CAIRO – Salvaging an image tarnished by decades of submission to strongman leaders, Al-Azhar is seeking to restore its prestige as a respected religious authority and the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.
“Al-Azhar has realized there is no way for it to continue functioning as it did under Mubarak,” Hassan Nafaa, chairman of the political science department in Cairo University, told Reuters.
“It knows it must clean up internal corruption.
“I can see a strong desire to return to being a leader of the Sunni Muslim world.”
Al-Azhar is the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.
From within its tall, crenellated walls, Al-Azhar’s sheikhs spent more than 1,000 years studying Islam’s holy texts and interpreting their meaning for the faithful, building an authority unrivalled in the Muslim world.
But some of Al-Azhar’s luster dimmed when President Gamal Abdel Nasser brought it under the authority of the state in 1961.
Forty years on, Al-Azhar’s sheikhs were being dragooned into supporting the harsh security regime that cemented Mubarak three-decade rule.
Submitted to strongman leaders, Al-Azhar’s role waned just as firebrand preachers with less religious learning began spreading their religious views on the Internet and satellite TV.
A nadir was reached in 2007 when Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, head of Al-Azhar for more than a decade until his death last year, announced that journalists who spread rumors about the state of Mubarak’s health should “receive 80 lashes.”
To restore its reputation, Al-Azhar’s leading lights are reinventing the institution as an advocate of democracy and reform of the state.
“Many people feel there is a strong need to have such an institution in the future to preserve Islam’s moderation against other waves led by stricter and less reliable organizations,” said Nafaa.
Established in 359 AH (971 CE), Al-Azhar mosque drew scholars from across the Muslim world and grew into a university, predating similar developments at Oxford University in London by more than a century.
Al-Azhar, which means the “most flourishing and resplendent,” was named after Fatima Al-Zahraa, daughter of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him).
The first courses at Al-Azhar were given in 975 CE and the first college was built 13 years later. Al-Azhar first admitted women students in 1961, albeit in separate classes.
Also in 1961, subjects in engineering and medicine were added to course on Shari`ah, the Noble Qur’an and the intricacies of Arabic language.
Change began breezing through Al-Azhar’s cool stone corridors months before the uprising swept Mubarak out of office in February.
In 2010, then Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif oversaw the appointment of the more free-spirited Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb to replace Tantawi.
When millions took to the streets to force Mubarak from office in January, the expected Azhar fatwa demanding that Egyptians rally behind their president never came and the institution instead issued a statement merely urging restraint.
Many Azhar scholars joined hands with the protesters in the uprising, and drew no criticism from their superiors.
With Mubarak gone, Al-Azhar gathered together intellectuals to collaborate on a vision for Egypt’s political future.
An eleven-point document published by Al-Azhar in June proposed freedom of opinion, faith and human rights in a democratic state.
“Al-Azhar wanted to develop … to reflect the changes it saw coming,” Mohamed Rafa’a al-Tahtawi, a former Azhar spokesman who worked on a first draft of the political document, told Reuters.
Tahtawi said he resigned his post in February to join the uprising, but former colleagues welcomed him back to the institution as if he had never been away.
“There was no rejection from an Al-Azhar sheikh or any other official,” he said.
“On the contrary, I was encouraged by everyone. I think everyone knew that change was inevitable and no one could stop it coming.”
Last month, Al-Azhar mediated between liberal politicians and Islamists who opposed their attempt to lay down the principles of a new constitution — a move the Islamists saw as a ploy to block the creation of an Islamic state.
Al-Azhar is now pushing to be released from government control, saying its head should once again be elected by staff, not chosen by the head of state.
What Al-Azhar says still has moral traction, even among Christians who make up some 10 percent of Egypt’s 81 million people.
In a country undergoing a crisis in state education, its university offers some of the best courses in modern sciences and languages, business studies, engineering and agriculture.
It runs schools across Egypt and sends experts to teach across the Middle East and beyond.
Many of the Muslim world’s most influential scholars and politicians are graduates from Al-Azhar.