Al-Azhar, Egypt’s leading Islamic authority, has recently found itself at odds with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after initially supporting his rise to power.
In response to ongoing attacks in the Sinai by the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, President Sisi has been calling for the sheikhs of al-Azhar to lead a “‘religious revolution’” in Egypt. These appeals began in 2014 and have gone unanswered by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, prompting Sisi to tell the Grand Imam “you wear me out.”
A historic complex of Islamic schools, university faculties, and research institutes, al-Azhar is the Sunni World’s oldest seat of Islamic learning and has had significant global influence for centuries. While it has weathered autocratic governments before, it has never experienced the same challenge to its authority that it is currently facing from Sisi.
Dr. al-Tayeb has presented al-Azhar as “‘a pulpit of moderate, centrist, and tolerant Islam’” according to the Economist. But, whether al-Azhar is a “moderate” or “extreme” Islamic religious institution is not the central issue in growing tensions between the school and the Egyptian president. Instead, the dispute centers upon a struggle for power within Egypt’s religious sphere, in order to curb radicalism by controlling religious discourse.
After fears about the “Brotherhoodization” of Egypt grew during the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, the interim administration, which followed the coup against Morsi, sought to exert even more control over the country’s religious arena.
In 2014, for instance, the Ministry of Religious Endowments enacted various decisions granting the ministry power to approve or deny preaching permits. In 2015, a year after becoming president, Sisi appointed a special committee to review and update al-Azhar’s educational curriculum, and even began standardizing sermons in mosques. As an extension of this plan, the Ministry of Religious Endowments announced on January 10 that it would script all Friday sermons for the next five years.
This announcement caused a great deal of anger amongst scholars at al-Azhar, who felt they should have been consulted regarding the selected sermon topics, especially given the number of students they train. Between the university’s various faculties and research centers, al-Azhar has about 450,000 students at any given time. In defiance of the edict, al-Azhar’s clerics have insisted on the right of imams to preach their own sermons, without approval from the ministry.
This is not the first time al-Azhar has been co-opted for the sake of furthering state control over religious life. In the 1950s and 60s, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized all religious endowments in order to, among other things, control the appointment of al-Azhar’s Grand Imam. The university became a tool of the state, issuing fatwas to justify government policies. While this damaged some of al-Azhar’s credibility, it also solidified the institution’s position as the sole arbiter of Islam in Egypt.
Sisi presents the strongest challenge to al-Azhar’s authority in Egypt’s modern history. In this environment, it remains to be seen whether the institution will retain its autonomy over religious discourse in the country.