Depending on who you ask, al-Azhar University in Cairo is the oldest or second oldest educational institution still operating today. It has a unique status throughout the Sunni world as the most reputable and respected school of Islamic jurisprudence and the opinions of its leading scholars are closely read. Al-Azhar is also a bastion of moderate Islamic thought, and its reputation and prestige have helped protect and legitimate moderate thinkers from Indonesia to Morocco. But that could be changing: Egypt’s insurgent Salafis want to put al-Azhar in the radical camp, and the struggle over al-Azhar could be the more important for the future of the region than many of the political struggles the press has followed closely.
The Salafis, led by the influential preacher Yasser Borhami, insisted that al-Azhar be given new powers in the country’s constitution to judge whether parliamentary laws adhere to Sharia. Al-Azhar’s leaders did not want this responsibility. ”We don’t like to put the law in terms of a religious dogma that says ‘this is right’ or ‘this is wrong,’” an adviser to al-Azhar’s grand sheikh told a Washington Post reporter. “The Salafis want to make Azhar a part of the political system … they think they’ll take over al-Azhar.”
Egypt’s lawmakers previously consulted the highly-respected scholars at al-Azhar in matters of religious doctrine and Sharia, but were not required to do so by law. That changed with the new constitution. Salafis want al-Azhar to form the theological foundation for their Islamist government. Slowly but surely, they are working to chip away at al-Azhar’s environment of pluralism, human rights, and respect for minorities and women.
But they are struggling to uproot al-Azhar’s more moderate leadership. Borhami and his allies on the constitutional committee failed to get rid of a clause in the constitution that makes al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh immune from removal. He will stay at his post until death or senility. And he will choose the panel of senior scholars who will elect his successor.
That failure was a setback for the Salafis but not the end of the battle. Borhami said recently that “the non-removal clause could be circumvented by issuing a law in a new parliament that sets a retirement age for the head of the prestigious Sunni institution.”
The moral authority of those in control at al-Azhar today is compromised by their association with the Mubarak dictatorship. The Mubarak government well understood the importance of staffing al-Azhar with friendly voices, and al-Azhar could not be entirely immune to the dark forces of the old Egyptian regime. Although the new constitution will politicize the venerable institution and mix state and mosque so thoroughly that both sides are likely to be corrupted and undermined, al-Azhar is no stranger to political leaders who seek to dictate what the masses hear from their religious leaders. That taint of compromise with the old regime will be a serious handicap for the moderates seeking to hang on.
If al-Azhar ends up under the control of more radical forces, the changes will be felt far beyond Egypt. The legitimacy that this extremely well respected institution gives to moderate interpretations of Islam does much to underpin the waning power of moderates throughout the Muslim world. Let that be lost and public opinion will likely move toward more radical political as well as religious views. In countries like Jordan, the consequences could be grave.