A few hours after the deadly attack on the Two Saints Church in Alexandria, Al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt released a statement denouncing the bombing.
In the statement, Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb deemed the attackers “the enemies of Islam,” and insisted that respecting houses of worship is an inherent aspect of the faith.
It wasn’t so much the denouncing of the attack that garnered attention, but rather the fact that Al-Azhar was the first official voice to speak up about the attack, mere hours after it took place.
Meanwhile, the Council of Ministers was still trying to come up with a plan on how to tackle the crisis during their Wednesday session — four days after the attack.
Further, El-Tayeb made an appearance on national TV on Saturday, one day after the attack, and visited the Coptic pope’s residence in the cathedral of Abbassiya on Sunday to offer his condolences. During his visit, Copts congregated asking him to leave, and even attempted to attack his car. But once again El-Tayeb calmed the situation by saying that Coptic anger was understandable given the situation.
Following his stance of sympathy and tolerance, hundreds of Egyptian Muslims reached out to their Christian neighbours and friends, even attending mass on Christmas Eve.
“It was actually not the government but average Muslims who saved the day, and these Muslims were following the lead of al-Azhar,” explains Diaa Rashwan, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “The situation was very critical and El-Tayeb managed to diffuse the anger on both sides and helped us pass this crisis.”
In fact, says Rashwan, Al-Azhar has always been the beacon of moderate Islam and while some may call it an old decaying institution, it is not.
“You know, Egypt would have fallen into a swamp of extremism if it wasn’t for Al-Azhar,” insists Rashwan. “If you count all the extremists who have appeared in Egypt from 1974 to the end of violence in 1997, you will find that there are no more than 40 or 50 Azharites from the tens of thousands and that’s because Al-Azhar’s teachings protects its students from having extremist views.”
Indeed, for the past 10 months since El-Tayeb was appointed grand imam, Al-Azhar has played a major role in promoting moderation — or “the middle way of Islam” — and advocating tolerance.
It has become common to hear statements from Al-Azhar referring to verses of the Quran that discuss the bond between Muslims and Christians and the mutual respect that should exist between followers of the two faiths.
“Islam is a religion that believes that people are created to be different and as a result if we believe this value then we have to respect the other,” says Mohamed Tahtawi, official spokesperson of Al-Azhar. “Muslims believe in all the prophets without discrimination, and the Prophet Mohammad has said that whoever hurts a Christian is hurting him.”
How is Al-Azhar promoting moderation? “The channels we are using are numerous,” says Tahtawi. “The grand imam himself is stating this very clearly, through newspapers and other forms of media that carry great weight.”
The fact that Egyptian Muslims look up to Al-Azhar for guidance is not new. This is a country where graduates of Al-Azhar are respected and revered in cities and villages alike.
As an institution, the 1000-year-old Al-Azhar is a force to be reckoned with. It has 9000 institutes, 9000 faculty members and two million undergraduate students. There are also approximately 110,000 mosques in Egypt, each having four to eight Azharites — depending on size — appointed as imams, preachers or servants.
Despite, these numbers many analysts believe that the influence of Al-Azhar has waned recently, especially during the time of Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, grand imam from 1996 to 2010. Al-Azhar was seen by many as an extension of the government or its official mouthpiece on religious affairs.
From causing a public outcry for shaking hands with Shimon Peres to making one controversial fatwa after another, Al-Azhar became a laughing stock, with jokes that “Tantawi fears the government more than he fears God,” making the rounds in Egypt. The appointment of El-Tayeb after Tantawi’s death was not a coincidence.
“The government has realised that the political manipulation of Al-Azhar actually hurt it and has not helped,” says Hossam Tammam, an expert on Islamic movements. So they had to pick a new grand imam who would distance himself from the government and earn back some of Al-Azhar’s lost credibility. El-Tayeb fit the bill.
“El-Tayeb is not a normal sheikh; he speaks English French and Arabic, has graduated from the Sorbonne in France and completed his PhD on a Jewish philosopher,” says Tammam. “This openness has given him a good grasp on dialogue, pluralism and tolerance.”
But unlike Tantawi, who was easily accessible to journalists, El-Tayeb shied from the limelight. Gone are the days when journalists could just knock on the office door of the grand imam and ask for an interview. He now rarely gives interviews and has hired an official spokesman — a bilingual a former ambassador no less.
El-Tayeb has also made structural changes within Al-Azhar itself. Two days after the Alexandria attack he announced the “Family House” initiative, in which Muslim and Christian scholars will work to ease sectarian tensions. During his time as the head of the Azhar University he has also opened Al-Azhar English Training Centre to top theology students, so that they may able to communicate well if they choose to work overseas.
Now El-Tayeb is considering opening other centres in French, German, Turkish, Persian and Hebrew. These centres, says Tahtawi, will help expose students to the rest of the world. He also created “elite classes,” for top students where 300 of the most successful students are trained to become the preachers of the future.
El-Tayeb also opened the doors of Al-Azhar to two of the most recognized faces of Islam: Amr Khaled, the young televangelist who was previously shunned by the sheikhdom for his lack of an Al-Azharite background, and Youssef El-Karadawi who was often at loggerheads with Tantawi, to help in reforming the institution. His statements that it is sinful to call Shia Muslims heretics were also met with accolades in Iran.
“If you say we want to have open dialogue with non-Muslims and Shia and Sunni Muslims, how can we close our doors in the face of Muslim scholars?” says Tahtawi. “No, everybody is welcome, this is a house for all.”
El-Tayeb also opened the Centre for Dialogue in July 2010 and hired Mahmoud Azab, a professor of Islamic studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, to run it.
“The Quran gave us the right to disagree and debate 1,400 years ago, centuries before the Europeans began talking about it,” says Azab. “There is also a special dialogue with People of the Book specifically and we aim to entrench this culture of dialogue in the Egyptian and Arab street, homes, families and schools.”
Despite all these changes, Al-Azhar is not without critics. Some believe that most of the changes are superficial and do not tackle the problems that have made Al-Azhar lose its credibility.
“There is no Al-Azhar, because if there was Egypt wouldn’t be facing this sectarian crisis, or the spread of radical Islam or the deterioration of religious dialogue,” Gamal El-Banna, an Islamic thinker, told Ahram Online. “Where were all the Al-Azhar graduates, who are supposed to be symbols of enlightenment, while the situation is escalating?’
El-Banna says that Al-Azhar needs to take more practical steps that include eradicating extremist ideas, developing a vision for the future and upgrading the Azharite curriculum, which he dubbed “sterile”.
Ali Laban, former Muslim Brotherhood MP who went head to head with Sheikh Tantawi several times agrees. “I cannot deny that the sheikhdom has gone through changes since El-Tayeb was appointed,” says Laban. “But most of these changes are superficial.”
Laban cited the example of the Council of Islamic Research, which he says according to Law 103 of 1961, should have 20 per cent of its members from overseas, but in fact doesn’t.
“I have repeatedly asked that they restructure the council so that it become an international body and nobody ever listens,” says Laban.
Tahtawi insists that it will take time for Al-Azhar to move forward. “I admit that Al-Azhar was not present enough in the past, and I don’t want to blame anyone,” says Tahtawi. “But now Al-Azhar is very much present and its presence will be felt.”