Bastion of Islamic orthodoxy in Egypt struggles in more critical and competitive environment

Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, considered the guardian of Islamic orthodoxy, has retained its independence in the face of the authoritarian government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but the venerable institution is facing new competition from neighboring countries and newly established schools of Islamic learning across the Muslim world, writes James Dorsey in Religioscope (June 17), an international news service on religion and sister publication of RW.  Al-Sisi gained world attention when he charged that Al-Azhar was promoting extremism through its curriculum and attempted to introduce legislation to moderate its course, such as by enhancing the government’s role in appointing officials to the university’s leadership. The proposals were alarming enough to mobilize Al-Azhar’s supporters to defeat the legislation. But the incident did prod university officials to curb anti-pluralistic and intolerant statements by some faculty members as well as set up an online monitoring system to track militant statements on social media. Officials and scholars are still being criticized, however, for allowing extremist sentiment and literature in the university’s libraries and coursework. Al-Azhar also continues to issue statements and take actions that appear sympathetic to radicalism, such as demanding the closure of a TV show that advocated the purging of canonical texts promoting violence and suspending a professor for promoting atheism because he used books authored by liberals.

Dorsey adds that complementing these issues is al-Sisi’s view of his own role as a guardian of Islamic orthodoxy, evident for example in his argument in a study he wrote some years ago at the U.S. War College that Middle Eastern democracy needed to be informed by an Islamic principle of “obedience to a ruler who consults his subjects.” Al-Azhar’s resistance to al-Sisi’s reform efforts is reinforced by its concern about growing competition from Saudi, Jordanian, and Turkish institutions. The university is also challenged by the growth of Islamic studies programs at European and American universities, even if these programs are not immune from producing extremists also, according to Dorsey. Al-Sisi has apparently learned a lesson from trying to reform Al-Azhar and is now training male and female imams for a newly established International Awqaf Academy, which is attached to the presidency rather than Al-Azhar.

The new school will offer religious subjects as well as such disciplines as sociology, psychology, and politics. The president has also instructed his religious affairs ministry to write standardized sermons for all mosque preachers. Dorsey notes that Al-Azhar and al-Sisi are surrounded by Islamic clerics who have been influenced by Saudi Islam (and funding) and, more recently, by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which promotes a quietist form of Islam similar to that of the Saudis while opposing its ultra-conservatism. Dorsey concludes that changing “Al-Azhar’s definition of itself and the way it translates that into its teachings and activities is likely to be a long drawn-out struggle.”