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Long-held positions of Islamic heritage come to the fore

The dispute between the grand imam of Al-Azhar and the president of Cairo University reflects deep divisions over Islamic renewal

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 6 Feb 2020
Long-held positions come to the fore
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Sayed Al-Tayeb (Photo courtesy of Al-Azhar)
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A two-day conference held by Al-Azhar triggered a stormy debate in political and religious circles this week.

The Al-Azhar International Conference on the Renewal of Islamic Thought, held on 27 and 28 January, focused on mechanisms needed to renew religious discourse and refute misconceptions about Islam. It addressed Islamic heritage and family issues and the roles of the religious and academic institutions in promoting Islam’s values of toleration.

Sheikh Ahmed Al-Sayed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, said the conference’s main goal was to demonstrate the tolerance of Islam and renounce extremism.

Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli delivered the opening speech on behalf of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi before representatives from 46 Islamic countries. “The reform of religious discourse has not received enough attention in recent years and this has opened the door wide for extremism to hijack the minds of young people across the Muslim world and spread perverted interpretations of Islam that promote extremism, intolerance and hate,” he said.

Since coming to office in 2014 President Al-Sisi has repeatedly blamed outdated religious discourse for holding Muslims back, calling upon Islamic clerics to promote a modern religious discourse that can confront extremist ideology and push the Muslim world forward. “Renewal of Islamic thought has become a priority. We urgently need to resolve elements of jurisprudence and interpretations of Sharia that fuel differences among Muslims,” Al-Sisi has said.

Renewal of Islamic thought does not mean changing the basic principles and rules of Islam, the president argued, but requires jurisprudence and fatwas to be regularly updated. “Why should not we change many of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence that have remained the same for at least 10 centuries, leaving Muslims unable to move forward with the developments of our age,” he asked.

Al-Sisi said that when he called for reform of religious discourse he meant that we should move quickly to scrap mediaeval interpretations of the two main components of Islam, the Quran and hadith (prophet’s traditions). “These interpretations justify killing, plunder, assault on public money and lives in the name of Islamic Sharia, and the time has come for religious clerics to introduce different interpretations based on tolerance and innovative thinking,” said Al-Sisi.

Unfortunately, when the conference got down to business it exposed deep divisions over the renewal of Islamic thinking.

Al-Tayeb lamented that the subject of Islamic renewal was too often addressed by people lacking experience or an adequate background.

“The subject has become a regular matter of debate on the pages of newspapers and TV channels,” said Al-Tayeb.

“It is Al-Azhar’s centrist and reformist ideology that is most capable of renewing Islamic thinking. Al-Azhar is the institution that can not only stand up to religious fanatics but also to the pro-Westernisation and modernising currents that are mainly interested in tarnishing the image of the symbols of Muslims, smearing their reputation and mocking their legacy.”

On the second day of the conference, during a session on the role of international, religious and academic institutions in renewing Islamic thought a clash erupted between the President of Cairo University Osman Al-Khosht and Sheikh Al-Tayeb.

Long-held positions come to the fore
President of Cairo University Osman Al-Khosht delivering his speech at Al-Azhar two-day conference this week

“It is impossible to update religious discourse without a new approach to religious thinking,” said Al-Khosht. “Religious thinking is not religion itself, it is a product of human beings. It is manmade and should change from one age to another in response to social, economic and cultural trends.”

According to Al-Khosht, “renewing Islamic thought is not the same as restoring an old building.

“Religious sciences, including jurisprudence and exegesis, are human sciences that seek to understand religion in a certain age. These can change without one facing accusations that this change is against religion.”

Al-Khosht, one of few secular academics invited to the conference, argued that Muslims are currently held hostage by the interpretations of people who lived centuries ago and that “renewal makes it necessary for us to change our way of thinking and the way we see the world.

“This can only happen if we scrap the views that were held by mediaeval exponents of religion.”

There was no applause for Al- Khosht in the conference hall. Instead Al-Tayeb responded angrily, insisting that Al-Khosht’s words were a call to mock the Muslim legacy and undermined religion.

“The heritage that some people take so lightly today built a nation and taught people co-existence,” Al-Tayeb said.

He slammed Al-Khosht for delivering “a poorly prepared speech”.

“I would have liked the speeches delivered at an international conference such as this, and on such a delicate topic, to have been prepared well in advance and not to be a collection of improvised ideas and thoughts,” said Al-Tayeb who received thunderous applause.

“I am not one of those who call for scraping Islamic legacy, but I also believe this legacy should not be considered above revision,” said Al-Khosht. “I am a Muslim, but I am not an Asharite or, indeed, a follower of any Islamic sect. I respect Al-Azhar but I cannot agree with everything Al-Azhar preaches or teaches.”

A video showing the verbal duel between Al-Tayeb and Al-Khosht went viral on social media. While secularists who believe in radical religious reform showed solidarity with Al-Khosht, clerics joined forces with Al-Tayeb and insisted religious reform shouldn’t be hijacked by secularists and atheists.

The fact President Al-Sisi did not open the conference fuelled speculation about his dissatisfaction with Al-Tayeb’s approach to religious reform. On the second day of the conference Al-Tayeb made a reference to “politicians who want to hijack religion to achieve political ends.”

Abdel-Latif Abdel-Aziz, Saudi minister of Islamic affairs, sided with Al-Tayeb, saying the “renewal of Islamic discourse should not be considered an attack on Islamic basics”.

“Islamic discourse can’t be a matter of change because the message of the Quran is valid for all ages. Modern Muslims should view religion in the same way as early Muslims — their Muslim predecessors — understood it.”

Mustafa Al-Fiqi, manager of the Alexandria Bibioltheca, took the middle ground. “Renewal should mean tolerance, acceptance of the other, openness to the outside world and its cultures, and co-existence, he said.

“No one can deny that Al-Azhar is Islam’s leading moderate institution. It has stood up to extremists and worked hard to correct misconceptions about Islam. I can’t say Al-Azhar resists change. Al-Azhar is an institution, a university and has a sheikh who has defended Islam against radical ideologies. Its graduates are the propagators of a message of moderate Islam across the world.”

After watching Al-Tayeb rebuke Al-Khosht, the president of Cairo University and author of important books on religious philosophy, many thinkers said Al-Azhar can no longer be trusted with renewing Islamic thought. Former minister of culture and frequent critic of Al-Azhar Gaber Asfour said, “Al-Azhar does not differ much from ultraconservative and orthodox movements which resist change.

“Free thinkers and philosophers like Al-Khosht are the ones who can carry the message of change and renovation. The Islamic world needs a movement that can put an end to the hegemony of Islamic clerics, spread enlightenment and relieve the Islamic world of religious bigotry.”

Moataz Sayed Abdallah, a historian of Islamic philosophy, wrote in Al-Ahram on Monday that Al-Khosht’s speech before Al-Azhar was a call for revolution against religious stagnation and “for free and critical thinking which has its roots in the Western enlightenment which put an end to the fanaticism and bigotry which dominated mediaeval Europe.”

Ragab Mohamed Tagen, a professor of public law at Cairo University, said “some religious clerics monopolise religion and describe those who object to their views as modernists or even atheists.”

Alieddin Hilal, a professor of political science and a former minister of youth, argued the dispute between Al-Tayeb and Al-Khosht reflected deep divisions among scholars over the issue of religious renewal. “It is a century-old dispute,” said Hilal. “There is no doubt Al-Azhar is a moderate institution, but many of the views its clerics preach in mosques and schools promote a strict and traditional kind of Islam that needs to change.”

Wagih Wahba, a political analyst, argued in an article in Al-Masy Al-Youm that “Al-Tayeb’s angry response to Al-Khosht shows that he and many other clerics are intolerant of different views.

“Al-Azhar is an orthodox and conservative institution that resists change and it is a mistake to believe it can reform religious discourse.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Long-held positions come to the fore

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