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The Identity of Al-Azhar and Its Doctrine

[The Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. It evolved to become the religious center of Egypt and the most celebrated theological college in the Islamic world. Image originally posted to Flickr by Alessio Corsi.] [The Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. It evolved to become the religious center of Egypt and the most celebrated theological college in the Islamic world. Image originally posted to Flickr by Alessio Corsi.]

The proposed amendments to Article 2 of the constitution – giving Al-Azhar the final say in defining Islamic Law (Sharia) – is of critical importance, not only because it limits Islamic knowledge to Al-Azhar, but also because it transfers the debate over the institution of Al-Azhar to the issue of identity.

Assigning an institution with the task of interpreting Sharia is unusual in Islam, where, traditionally, knowledge was not seen to be associated with any specific institution or religious hierarchy, but to scholastic aptitude that the nation has accepted throughout its history.

The institution of Al-Azhar became important because of its countless scholars who met these criteria, and rigorous teaching methods that produced competent students. Al-Azhar, therefore, became distinguished as a doctrine not an institution; because, since the beginning, its teachings were received and accepted by the nation.

This is key to understanding the battle over Al-Azhar, which will rage even more once it becomes a tool that every side is trying to control to impose its respective religious views. Al-Azhar University was afflicted by the same weaknesses and disintegration that affected all universities over the past decades. Its original curriculum merged with outside approaches that were less authentic, disciplined and profound, which created a foothold for all contemporary Islamist schools in Al-Azhar.

An Al-Azhar University graduate with a degree in Sharia no longer necessarily belongs to Al-Azhar school of thought, which 'the Mosque' established centuries ago. This allowed each Islamist group, which had Al-Azhar, graduates among its ranks to claim that they were the institution's legitimate heirs. Thus, everyone accepted the 'authority of Al-Azhar' because this doctrine – in the absence of historical scrutiny – is evidence of a variety of identities.

The legitimate Al-Azhar was not Al-Azhar of the 20th Century that was under state control, but the independent scholarly institution that thrived long before, teaching Sharia transmitted through substantiated motoon (textbooks), shorouh (textbooks with annotations of a scholar from a different generation), and hawashi (annotated textbooks with further detailed notes of a scholar from a different generation).  

Its scholars belonged to the theological schools of Al-Ashari and Al-Maturidi, the four schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maleki, Shafie, and Hanbali), and the seven main Sufi orders.These different affiliations create balanced identities, where theological, doctrinal and behavioral choices, and school, place and familial affiliations are integrated.

It is Al-Azhar whose scholars stood up to the French Expedition and British occupation; against oppressive rulers; the Azhar of Sheikh El-Bajuri, who was famous for his firm position against Abbas Helmi; Sheikh El-Dardeer, who led strikes by students, sheikhs and merchants to protest levies; Sheikh El-Bishri, who fought for the independence of Al-Azhar; Sheikh El-Kharashi, whom Egyptians sought out to resolve their problems; and El-Attar, El-Nawawi, El-Sharqawi, Eleish and other Azhar sheikhs and senior scholars who upheld its traditional doctrine.

It is no exception that Al-Azhar fell under the control of the state and deteriorated in the 20th Century, like all other universities and government institutions whose academic standards disintegrated. It was stripped of its source of independence, namely the endowments that had provided the financial independence and necessary resources that distinguished it in the realm of academia, and Sufi orders that were independent and provided Al-Azhar with societal support that protected it against the wrath of sultans (according to the celebrated Description de l'Égypte, all Egyptian Muslims were members of Sufi orders during the French Expedition).

The institution’s subjugation to the state was enforced by Law 103 of 1961 that allowed the state to interfere in the affairs of Al-Azhar and converted the institution into a state-owned university.

The disintegration of Al-Azhar at the end of the 19th Century was gradual: Dar Al-Ulum was established to strip it of its educational role; Dar Al-Iftaa was created to strip it of its religious edict responsibilities; and the School of Sharia Justice eliminated its judicial role. This left it only with the role of preaching and proselytizing, and once endowments were also removed and the independence of Sufi orders curtailed, it also lost much of its traditional prestige.

Parallel to this institutional disempowerment, Al-Azhar opened its doors to less authentic and disciplined schools (supported by more funds); a trend pioneered by Sheikh Mohamed Abdu who decided to ignore Al-Azhar’s academic heritage and created a school that accommodated input from the outside, rather than upholding tradition, and a bias towards the imported at the expense of heritage.

He was followed by some Azharites of the 20th Century – such as Sheikh El-Maraghi and Sheikh Tantawi – under whose tenure the institution lost all touch with its intellectual origins and scholastic heritage. This severed all ties with the Azhar of the 19th Century, and made it very fragile in confronting inbound currents, including by Al-Azhar alumni.

Over the past decades, the state used Al-Azhar as a tool to justify its methods of governance, in a way that put the institution into conflict with Islamists. It evolved from a religious authority to an opponent in their eyes, and thus they sought knowledge elsewhere. This contributed – along with other social and economic factors – in creating social grassroots for religious currents that are alien to Egypt’s character. Some of them found space to manoeuvre in the fragmented Al-Azhar, and from there launched into wider social realms that redefined Al-Azhar and its doctrine in the minds of many.

Against this background, amending Article 2 of the Constitution to the proposed text is another threat to Al-Azhar’s academic and cultural identity. It means that the legislative influence different Islamists' understanding of Shariah- propagated through their different institutions- will come to naught, and in order for them to make their doctrinal ambitions successful, their only option is to take control of Al-Azhar.

This is not impossible to do, due to the fragmented state of the institution and departure from its heritage, as well as the fact that many Azhar alumni and faculty openly declare in university lectures their rejection of the doctrine that the institution was established upon, and endorse outside doctrines. This would mean that changing Al-Azhar is nothing more than what its leaders will say after becoming free to express their opinions, liberated from the institution's methodical, philosophical and doctrinal legacy.

The Al-Azhar's current leadership is required to revive the institution based on the foundations of its inherited doctrine, but this will not be possible without real freedom that liberates Al-Azhar from the financial, administrative and ideological authority of the state. It will also take relentless reform to reverse what was corrupted in all aspects of the scholastic structure, and an intellectual effort to reconnect the institution with its scholastic reality and vital issues. This in addition to institutional reform based on a combination of academic discipline and administrative efficiency.

This is a task that seems, for the time being, beyond the capacity of the Azhar Institution and all its components. The required reform of Al-Azhar is not merely procedural that ends at institutional development, but is also intellectual that restores Al-Azhar to the academic discipline it was founded upon, and doctrine based on precision and accumulative knowledge.

This would redefine its role, remove it from partisan competition, and once more restore it as an active player – based on intellectual foundations – in the worlds of academia, public guidance and scientific research. The intellectual part of this task relies on efforts by Al-Azhar’s disciples, who genuinely belong to its school of thought, and enabling the efforts of religious currents that are keen on building academic and scientific institutions based on respect for knowledge and honoring its figures.

Developed in partnership with Ahram Online. 

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