Cairo's revered Al Azhar University now overshadowed by TV imams
Al Azhar’s edicts were once heeded from Morocco to Indonesia, but the Cairo institution has lost clout as TV imams are reaching larger audiences and Egypt’s President Mubarak has taken greater control. That's a problem for the regime as it braces for its biggest political transition in nearly 30 years.
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But government ties have hurt its credibility. "Any fatwa that Al Azhar issues that is religiously correct, the people say, 'Oh, it's by the government,' when sometimes they are speaking truth," says Abdul Moneim Abul Fotouh, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's main opposition group.Skip to next paragraph
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More stringent Islamic doctrines gain prominence
Fotouh adds that Azhar's declining popularity has left a vacuum which has created space for more stringent interpretations of Islam to surface.
Indeed, the rise of TV imams has dented Al Azhar's hierarchical influence and given alternative brands of Islam, including the Salafi tradition espoused by Osama bin Laden, a greater foothold.
In Pakistan, adherents are increasingly turning to TV preachers such as Zakir Naik, an Indian with a wide following in the region. But Al Azhar still has cachet. "The media preachers have surpassed Al Azhar in terms of influencing how Egyptians look at their day-to-day issues from a religious perspective," says Mr. Hamzawy of Carnegie. "But in the grand scheme of the more strategic issues, Al Azhar has kept its superiority."
Even at its peak, Azhar's influence was not universal in Sunni world
But in Islam, which has no one authoritative figure such as Roman Catholicism's pope, not everyone agrees about where to find guidance.
"You don't ask your family, you don't ask your friends, you don't look to television," says Mamun Razzak, a Dhaka mullah. "It is we, the mullahs, who know the word of God ... we have the right answers."
At the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, the largest in South Asia, worshipers expressed respect for Al Azhar, but confessed to not knowing a great deal about it. "What can I say? It is a revered university, but we middle-class people are simple," says Mohammad Saleem, an elderly worshiper. "We just try to do what is right and avoid what is wrong."