar stand regarding statements made by some sheikhs about the connection between the recent referendum and the religion? Why is Al-Azhar not responding to the claim that those who voted for the amendments voted for the religion, whereas those who voted against [the amendments] strayed from the path of their faith? Where is the role of Al-Azhar as the lighthouse of Islam? Why does it leave the common people at a loss, and why do its members remain silent and fail to respond?..."[10]

3. Salafi Sheikh: Establish a Council of Scholars from All Islamic Streams

Protest against Al-Azhar was also voiced by its competitors for religious authority in the country. For example, Salafi cleric Sheikh Muhammad Hassan called for the establishment of a joint supreme council, comprising scholars from Al-Azhar, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafi Ansar Al-Sunna society, as well as other Salafi ulema. He proposed that this council would elect the sheikh of Al-Azhar and would approve his decisions, and would also be responsible for issuing fatwas, instead of Dar Al-Ifta.[11]

II. The Heads of the Religious Establishment Reject the Criticism

1. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar Refuses to Resign, Vows to Defend the Revolution

Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb did not remain indifferent in the face of the protests against him, but neither did he comply with all the protestors' demands. He recently met with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf regarding the development of Al-Azhar and amending the Al-Azhar Law, and promised to ensure the independence of the institution and its university. To this end, Al-Tayyeb proposed to establish three internal committees: on law, curricula, and the status of Al-Azhar in Egypt and in the Arab and Muslim world.[12] In a meeting with Egyptian jurist Tareq Al-Bishri, considered to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, who has been appointed to head the committee for drafting the new Al-Azhar law, Al-Tayyeb wished to ensure that the sheikh of Al-Azhar be elected from within the Supreme Clerics Council, once this body is reestablished.[13]

Al-Tayyeb defended Al-Azhar's position on the protests against Mubarak's regime, explaining that the institution is not political but academic, and that its duty is to preserve the nation's Islamic identity, not to rebel against the regime.[14] According to him, Al-Azhar supported the protestors from the start and endorsed their demands, but did not call on the public to take to the streets, fearing bloodshed and clashes with the army. Al-Tayyeb said: "Is it appropriate for a man of my age and position... to go down to [Al-Tahrir] Square together with these twenty- and thirty-year-olds, to carry banners and speak their language?... I personally find protests and crowds to be suffocating, and even as a student I did not participate in protests..." He added: "I did not belong to Mubarak or his regime, so I did not fear them. I fear nothing but Allah... The former regime could not but fall, for it was corrupt and oppressed the country and the people..."[15]

As for the demand that he resign, Arab media reported that Al-Tayyeb had submitted his resignation, but that it was refused by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces.[16] These reports have been denied by Al-Azhar, and Al-Tayyeb stressed that he would not resign, lest the revolution be hijacked "by those who are lying in wait for it."[17] Subsequently, in a gesture aimed at supporting the Egyptian economy, Al-Tayyeb donated all his Al-Azhar salaries to the Egyptian treasury, and announced he would henceforth be working for free.[18]

2. The Mufti of Egypt: We Will Not Become a Side in the Political Game

Egyptian Mufti Dr. 'Ali Gum'a also defended the conduct of the religious establishment during the revolution and claimed that Dar Al-Ifta, which he heads, ruled five years ago that a peaceful revolution is permitted, so long as there is no bloodshed or fitna, which are forbidden according to the shari'a. He said that he had tried to meet with the protestors during the revolution, and also to speak with Mubarak and relay his messages to the people, but to no avail. Gum'a added: "There is a partisan political arena and a social [sphere] that Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta are trying to avoid... [Dar Al-'Ifta] cannot take sides; it must steer clear of this debate and deal only with broad principles... One must understand my role as Qadi [Islamic judge]. I am not a fighter or a revolutionary..." He called to leave the religious establishment out of the conflict, and let the protestors have their say without involving the religion.[19]

III. Support for the Al-Azhar Sheikh From Within the Institution and From the Muslim Brotherhood

There are those in Al-Azhar who support Al-Tayyeb. Students, faculty, and other staff at Al-Azhar University held rallies in his support, in Cairo and the provinces, calling for him to remain in his post.[20] The Islamic Research Academy dismissed the statements of Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, who said that Al-Azhar scholars did not manage to fulfill a serious role in the revolution due to their dependence on the regime. Academy member Dr. 'Abd Al-Mu'ti Bayoumi said that Al-Azhar had pioneered the demand for change by releasing a fatwa, one week before the protests began, stating that the ruler must be removed if corruption is rife.[21]

The Muslim Brotherhood was also conspicuous in its defense of Al-Tayyeb, despite sympathizing with the demands of the youth revolution. The movement, which endorsed the cause of transforming Al-Azhar into an independent institution with international status, has consistently supported Al-Tayyeb since he took office, and is standing by him in this crisis as well. Presumably, its aim is to alleviate public concerns about the Brotherhood, and to depict it as moderate, in contrast to various Salafi movements that have gained prominence since the revolution, some of which have announced their intention to establish parties and enter the political arena.

Dr. 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Bar, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood General Guide's Office and a professor at Al-Azhar, wrote on the Muslim Brotherhood website: "I was saddened by the campaign undertaken by several newspapers and websites against one of the greatest symbols of reform in our lives – the great and honorable imam, the sheikh of Al-Azhar mosque. On many occasions before the revolution, I praised him in print for his positions: his fight against corruption at Al-Azhar; his esteem for the [prominent] scholars of the nation; his response to those who hurt Islam and his criticism of the Pope; his support for the jihad fighters in Palestine; his firm stance against relations with the Zionist entity; and many other such honorable opinions, which were uncommon among the leaders of Al-Azhar during the [pre-revolution] period. Since he entered office, he has clearly been dedicated to the struggle against corruption... Even if his position at the onset of the revolution was, in my opinion, confused and incoherent, the man immediately clarified his position and opinion, which clearly support the revolution, and that is worthy of esteem..."[22]

* L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 3, 2011.

[2] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt) February 4, 2011.

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 1, 2011.

[5] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), March 12, 2011.

[6] Al-Liwaa Al-Islami (Egypt), March 10, 2011.

[7] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), March 3, 2011.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 20, 2011.

[9] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 3, 2011.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), March 24, 2011.

[11] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), February 22, 2011.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 20, 2011.

[13] Al-Tayyeb's position on this issue has not been consistent. Immediately following the revolution, and before the protests against him began, Al-Tayyeb tried to gain popularity and avoid future criticism by endorsing the pro-elections position. He proposed a legal amendment stipulating that the Al-Azhar Sheikh would be elected from within the Supreme Clerics Council, and also limiting the duration of his term in office. He later changed his mind, claiming that such elections would be influenced by the wealthy, and would favor candidates from the movements of political Islam. He argued that the Al-Azhar Sheikh should be appointed but subsequently granted complete independence from the state. Recently, Al-Tayyeb reverted to his original position. Al-Wafd (Egypt), February 13, 2011; Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), March 3, 2011; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 5, 2011; Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 5, 2011.

[14] Al-Yawm Al-Saba' (Egypt), March 3, 2011; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 5, 2011.

[15] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), March 24, 2011.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 22, 2011.

[17] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), March 24, 2011.

[18] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 14, 2011.

[19] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), March 27, 2011.

[20] Al-Masa (Egypt), March 10, 2011.

[21] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 25, 2011.

[22], March 27, 2011.

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