Sisi puts pressure on Egypt's Al-Azhar to reform

President finds venerable Islamic authority wanting in countering extremist ideology

CAIRO • Al-Azhar, the venerable Islamic authority which runs one of the world's oldest universities and often praised as a bulwark against extremism, has come under fire from critics within Egypt who are calling for reforms in the Sunni Muslim institution.

Among them is President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who believes Islamist extremists have not been properly challenged on theological grounds.

"He thinks that extremist ideas have thoroughly infiltrated Muslim societies and they are latent" but could set off "a tidal wave of devastation", said a member of a foreign delegation that met the Egyptian leader.

Al-Azhar and its Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, have warily endorsed Mr Sisi's call for reforms.

Privately, however, many of Al-Azhar's clergy and professors resent the former army officer's attempt to reshape Islamic thought.

"The religious establishment - not all of it but most of it - is pretty resistant to the idea of somebody from outside interfering or stipulating how religion and religious discourse should function," said Dr H. A. Hellyer, a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.

Mr Sisi's calls for reforms have emboldened secular and modernist critics of Al-Azhar, as well as clerics seeking influence with the President.

One such cleric, Endowments Minister Mokhtar Gomaa, who runs the country's mosques, decided to impose a written Friday prayer sermon on all preachers to weed out extremist rhetoric, which Mr Sisi had demanded. Al-Azhar mutinied, forcing Dr Gomaa to back down, and Mr Sisi distanced himself from the attempt.

Secular and reformist critics of Al-Azhar also felt encouraged by Mr Sisi. One of them, Mr Islam el-Behairy, went so far as to attack canonical Sunni books as inspirations for extremism. Mr Behairy and other critics pointed to classical manuals of Islamic jurisprudence taught at Al-Azhar that contained antiquated rulings on slavery, women and non-Muslims that may be jarring to a modern reader.

The institution's professors say their students understand that those texts were written in a different age and not all their content applies in a modern context.

After an uproar by Al-Azhar, Mr Behairy ended up serving a prison sentence for "insulting religion".

"Many of my colleagues and students feel we are under attack, starting with Behairy," said one professor at Al-Azhar, referring to criticism of the institution.

The tensions mounted when Mr Sisi demanded in January that the clerics look into amending divorce procedures to invalidate the Islamic practice of verbal divorces. Al-Azhar's top body, the Council of Senior Scholars, flatly refused. "It was a consensus vote," a cleric who sits on the council told Agence France-Presse.

Following three suicide bombings by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria of churches that killed dozens of Coptic Christians last December and this month, the pressure doubled on Al-Azhar. Critics lambasted Al-Azhar and the Grand Imam in talk shows and newspapers for failing to counter the extremists and not reforming its university and high-school curricula.

Lawmaker Mohamed Abu Hamed introduced a Bill to reform the institution, which the Constitution empowers as Egypt's authority on "Islamic affairs". The Bill includes term limits for the Grand Imam, who currently can serve as long as he wants.

"We found that the curriculum of Al-Azhar and its institutions contains many ideas that lead to violence or even incite violence," Mr Abu Hamed told AFP.

Al-Azhar rejects the accusations, pointing out the conferences it has organised to counter extremism and a monitoring group it set up to challenge extremists' ideology.

"The criminals who commit these crimes do not include a single suicide bomber who studied even for a single day in Al-Azhar," the Grand Imam's deputy, Sheikh Abbas Shoman, told a newspaper.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline Sisi puts pressure on Egypt's Al-Azhar to reform. Subscribe