Mixed messages on Al-Azhar

President Mohamed Mursi has said he supports the election of the grand imam of Al-Azhar – Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Gihan Shahine, 13 – 19 September 2012.

Inaugurating the first congress of student union federations at Al-Azhar University last week, President Mohamed Mursi said that he approved the election of the grand imam of Al-Azhar as well as of university leaderships.

The reshuffle of the leadership at Al-Azhar is already happening, and Mursi said that other universities would be reshuffled soon. Calls for changes at Al-Azhar would be met, he said, but this “should take place via practical and well-studied steps.”  

Mursi’s support for the election of the Al-Azhar grand imam by a senior clergy authority, and not his appointment by presidential decree, appears to be in answer to calls from religious scholars and intellectuals to reinstate the centuries-old institution’s independence from the state.

Critics, however, charge that the Islamist president’s hints at reshuffling the leadership at Al-Azhar is perhaps an attempt on the part of the Brotherhood “to extend its hegemony” to the prestigious institution, a claim that Brotherhood members vehemently deny … //

… At a time when Egypt’s political elite had got bogged down in debates over the Islamic-versus liberal identity of post-revolutionary Egypt, Al-Azhar stepped into the fray as perhaps the only universally respected institution capable of bringing about national unity, or at least dialogue, among the different views.

This national dialogue resulted in the production of at least three important documents that many observers regard as possibly providing guidelines for the drafting of Egypt’s new post-revolutionary constitution. The documents, which also reiterate the institution’s support for the freedom of religious affiliation, expression and belief, have also been seen in the context of Al-Azhar’s attempt to reassert itself as the guardian of moderate Islam.

“The Brothers simply do not want to have any strong institution stand in their way,” El-Ghitani commented “They will try to institute their members, or at least their sympathisers, in leading positions at Al-Azhar in order to seize power in the old university.”

El-Tayeb was previously known for his hardline stance against the Muslim Brotherhood when it was still an outlawed opposition group. In 2006, El-Tayeb, a former member of the now-dismantled National Democratic Party (NDP), condemned a military-style parade by Brotherhood students on campus in his capacity as the then president of Al-Azhar University, charging that they had worn black facemasks “like Hamas, Hizbullah and the Republican Guard in Iran.”

El-Tayeb had previously angered some conservative Muslims for being a critic of outward manifestations of piety, such as the veil or the wearing of beards, which he has described as possibly coming at the expense of true spiritual development.

He supported his predecessor’s ban on the niqab, or full face veil, among female Al-Azhar students on the grounds that it was not a religious obligation in Islam.

Recently, El-Tayeb also angered some Salafist party members for not answering their calls for the addition of a phrase stipulating that Al-Azhar be the only reference for the interpretation of Islamic Sharia law in the new constitution.

The FJP, however, condoned El-Tayeb’s suggestions that Article 2 of the constitution remain unchanged.

El-Ghitani referred to the incident when El-Tayeb was seated in the back during Mursi’s inauguration ceremony at Cairo University as a case of “the Brothers’ intended disrespect for the grand imam.”

The grand imam walked out of the ceremony, but it was later made clear that the seating had been an organisational error and not an insult. President Mursi was said to have extended an apology to the grand imam for “the lack of organisation that left him seated in the back of the room.”

Badreddin insists that “neither the president nor the Brotherhood are in conflict with Al-Azhar scholars, and definitely not with El-Tayeb, for whom they have deep respect.”

This respect for Al-Azhar, according to Badreddin, has been reflected in Mursi’s discourse and attitude in more than one incident. One case in point is that Mursi chose to perform his first Friday prayers at the Al-Azhar Mosque on the eve of his inauguration as Egypt’s first Islamist president. By doing that, Bareddin said, Mursi had “meant to send a message that Al-Azhar will remain the only pillar of moderate Islam.”

“He [Mursi] also insisted that he take the initiative when entering the mosque and shaking hands with the grand imam and other scholars, breaking the protocol that sheikhs should turn out to greet the president, in respect of the high-ranking position of scholars who, he has said, should be attended to, rather than attend to the people.” (full long text).

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