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.

Victoria Hazou/AFP/Newscom
Muslim men visit the Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo on March 10. In March, Egypt's president appointed Ahmed el-Tayeb as new head of Cairo's ancient Al Azhar University.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Ahmed el-Tayeb was Appointed by Egypt’s president as new head of Al Azhar in March.

One of the most historically important centers of Sunni Islamic thought turned a new page in March, when Egypt appointed a Sorbonne-educated cleric to take the helm of Cairo's ancient Al Azhar University.

But Ahmed el-Tayeb, who holds a PhD in Islamic philosophy, faces an old battle: how to preserve Al Azhar's independence and influence.

Al Azhar today is suffering from a perceived lack of credibility in the face of pressure from the Egyptian government and a loss of popularity amid the rising influence of TV preachers and Internet imams. That has created a crisis of legitimacy for an institution whose influence once stretched from Morocco to Indonesia.

"In the Muslim world, outside this country, they used to consider Al Azhar the most important Sunni Islamic authority in the world," says Cairo resident Mohammad Saaid, a devout Muslim who works in television. "As long as they follow the policies of the [ruling National Democratic Party] ... they will never be following the policies of the Islamic religion."

While seen as a loss for the broader world of Sunni Islam, Azhar's waning influence presents a more pressing problem at home. In recent years, the Egyptian regime has relied heavily on Azhar to sanction its policies and support President Hosni Mubarak's rule. Now, with the 81-year-old leader in his waning days of power, the regime is bracing for a political transition in which Azhar's support will be crucial.

Azhar's independence compromised by Arab nationalism

Under the Arab nationalist agenda of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the government took control of Al Azhar's funding. Key positions were filled by presidential appointment. Al Azhar has since yielded to regime pressure to provide religious support for government policies. In 1956, Nasser sought religious justification for war against Britain, France, and Israel. In 1977, Al Azhar supported Anwar Sadat's peace treaty with Israel. This year, its top cleric supported Mr. Mubarak's plans to build a subterranean wall on Gaza's border.

"Prior to the 1950s, Al Azhar could, and did in fact, issue fatwas [religious edicts] which were not liked by the king or by the different governments," says Amr Hamzawy with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. "Al Azhar today is more politicized, dependent on the state; however, it is still a key agent for moderation."

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.

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.

"The Salafi discourse right now is using the TV satellite channels," says Khalil al-Anani, a senior scholar at the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in Durham, England.

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

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, only two of more than a dozen men interviewed outside mosques had heard of Al Azhar, which even in its heyday struggled to bridge the cultural gulf to the Indian subcontinent.

"People can't afford to go to Egypt or Saudi Arabia," says shopkeeper Zahir Rahman. "So if I have a question about right and wrong, I go to my parents and to what I learned in the mosque as a child."

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."

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