An edifice missed

Mohamed Salmawy
Tuesday 2 Nov 2021

Bemoaning the sight of Al-Azhar in the spectator’s seat.

If only that stance could have come from Al-Azhar, with its proud history of disseminating the Muslim faith as it should be practised. At its height, the scholars of this famous religious institution showed that Islam is a contemporary faith, suitable for all times and places. When President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi sounded the appeal at the beginning of his term, for the modernisation of religious discourse, to free it from the accumulations borne of backwardness, ignorance, fanaticism and terrorism, I thought that Al-Azhar would rise to this noble cultural, religious and national task. I pictured this venerable institution at the vanguard of a much needed major reform movement such as that spearheaded by such figures as Sheikh Mohamed Abdu or Jamaleddin Al-Afghani.  Instead, Azhar appears to have chosen to remain a bastion of conservative, traditionalist thought. Such thought and the attitudes it represents have long been exploited by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis and other such political movements that cloak themselves in religion and contribute to the dissemination of the type of fanaticism that breeds not only terrorism but also all kinds of malignancy that we will never be rid of until we eliminate their ideological roots through a modernisation movement such as that which the president called for.

The stance that I had hoped Al-Azhar would take was, in fact, precisely that of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman which, voiced some months ago, has since then been circulating on social media. Unfortunately, just as Al-Azhar turned a deaf ear to the president’s appeal, it deliberately or perhaps helplessly ignored the prince’s call for a systematic overhaul of the hundreds of thousands of Hadith traditions (sayings or deeds attributed to the Prophet) that have accumulated over the centuries. As he pointed out, many of these traditions contradict each other and sometimes even contradict the Quran. In an interview on Saudi state television, the prince called for the elimination of ahādī traditions as a source of Saudi law. Ahādī traditions are those sayings transmitted by a single narrator. More than 90 per cent of Hadith that are thought to be “true” fall into this category. In that interview, Mohamed Bin Salman said that ahādī traditions along with khabar traditions (sayings of doubtful authenticity) cannot be considered binding and, hence, a source of law, regardless of whether or not they were included in such collections as Sahīh Muslim and Sahīh al-Bukhārī. Instead, he said, the laws and punishments applied in Saudi Arabia must be based on “a clear Quranic stipulation or a mutawātir hadith,” mutawātir being the category of Hadith tradition that has been relayed by an uninterrupted chain of groups of several narrators generation after generation over the centuries.

This decision would have a profound impact in application. For example, it would abolish hudud punishments (a category of corporal punishments under Islamic Sharia) that are not specifically stated in the Quran and derive their legitimacy solely from ahādī traditions which, according to the crown prince’s explanation, are of uncertain authenticity. An example is that which relates that Aisha said that hudud was mentioned in the Quran, but that a camel came into her room, where she kept the holy book, and ate the pages in which this term was mentioned. I have no need to comment on this or similar traditions that speak for themselves.

Now, why was Al-Azhar the agency to take this sort of initiative, placing Cairo at the helm of a major modernisation process and ideological renovation project which the Arab nation and the Islamic world need? Renovating religious discourse is a fundamental part of the cultural renaissance  to which we aspire in tandem with the nation-wide infrastructure projects that are proceeding full steam ahead. It was no coincidence the Mohamed Abdu’s enlightenment project took off against the backdrop of the cultural and national awakening that Egypt experienced during the 19th century and that culminated in the 1919 Revolution. This was also one of the brightest chapters in the history of Al-Azhar, which contributed to that awakening in many ways. It was an Azhar scholar, Ali Abdel-Razeq, who laid the conceptual foundations for secular rule in Islam. Another Azharite, the dean of Arab Literature Taha Hussein, did more than anyone else in his era to develop literary discourse in the Arab world. Nor should we forget the religious upbringing of the famous musician and innovative composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab who received his primary education in Al-Azhar schools.

If Al-Azhar is to resume this important national, religious and cultural mission, it must perform the task entrusted to it, namely to modernise religious discourse. It should take inspiration from Saudi Arabia which has preceded it thanks to the bold decisions of the crown prince.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: