Authority, Community & Identity article

Al-Azhar: beyond the Politics of State Patronage

The great Islamic polymath, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), bemoaned the lack of intellectual independence, integrity and critical distance from the state that characterized the position of Muslim scholars in his time. He laments this in his book, Ayyuhal Walad, and advises his young disciples neither to get too close to princes and sultans nor to praise them excessively. But even more than that, Imam Ghazali warns them not to accept generous gifts from rulers, even though this may be permissible: “Coveting things from the rulers and those in power will spoil and corrupt your religion, since there is born from it flattery and ‘kowtowing’ to those in power and unwise approval of their policies.”

Ebrahim E. Moosa has eloquently summarized al-Ghazali’s strong critique of his contemporaries in his book, Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination (2005): “Most scholars are sycophants, groveling at the feet of political leaders, displaying egotistical behavior, driven by insatiable materialism.”

Al-Ghazali’s critique of Muslim scholars and their subservience to the state in his time is just as relevant to today’s relationship between the Egyptian state and the religious scholars affiliated to the citadel of Islamic learning in the Muslim world, Jami`at al-Azhar al-Sharif, or al-Azhar Islamic University. The new political order now emerging in Egypt perhaps provides an opportunity to put al-Ghazali’s warnings into practice.

The Nationalization of Al-Azhar

During the past half century, a tradition of religious legitimation of the state—and religion’s co-option by the state—has become endemic in Egyptian society. It was first engineered by Gamal Abdel Nasser, shortly after his military coup on July 23, 1952, when he nationalized all “waqf” properties—land and assets associated with religious endowments. Because the prestigious al-Azhar Islamic University depended on income from such land to operate, this move curtailed its autonomy and made it completely reliant on the state for financial support. According to Scott W. Hibbard in his book, Religious Politics and Secular States (2010), the nationalization of waqf properties also allowed the government to distribute waqf resources in such a way as to “reward those who followed [its] lead…and punish those who did not.”

The nationalization of waqf assets was followed in 1961 by a radical state-imposed reformation of the al-Azhar University, including of its traditional curriculum and appointment of faculty, especially the prestigious position of Shaykh al-Azhar, or the head of al-Azhar University. Nasser believed that creating a state-controlled monopoly on religion would be useful for buttressing his regime against both internal and external enemies. This policy of state manipulation of religion was scrupulously pursued by both of his successors, Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) and Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), for the past forty years.

Shaykh Al-Azhar’s Uncritical Support of the Mubarak Regime

The problematic nature of this policy of state hegemony over religion is well illustrated by the ambivalent political stance of the Shaykh al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed el-Tayeb, during the Egyptian uprising against the Mubarak dictatorship. Shaykh el-Tayeb found it extremely difficult to offer public support for the demands of the pro-democracy demonstrators. All he could manage in his public pronouncements was to echo the failing regime’s call for “stability” and its accusations that foreign agents engineered the uprising. Is it disingenuous to suggest that Shaykh al-Azhar’s stance can be attributed to the fact that he was not only appointed by Mubarak but also served as a high ranking member of his National Democratic Party?

As is the case with all of Mubarak’s loyal supporters, the Shaykh al-Azhar is now coming under critical scrutiny for his complicity in the Mubarak regime’s three decades of blatant human rights violations and financial corruption. Al-Azhar’s tacit and often open support of the regime’s draconian policies is currently being evaluated like never before.

To his credit, in his first official statement after the fall of the Mubarak regime, Shaykh el-Tayeb acknowledged that many Egyptian institutions suffered from corruption, and that the pro-democracy protesters who decided to go to the street and protest against this corruption are heroes. Furthermore, in response to a group of Al-Azhar scholars who joined the protests and are now demanding that the constitution be changed to prevent a future government from appointing the esteemed position of Shaykh al-Azhar, Dr. el-Tayeb claims that this has always been his position.

The positive response of Shaykh el-Tayeb to the demand that the future head of this prestigious center of Islamic learning be appointed through democratic election rather than by presidential appointment should be welcomed by all Egyptians as well as by all Muslims all over the world. Such a transparent and consultative policy will not only lend greater legitimacy and credibility to this distinguished office, but it will also afford greater independence to al-Azhar and the `ulama (Muslim religious scholars) from state control and manipulation. I believe this should be welcomed as a first step in an ongoing struggle to free al-Azhar from state control.

Winning the battle for the democratic appointment of the Shaykh al-Azhar will indeed go a long way toward changing the half-century-old tradition of state control of the influential al-Azhar University. However, the longer term goal should be broader: the forging of a different relationship between al-Azhar and the state, on one hand, and al-Azhar and civil society, on the other.

Beyond the Politics of Patronage

It is my considered view that the role of the al-Azhar university and the `ulama in Egypt should not be focused exclusively on seeking patronage with political power. Rather, they should—in accordance with what has been powerfully demonstrated in the recent Egyptian pro-democracy protests—seek to become an integral and vibrant part of the broader civil society and network of non-governmental organizations. The al-Azhar leadership needs to resist the temptation to become once again the mere apologists for the powers that be. It needs to avoid being co-opted by the government or powerful political parties to serve their expedient agendas.

The role of al-Azhar should be that of the nation’s moral conscience, alongside other organizations in civil society. The `ulama have a duty to exhort and challenge government whenever they fail to fulfill their political mandate. Government officials are elected by the nation’s citizens, and all citizens—including religious leaders—have a political right and obligation to censure and criticize them when necessary. At the same time, civil society also has a responsibility to support and collaborate with the government in areas of mutual concern and benefit.

In addition, Al-Azhar University holds the distinguished position of being the eminent and moral voice of the Muslim world. In this regard, for example, they have made many praiseworthy pronouncements such as denouncing extremist acts of violence and supporting inter-religious dialogue.  This more global role will be further elevated if al-Azhar is seen to be equally critical of unethical and repressive practices by the government of their own country as well as other autocratic leaders within the Muslim world.

The critical question facing al-Azhar Islamic University and indeed all religious leaders in the post-Mubarak era is the following: Will Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s prudent advice be headed?

A. Rashied Omar
A. Rashied Omar earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and an M.A. in peace studies from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where he is now a core faculty member. Omar’s research and teaching focus on the roots of religious violence and the potential of religion for constructive social engagement and interreligious peacebuilding. He is co-author with David Chidester et al. of Religion in Public Education: Options for a New South Africa (UCT Press, 1994), a contributor to the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2015), and a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (Macmillan Reference USA, 2016). In addition to being a university-based researcher and teacher, Omar serves as Imam (religious minister) at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa, and an advisory board member for Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa.

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