Why are so many upset about al-Azhar?


In the past few days, Egyptians of various religious and political perspectives have expressed outrage about a decree-law on al-Azhar, Cairo’s millennium-old mosque and educational institution, that just appeared in the country’s Official Gazette. The law gives the institution the independence everybody says they want it to have. Why would there be such a fuss about the law regulating a mosque and school?

Actually to describe al-Azhar as a "mosque" is only slightly more misleading than describing Rome’s St. Peter’s as a "church."  Al-Azhar is a religious-educational-research complex with an extensive school system, university, and set of institutes attached to it.  Its opinions can pack a punch, shaping how Egyptians are taught Islam and even what books they are barred from reading.  Al-Azhar is part of the Egyptian state, and its importance in public life and official structures have led the country’s leaders to keep a close watch (and, over the past half century, close control) over the institution. They have done so especially through appointing a reliable Shaykh al-Azhar (the scholar who heads it).  As I explored in a Carnegie Endowment paper some months ago, in the wake of the revolution, a strong seeming consensus formed across the political spectrum in Egypt to support a greater amount of independence from the executive branch and allow the scholars within al-Azhar to elect their own Shaykh.  

And that is precisely what the recent decree-laws does. So why are Muslim Brothers, salafis, and scholars–many of whom denounced the way al-Azhar was brought to heel by Egypt’s authoritarian regime–so upset?  Because of the way the law was enacted and even more because of the fine print of what it says.

Let us first turn to procedure.  The effort began with a decent pedigree, though its precise parentage remains unclear.  The current Shaykh asked a committee of scholars, including Tariq al-Bishri (a leading legal scholar and public intellectual with Islamist inclinations) to prepare a draft.  Al-Bishri seems to have left the group fairly early, but by the autumn there was a proposal that was reviewed by authoritative bodies within al-Azhar itself.  The draft was referred to the cabinet, which then approved it and sent it to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which currently exercises the prerogatives of the president.  And the SCAF approved the draft on January 19 (four days before the parliament opened), though it took a week before its approval was published the form of a notice in the Official Gazette.

So what is the problem?  Well, the SCAF took action on a major piece of legislation–one on which several political parties had taken strong positions–just days before the parliament convened.  And it did so despite calls from the Muslim Brotherhood–which is now the most powerful civilian political actor–to submit the draft to parliament instead of issue it by decree.  The SCAF offered no explanation for the sudden haste in acting on the matter.  (Some suspicious Egyptians have suggested that the law was actually issued after the parliament was seated but dated before in order to avoid a constitutional clash.)

In one sense, then, the battle over the decree-law is a constitutional one. And the opponents of the SCAF’s action may be seeking to win a war even after losing the battle.  The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and others in the parliament claim that now it has been seated, the SCAF’s legislative authority has ended.  The opposite argument–that the SCAF and the parliament can both issue laws–is powerful, however, and the FJP is kicking up a fuss in part to shoot across the bow of the SCAF, warning it to bite its legislative tongue.  

And this is not the only law the SCAF shoehorned in unannounced at the last minute. The SCAF also rushed through procedures governing presidential elections at the same time, making last-minute changes required by the country’s constitutional court and then sending the decree-law off to the printing presses before the parliament could meet.

But the dispute animating these skirmishes, though connected vital questions of political authority, is inherently ephemeral because it is linked only to the transition and to the explicitly interim "Constitutional Declaration." There are long-term institutional issues at stake as well.  The advocates of al-Azhar’s independence were not only upset at how the law was rammed through but also by what it said.

The law does offer some greater authority to al-Azhar–and indeed, one of the points of debate among various proponents of independence for the institution was how much it should be granted oversight over other other parts of the Egyptian state that have a religious focus (such as the Ministry of Religious Affairs or the Mufti of the Republic, responsible for issuing interpretations of Islamic law).  The law does allow a new organ in al-Azhar (or rather the recreation of an old organ abolished fifty years ago, the Senior `Ulama Body) to nominate the mufti of the republic.

But it is the way the Senior `Ulama Body has been revived that has touched off the concern.  The Body will have tremendous authority–one passage in the law seems to give a vaguely defined but potentially quite powerful voice in “determining” legal and doctrinal matters. That is much more than many al-Azhar advocates bargained for.  And the Body will elect the Shaykh.  So it will clearly play a dominant role in the institution and in broader public life.

So who is on the Body?  Forty senior scholars (and by senior, I mean not just in rank–they have to be over fifty-five years old) will sit on, all handpicked (at first) by the Shaykh.  After its initial formation, the body will be self-perpetuating, appointing new members as vacancies arise.

And the Shaykh himself, while not quite self-perpetuating, will serve for life (or until age 80; accounts of the final text differ on this point).

Thus, al-Azhar is set free of the presidency–and placed firmly in the hands of the current Shaykh who will have the ability to make the institution as he likes.  

And who is the current Shaykh? His reputation has shifted in some significant ways over the past year. A former members of the Policies Committee of the now-dissolved National Democratic Party (headed by Gamal Mubarak), Ahmad al-Tayyib was first seen as far too close to the Mubarak regime.  But he evinced disapproval of the regime’s brutality in its final days and has emerged since the revolution as a voice for national consensus and conciliation.   He has sponsored dialogues, declarations of common principles among Islamists and liberals, reached out to a wide variety of political and religious groups (including Christians), and shows some sympathy for the revolutionary cause.  In al-Azhar itself, he is respected on intellectual grounds but also seen as a bit aloof.  He certainly positions himself on the liberal end of the spectrum in religious terms.

In the end, though, it is far less the Shaykh’s comparative liberalism and far more the way the law places the institution’s present and future under his authority that has provoked all the fuss.  It was the scholars of al-Azhar, not the current Shaykh, that many of the institution’s supporters wished to empower.

At this point, the SCAF’s decree law stands.  But the contest over al-Azhar–both as a surrogate for a constitutional struggle between the parliament and the SCAF and as a dispute over nature and structure of religious authority in Egypt–may be far short of resolution.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Among his writings are The Rule of Law in the Arab World (1997); Constitutions in a Nonconstitutional World: Arab Basic Laws and the Prospects for Accountable Government (2001); and When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (2012). He can be reached at nbrown@gwu.edu.

Photo credit: National Post.

Image: al-azhar.jpg