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Al-Azhar: moderation vs extremism

Youssef Sidhom

27 Dec 2014 1:01 am

Problems on hold

As a year folds in and another hails, it is time for candid self-searching and balancing accounts. In this context, I feel compelled to tackle an issue that has long been swept under the rug and which, owing to its sensitive nature, I was reluctant to broach. By this I mean the educational, enlightenment, and religious leadership role of the venerable 10th-century Islamic institution al-Azhar which is today the leading authority on Sunni Islam in the world. Al-Azhar has a reputation of endorsing moderate Islam which it propagates through its university, institutes, schools, library, publications and books, curriculum and ++fatwas++ (Islamic legal opinion). As such, al-Azhar affects the lives of Muslims and their fellow Christians and, consequently, the entire Egyptian nation.
It is now impossible to ignore the al-Azhar issue since it is all over the media, first tackled by media person Ibrahim Eissa on his show ++25/30++ on the independent satellite channel OnTV. I fully realise that material broadcast by the media is in no way non-contestable fact, but I admit that this time the source is serious and credible, carefully weighs what he says, and provides evidence to back his words. Mr Eissa has not volunteered unsupported allegations, nor did he dish out flimsy rhetoric behind which might have lurked hidden intentions to defame or settle accounts with someone or other at al-Azhar. He rather exposed pages of books taught at al-Azhar, and voice recordings of scholarly opinion by al-Azhar scholars. He did not hide his shock at the fact that this prestigious institution might conceal—behind the glimmering façade of enlightenment presented by its Grand Imam Sheikh Dr Ahmed al-Tayyib—a fundamentalist, fanatic, scientifically retarded body that transmits destructive thought.
The facts Mr Eissa exposed alarmed me greatly and brought on the question of whether or not Sheikh Tayyib is aware of what goes on in the institution he heads. Does he know the intellectual and philosophical concepts the scholars of this institution harbour and spread? Is it acceptable that a venerable, enlightened sheikh sit at the head of al-Azhar and quietly allow its scholars to spread fanatic thought? Could we expect a face-off between the presumably reformist Imam and the fanatic scholars, or is the Grand Imam not up to reform or confrontation?
I am stunned at the flagrant contradiction between the national stances and documents of enlightened thought issued by al-Azhar, and the fundamentalist fanatic concepts that lurk in the hearts and minds of its scholars and are propagated through its books and curriculum.
In the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011, al-Azhar played a remarkably enlightened role when it issued its historic document on 19 June 2011 to confront calls to found an Islamic State in Egypt. The document held the name: “The statement of al-Azhar and intellectuals around the future of Egypt”, and was commonly labelled “Al-Azhar document”. It detailed an unprecedented vision by al-Azhar of the modern State that Egyptians aspired to found. “Moderate Islamic thought and the renaissance and reform propagated by the progressive al-Azhar scholars, as well as the contribution of great Egyptian intellectuals to the evolution of science and the humanities, have all contributed to the perpetually progressing modern Egyptian mind. They should be the inspiration for founding the modern Egyptian State.” The statement stressed diversity, respect of heavenly religions, and citizenship principles as the main tenets of society. It confirmed the pivotal importance of respecting differences, ethics of dialogue, and the non-branding of people as infidels or traitors.
In January 2012, al-Azhar issued the “Al-Azhar document for public freedoms and human rights” which was back then seen as the ultimate response to an ongoing attack on Egyptian identity and moderation. The document reassured Egyptians that attempts to trifle with the basics of their national identity or with freedoms and human rights have nothing to do with Islam. This document endorsed freedom of belief, opinion, expression, scientific research, and literary and artistic creativity in a thoroughly enlightened perspective, to the point that I wrote then that the document was “a beacon of enlightenment in the face of a dark, terrorist stream”.
With all this in mind, I regard with utmost worry and apprehension the facts—supported by conclusive evidence—exposed by Mr Eissa about the teachings, books and thought endorsed by al-Azhar and infused in the minds of its students. Were the enlightened documents issued by al-Azhar nothing but ornamental rhetoric? Were they used to conceal the rigid, fanatic, extremist thought that al-Azhar leaders do not wish to expose?
We are now before an issue that can no longer be shelved. If Mr Eissa’s account of al-Azhar is incorrect he should be taken to account, but if Sheikh Dr Tayyib is turning a blind eye to the conflict between enlightened and fanatic streams in al-Azhar, he should then be answerable for it.

Watani International
28 December 2014


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