Al-Azhar: Beyond the Politics of State Patronage
Dr A. Rashied Omar
The great polymath Islamic scholar, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111), was concerned about the lack of intellectual independence, integrity and critical distance from the state that the Muslim scholars of his time had established. He laments this in his book, Ayyuhal Walad, and advises his young disciples to get neither too close to the princes and sultans, nor to praise and commend them excessively. But even more than that, Imam Ghazali warns his young disciples not to accept generous gifts and presents from the rulers, even though it may be permissible: “Coveting things from the rulers and those in power will spoil and corrupt your religion, since there is born from it flattery and “kowtowing” to those in power and unwise approval of their policies.”
Ebrahim E. Moosa, in his book on Al-Ghazali: The Poetics of Imagination (2005), has eloquently summarized Ghazali’s strong critique of his contemporaries who were guilty of political patronage in the following manner: “Most scholars are sycophants, groveling at the feet of political leaders, displaying egotistical behavior, driven by insatiable materialism.”
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s critique of Muslim scholars and their subservience to the state is as relevant of his time as it is of contemporary relations between religious scholars affiliated to the citadel of Islamic learning in the Muslim world, Jami`at al-Azhar al-Sharif (al-Azhar Islamic University), and the Egyptian state?
The Nationalization of Al-Azhar
During the past half century a tradition of religious legitimation of the state has become endemic in Egyptian society. It was first engineered by General Gamal Abdel Nasser, shortly after his July 23 military coup of 1952, when he nationalized all “waqf” properties (land and assets associated with religious endowment). Since the prestigious al-Azhar Islamic University, depended on income from such land to operate, this move curtailed their autonomy and made them completely reliant on the state for financial support. According to Scott W. Hibbard in his book, Religious Politics and Secular States (2010), the nationalization of waqf properties also allowed the government to distribute waqf resources in such a way as to “reward those who followed [its] lead…and punish those who did not.”
The nationalization of waqf assets was followed in 1961 by a radical reformation of the al-Azhar University including its traditional curriculum and appointment of faculty, especially the prestigious position of Shaykh al-Azhar. Nasser believed that creating a state-controlled monopoly on religion would be useful in supporting his regime against both internal and external enemies. This policy of state-manipulation of religion has since been scrupulously pursued by both of his successors, Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) and Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011).
Shaykh al-Azhar’s Uncritical Support of the Mubarak Regime
The problematic nature of this policy of state hegemony over religion is no way better illustrated than in the ambivalent stance of the Shaykh al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed el-Tayeb, during the Egyptian uprising against the Mubarak dictatorship. Shaykh el-Tayeb found it extremely difficult to provide public support for the demands of the pro-democracy demonstrators. All he could manage in his public pronouncements was to echo the failing regime’s call for “stability” and the blaming of foreign agents for the uprising. Is it disingenuous to suggest that Shaykh al-Azhar’s stance can be attributed to the fact that he was not only appointed by Mubarak but also served as a high ranking member of his National Democratic Party?
As in the case with all of Mubarak’s loyal supporters, the Shaykh al-Azhar’s position is now coming under critical scrutiny for his complicity in the Mubarak regimes three decades of blatant human rights violations and financial corruption. The tacit and oftentimes open support of the regimes draconian policies by Al-Azhar is currently being evaluated like never before.
To his credit, in his first official statement after the fall of the Mubarak regime, Shaykh el-Tayeb acknowledged that many Egyptian institutions suffered from corruption and that the pro-democracy protesters who decided to go to the street and protest against this corruption are heroes. Furthermore, in response to a group of Al-Azhar scholars who joined the protests and are now demanding that the constitution be changed to prevent a future government from appointing the esteemed position of Shaykh al-Azhar, Dr. el-Tayeb claims that this has always been his position.
The positive response of Shaykh el-Tayeb to the demand that the future head of this prestigious center of Islamic learning be appointed through democratic election rather than by presidential appointment should be welcomed by all Egyptians and Muslims all over the world. Such a transparent and consultative policy will not only lend greater legitimacy and credibility to this distinguished office, but it will also provide for more independence of al-Azhar and the `ulama (Muslim religious leaders and scholars) from state control and manipulation, I believe it should be welcomed as a first step towards an ongoing struggle to free al-Azhar from state control.
Winning this battle for the democratic appointment of the Shaykh al-Azhar will indeed go a long way in changing the half a century old tradition of state-control of the influential al-Azhar University. However, the longer term goal should be the forging of a different relationship between al-Azhar and state on the one hand, and al-Azhar and civil society on the other.
Beyond the Politics of Patronage
It is my considered view that the role of the al-Azhar university and the `ulama in Egypt should not be focused exclusively on seeking patronage with political power. Rather, they should, as has been wonderfully illustrated in the recent Egyptian pro-democracy protests, seek to become an integral and vibrant part of the broader civil society and non-governmental organizations. The al-Azhar leadership needs to resist temptations of merely being apologists for the political authorities, of simply getting co-opted by government or powerful political parties in serving their expedient agendas.
The role of al-Azhar should be that of a moral conscience of the nation alongside other organizations in civil society. The `ulama have a duty to exhort and challenge government whenever they are perceived to be failing in their political mandate. Government officials are elected by its citizens and they have a political right and obligation to censure and criticize them. At the same time civil society also has a responsibility to support and collaborate with government in areas of mutual concern and benefit.Al-Azhar University also holds the distinguished position of being the eminent and moral voice of the Muslim world. In this regard, for example, they have made many praiseworthy pronouncements such as denouncing extremist acts of violence and have supported inter-religious dialogue. This more global role will be further elevated if al-Azhar is seen to be equally critical of unethical and repressive practices by the government of their own country as well as other autocratic leaders within the Muslim world.