Egypt’s Al-Azhar Islamic authority blossoms in the Arab Spring

September 7, 2011

(A man prays at Al-Azhar mosque, March 10, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Egypt’s highest religious authority, Al-Azhar, is emerging from the shadow of ousted President Hosni Mubarak as it tries to salvage a prestige tarnished by decades of submission to strongman leaders. From within its tall, crenellated walls, Al-Azhar’s sheikhs spent more than 1,000 years studying Islam’s holy texts and interpreting their meaning for the faithful, building an authority unrivalled in the Muslim world.

Some of its lustre dimmed when President Gamal Abdel Nasser brought it under the authority of the state in 1961. Forty years on, Al-Azhar’s sheikhs were being dragooned into supporting the harsh security regime that cemented Mubarak three-decade rule. With its reputation shackled to that of an unpopular leader, Al-Azhar waned just as firebrand preachers with less religious learning began spreading their dogmatic strain of Islam using the Internet and satellite TV.

A nadir was reached in 2007 when Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, head of Al-Azhar for more than a decade until his death last year, announced that journalists who spread rumours about the state of Mubarak’s health should “receive 80 lashes”.

To restore its reputation, Al-Azhar’s leading lights are reinventing the institution as an advocate of democracy, reform of the state and, perhaps surprisingly, secular rule.

“Many people feel there is a strong need to have such an institution in the future to preserve Islam’s moderation against other waves led by stricter and less reliable organisations,” said Hassan Nafaa, chairman of the political science department in Cairo University.

When millions took to the streets to force Mubarak from office in January, the expected Azhar fatwa (decree) demanding that Egyptians rally behind their president never came and the institution instead issued a statement merely urging restraint. Many Azhar scholars joined hands with the protesters in the uprising, and drew no criticism from their superiors.

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