The recent decision by the Islamic university al-Azhar in Egypt to freeze its participation in inter-faith dialogue with the Vatican may do more to advance Catholic-Muslim dialogue than the al-Azhar/Vatican partnership could ever have achieved.
Diverse Muslim Modernities
Al-Azhar University has been a major institution of learning in Sunni Islam for more than 1,000 years. However, over the centuries and especially in recent decades, new centers of intellectual influence—from Melbourne, Australia, to Xian, China to Berkeley, California—have been emerging in Sunni Islam.
Modernization and globalization have accelerated this trend, enabling the rapid movement of ideas and arguments in Muslim intra-faith dialogue across geographic boundaries. Gradually, a search for truth is beginning to trump geography or ethnic identity in intra-Muslim debates. All the while al-Azhar has been busy allowing itself to become a political pawn of Egypt’s authoritarian regime under Hosni Mubarak. Furthermore, in its scramble for funding, the university has also allowed Saudi influence to wax just when the world—not least of all Muslims themselves—need it to wane.
More significantly, from a doctrinal perspective, al-Azhar does not hold a special status in Islam akin to that of the Vatican in Roman Catholicism. Sunni Islam, the sect of about 85% of Muslims in the world, does not have an inherent, divinely established clerical hierarchy.
Granted, there is an important role in Sunni Islam for religious scholars (ulema), but even the extent to which al-Azhar embodies and represents “the ulema” is debatable. As just one example, at an Islamic studies conference I attended some years ago, the scholars from Turkey simply ran circles around the Azahris in attendance, who were all Egyptians. The gap between the Turks’ theological erudition and critical thinking versus the quaintness (to put it charitably) of the Azharis was jarring.
The Vatican and al-Azhar were a mismatched pairing to start with. Apples and oranges.
As Mubarak Goes, so Goes Al-Azhar…
And lest one doubt that al-Azhar has become a tool of the Mubarak dictatorship, the political dimensions of the recent al-Azhar withdrawal from talks with the Vatican do not lurk far beneath the surface.
Every indication so far is that the New Year’s church bombing in Alexandria was a targeted, entirely intentional murder of Christians by a fanatical Islamist. Even if this were an isolated incident in the Middle East and Africa (which it is not, and the Pope also mentioned Iraq and Nigeria in his recent statements), expressing concern for the safety—and even the continued existence—of indigenous Christian populations hardly seems shocking or offensive.
And yet the Egyptian government called the Pope’s January 10th remarks concerning these recent attacks on Christians “unacceptable interference in its internal affairs” and recalled the Egyptian Ambassador to the Vatican the next day. Al-Azhar followed in lock-step by suspending its inter-faith talks with the Vatican.
The broader implication of al-Azhar’s suspension is that it could open new opportunities for a broader variety of Sunnis—almost as diverse in theology as in geography and culture—to play a more active role in inter-faith engagement with Catholic Christians. Moreover, such a shift could draw much-needed attention to the inherently dispersed nature of power in Sunni Islam.
For too many decades now, modern Arab dictatorships have maneuvered to centralize religious authority in Sunni Islam under the sway of their political power so that they can better control and exploit it.
The Tunisians have said, “No more!” to their political dictator, and gradually we are seeing Sunni Muslims throughout the world—including some deep in erudition and rich in spirit—rise up to displace al-Azhar’s Arab-centric, politicized domination of Sunni Muslim discourse.
Al-Azhar has done the Vatican a favor by freeing the Vatican to pursue Catholic-Muslim dialogue across this multi-faceted mosaic of Sunni Islam.
Sunni Islam’s Contending Modernities
The reality of Sunni Islam is diverse. Outside of al-Azhar, this diversity includes advocates of critical thinking, the dignity of men and women, vigorous public engagement, and peaceful pluralism such as:
- Egyptian Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman (a.k.a. Kareem Amer), a former al-Azhar student, who was expelled from al-Azhar and then imprisoned by the government of Egypt for blogging that, in his experience, fundamentalism pervaded the discourse at al-Azhar.
- Muslim women leading Friday prayers for women, in particular among the Hui ethnic minority in China. These Hui Muslim women have been doing this for centuries.
- Young activists, many Muslim, in Pakistan who founded and have been leading the “War Against Rape” movement seeking justice and social well-being for all in a society in which women are often at a sexual and legal disadvantage; such independent civil society movements have been bolder than al-Azhar in addressing controversial social topics.
- The International Islamic University of Malaysia, which has a genuinely international faculty (not Arab-centric), where female students and faculty are not relegated to a distant, separate campus (as they are at al-Azhar) and where scholars and students enjoy generally greater freedom of religion and freedom of speech than in Egypt.
- Scholar Abdullah Saeed, who has written an important study of Muslim support for religious freedom in core Islamic religious texts and has become an advocate of religious freedom for minorities in Muslim-majority areas, Muslim minorities in non-Muslim areas, and not least of all for Muslims in Muslim-majority areas.
Al-Azhar ≠ Sunni Islam
The BBC described the bi-annual al-Azhar/Vatican talks as “designed to improve understanding between Sunni Islam and the Roman Catholic Church.” This is a worthy objective. Yet, apparently seeking an easy way forward, the Vatican looked for a single button to push and established ties with al-Azhar as its formal partner with “Sunni Islam.”
Al-Azhar is not the same thing as “Sunni Islam,” nor, again, does it enjoy any privileged hierarchical authority in Sunni Islam on par with the role of the Vatican in the Roman Catholic Church.
European governments, such as in Germany, have been accustomed to having the vast majority of Christians in their countries represented by formal, hierarchically structured organizations. And they have in turn—erroneously—sought to find a single institutional equivalent representing Muslims in their countries. The result is that they have granted too much credibility to self-appointed Muslim representatives who are in actuality part of a dispersed, multi-faceted religious community.
Broader Dialogue = Better Dialogue
The al-Azhar initiated dialogue freeze now allows the Vatican to pursue a broader strategy: engagement with Sunni (and other) Muslims on multiple fronts simultaneously rather than with a single, inappropriately matched partner. This opens the way for engagement with the authentic plurality of Sunni Islam—particularly with modernizing Muslims who have been shunned by al-Azhar. And this may provide new opportunities for the voices of these Muslim advocates of peaceful pluralism to be heard.
Such dispersed, multi-faceted engagement with Sunni Muslims also opens new avenues for enriched engagement at local levels, which are often the most suitable for the type of relationally-centered, inter-faith engagement that can be most powerful and transformative.
What will inter-faith dialogue between the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church and the dispersed, diverse realm of Sunni Islam look like? That’s hard to predict. What is clear, however, is the dire need for engagement between these millions and millions of Roman Catholic and Sunni Muslim believers that does not come in the form of more bombings, carnage, and mutual antagonism and misunderstanding. Courage to explore new models for building understanding between Roman Catholic Christians and Sunni Muslims is needed. And thanks to al-Azhar’s self-imposed boycott of the Vatican, a door through which such courage can pass and go on to bear fruit has been opened.
Jennifer S. Bryson is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. She studied Political Science as an undergraduate at Stanford, medieval European intellectual history for an M.A. in History at Yale, and Greco-Arabic and Islamic studies for a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, also at Yale.