Al Azhar and Beyond: Changes in the Islamic religious institutions post Arab Spring

Southern entrance to al-Azhar, Cairo photographered in the early 1900s. The Al-Azhar Mosque, the first mosque built in Cairo, was a center for Islamic scholarship from its founding in 970. Studies continue today at nearby Al-Azhar University, the second oldest continuously run university in the world

A PIECE WAS CARRIED ON CNN’S blogosphere recently, in which a Saudi strategic affairs analyst offered his perspective on the Arab uprisings and revolutions. There were a fair number of things in that piece that would have perturbed public opinion in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, but I shan’t dwell on too many of those here. What interested me was the characterization of Saudi Arabia as the “leader of the Muslim world” – vesting the Saudi kingdom with a religious authority that is by no means accepted by the vast majority of Muslims around the world. That raises interesting questions about Islam, religious authority and how the two interconnect in a fast-changing world, particularly after the Arab Spring.

The Saudis control the Haramayn – the two sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, where the final prophet of Islam began preaching his message, built a community and set into motion a history and civilization that would change the world forever. But the Saudis control the territory of these two cities – they do not control how the religion of Islam is actually taught and practiced around the world. Religious authority in Islam does not flow from Mecca and Medina in the way that it flows from the Vatican for Roman Catholics; the systems of discourse on practice and faith is more akin to academia. Scholastic authorities operate within institutions (not always structures and buildings) where knowledge is passed down from generation to generation through educational transmission. In the past, Mecca and Medina did hold a certain amount of prestige in producing religious scholars – because these were two of the only places in the Muslim world where scholars and sages from all parts of the Muslim world would gather. The Hajj was, and is, a ritual – but it is also an occasion where many nationalities will intermingle, and after it, many scholars would remain in the region to teach for a time. Moreover, the expectation of the pilgrims was that in the cities of the prophet, Islam would have been preserved properly; for a long while, that seemed to be a reasonable assertion.

This changed in the modern period. In 1924, the Saudi family took the Hijaz, within which Mecca and Medina lie, and incorporated it into the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Prior to that, the scholars in Mecca and Medina were from all schools of thought in the Muslim world, even though the madhhab (rite) that the rulers preferred might have been pre-eminent (such as the Hanafi rite during the Ottoman reign). After the House of Saud took control, this changed as the Saudis were adherents of the puritanical Salafi trend, which denounces such religious differences as contrary to the spirit of Islam. The reality was, however, that the rest of the Muslim world partook of interpretations of Islam that were generally not puritanical in nature, and would have found a home in the pre-Saudi Hijaz, which was as pluralistic as Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Religious authority in Islam has always been deeply linked to pluralism; because the nature of the Muslim community is pluralistic, so too do Muslim religious authorities have to be respectful of pluralism. Otherwise, they lose out in the end.

Academia is a good analogy to keep in mind when discussing this idea of pluralism and the larger theme of religious authority in Islam – because sometimes scholars who operate solely in academic institutions have just as much (if not more) authority as those who are appointed to positions of religious authority by the state. Top scholars at Al-Azhar, for example, have no state-appointed positions as muftis, but the words of the more renowned among them are taken very seriously by Muslims inside and outside Egypt. That university has been in operation for many centuries, which contributes obviously to its prestige, which is also derived from the university’s openness to a variety of religious interpretations. Egypt has historically been a stopping point on the way to Mecca and Medina for the annual Hajj for Muslims who resided west of those lands, and many stopped for trade and commerce, given the prominence of Cairo as a political center within the Arab-Muslim region. Al-Azhar eventually produced scholars such as Imam Suyuti (the Qur’anic commentator, jurist and Sufi), Imam Ibn Hajar ‘Asqalani and Imam Ibn Hajar Al-Haitami (both esteemed traditionalists) as well as many others.

Al-Azhar was also a refuge for scholars from around the Muslim world, beginning particularly during the Mamluk period. Arguably due to its openness, it was the favored place for scholars to move to after Mongol attacks on Central Asia and the collapse of Muslim rule in Andalusia. During the Ottoman period, Al-Azhar increased its independence and became a leading center of Islamic and Arabic learning. When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in the 18th century, he considered Al-Azhar (as he later wrote in his diaries) the counterpart of the Sorbonne in Paris. None of this was from vesting Al-Azhar with a formal authority similar to that enjoyed by the Vatican in Rome; it gathered such a status by popular consent and approval.

An example of another non-state figure in the contemporary age is Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, who has no official state position, but is affiliated with the University of Damascus in Syria and does not teach at a seminary-like institution akin to Al-Azhar. Yet owing to his training at the hands of noted Muslim scholars in the Islamic sciences and his writings and non-university lessons, he has gained significant prominence in Syria, the larger Arab world and even globally – including many American Muslim communities.

Others enjoy prominence almost despite state authority. One of these figures is the current mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Dr. Ali Gomaa, who is important not only for Egyptians, but for Muslim communities across the world, including in the United States and the wider West. More than the mufti of Egypt, Gomaa is also known as a scholar of great repute in law, theology and spirituality, who has taken the effort to engage the public through newspaper articles, conferences and television appearances. Indeed, Gomaa is the most significant Egyptian Muslim scholar on a global scale, even while if in Egypt, his office is not the most significant (the Shaykh al-Azhar office officially outranks him).

That raises an important question about religious authority in Islam: how is it actually received. While Gomaa has an official state title in Egypt, he holds no international remit nor is his title recognized outside Egypt. He is not the titular head of an institution that has any official remit worldwide, for example, but he obviously carries weight outside of Egypt. How?

As with all Egyptian Muftis, Gomaa began as a professor, i.e. an academic within Al-Azhar. He would have had to – the mufti’s role demands that he (or she) be clearly qualified in the different Islamic sciences. As a professor at Al-Azhar, he gained renown for his discipline, command of different sciences, and personal character (Gomaa is known in Egypt to be strongly involved in Sufism, as have been most Azhari shaykhs and scholars through the ages). He also had a particular interest in bridging the gap between Islam and modernity, and that provided him with a wide set of interests that have attracted Muslims inside and outside Egypt, and eventually Western Muslims who, for example, became his students and began promoting his writings and approaches. Within the Egyptian diaspora, he also became more and more well-known. When he became mufti, it was actually more Gomaa’s reputation that brought a certain prestige to the post of mufti, and less the post that gave him a profile.

The political spheres within which they operate limit all of these authorities, however. This is something that Muslims inside and outside the region have known for a long time – that they cannot expect religious authorities to speak freely about all sorts of issues; if they did, they might be perceived as threatening the state. Once that occurs, their contribution to education ends then and there.

That has changed somewhat in the last few months. It’s easy to see why – the Arab Spring has given new hope, new possibilities and new potentials to the people of the region. Inspired as they were by notions of freedom and dignity, they expected their moral leaders (i.e., their religious leaders) to stand by them and be clear that Islam demanded such things for people everywhere. The people on the street had made the choice to stand up to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Gadhafi and so on; their religious scholars were expected to do the same.

It worked out that way in some circumstances. I was in Tahrir Square early on the “Day of the Camel,” when regime thugs sent in men on camelback to break up the protest. In the early afternoon, I filmed a group of Azhari graduates and scholars who were there to express their complete integration into the protest movement, and who were clearly in support of the protesters’ demand that Mubarak had to step down. The Association of Azhar Ulama issued a statement in which they opined that participation in the protests was a communal responsibility – i.e., if a group of Muslims participated, then this was sufficient; but if no group did so, then the entire community of Muslims would be considered in a state of sin. More than one group, obviously, participated – and not only Muslims.

But others did not throw their weight so heavily behind the protesters. There were some, not insignificant figures, both inside and outside Egypt, who were clearly not in favor of the protests. With the Arab Spring underway, what effect has this had on their authority and status?

This question is difficult to answer and has repercussions for Muslim scholars and religious authorities around the region, and possibly throughout the Muslim world. Many now are interpreting religious authority through the prism of revolution; you were a decent religious authority if you supported the uprisings, and you were a corrupt one if you did not. How does this affect matters in Egypt, the wider region and the Muslim world?

During the uprising in Egypt, some Egyptian ‘ulama were very cautious, to the point of calling for protesters to go home. It was clear that there was disappointment and opposition to such statements –within and outside Egypt. But one wonders, several months on, how that is going to really affect their standing. It certainly appeared in the early days after the uprising that their positions were quite precarious. But that impression faded. Within the Islamic tradition, there is an imperative that calls for “giving someone the benefit of the doubt,” which is incorporated in the ethical principle of husn al-dhann. Prior to the revolution, some of these scholars, despite being clearly a part of the state machinery, had been thought of very well by people at large – even while predecessors and other figures in the religious establishment were not. Many religious functionaries are often derided as corrupt and entirely objectionable as regime “yes-men” – but not all of them, if they had proven themselves prior to the uprisings. I suspect this was a key reason why they managed to weather the storm, and remain religious authorities in terms of people’s popular perception of them.

As has been made clear many times by Islamic Studies specialists, there is no church in Islam. There is no Muslim papal authority that could strip these figures of their popular religious authority; by its very nature, their authority depends on people recognizing them. They control no territory (unlike the Saudis) and while they might occupy a state post, this also is less important than how they are perceived as individuals.

One example is that of the aforementioned mufti. Not long after the Egyptian uprising, Gomaa gave an extensive live interview on one of Egyptian television’s most renowned talk shows. He was asked a great deal about his stances during the revolution and he revealed what many among his supporters had always suspected. He had tried to contact Mubarak and had been rebuffed. And he had feared that what eventually happened in Libya (bloodshed and internal war) might happen in Egypt; he, like many, did not expect that the army would step in and force Mubarak out of office and thus bring the uprising to a peaceful end.

I’ve spoken with many of his supporters since that program, and they generally seem appeased by it – while reserving the right to disagree with Gomaa’s empirically based decision rather than a religious stipulation. That too is an important part of religious authority in Islam – the absence of infallibility in any individual. That is a theological point for Muslims – infallibility simply could never be vested, theoretically or otherwise, in Gomaa or any other.

There are obviously many who continued to deride Gomaa as they did before the uprising. Gomaa is identified (rightly) as a Sufi who adheres to the mainstream of Muslim tradition as exemplified in the Azhari approach. That attitude, which places him firmly within the overwhelming majority of Sunni Muslims, does not sit well with many Salafi movements in Egypt, for example, who might describe Sufism as deviant, errant or disbelief. But such groups are demographically minor, even if incredibly loud.

There will always be those who will be disappointed in such stances during the uprising in Egypt – and all this teaches a great deal about how religious authority can or cannot shift through time. The future of religious authority is unclear in Egypt – much of it will invariably revolve around the new standards that Egyptians have. To put it simply, many will judge the authenticity of authority to be directly proportional to the positive response they had to the uprising (and by extension, the revolution). If that is the case, then many other religious authorities will be put in the dock of public opinion – both today as well as historically – but there will not be a shortage of religious authorities who will meet that litmus test as well.

On a religious basis, Muslims laud the imperative of pluralism that is made clear by the notion of “multiple valid answers” and “legitimate difference of opinion”; on empirical points, the pluralistic impulse is even more obvious. We can thus expect that there will be a variety of standpoints on different political issues coming out of the religious establishments of the region in the coming months and weeks – something that is very understandable on a sociological level, and which points us to a key element of religious authority in Islam: the human element, which has always been central.

Observers in certain Arabian monarchies may not find that particularly endearing – but it would not be the first time that they were in a minority. People try to buy it, but they invariably find that money can’t buy happiness. It also, quite clearly, can’t buy religion. §

Dr H.A. Hellyer is Fellow at the University of Warwick, and director of the VC Group. A prolific author and commentator, he has been based out of Cairo since last year on sabbatical.



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    H. A. Hellyer

    Dr. H.A. Hellyer is non-resident fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, associate fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and research associate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The author of “Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans,” published by Edinburgh University Press, he is a prolific commentator on the politics of the Arab world, Muslim Western communities, and the interplay between Islam and modernity. Follow him @hahellyer and at

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