Al-Azhar’s New Grand Sheikh


“I’m not going to talk about my political party membership, which concerns me only, and is nobody else’s business.”

– Ahmed el-Tayeb, new Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, 20 March 2010 (Al-Dustour)

After 14 years at the helm of Sunni Islam’s most prestigious theological institute, Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack as he was boarding a plane back to Egypt from Saudi Arabia on March 10.

Tantawi had been in Riyadh to receive the King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam. Although his relatively “liberal” and “progressive” fatwas (religious edicts) were in stark contrast—and often diametrically opposed—to the kind normally put forth by Saudi clerics, this mattered little in awarding him the prize.

What did matter was not Tantawi’s contribution to Islamic scholarship per se, but something more important in the eyes of the King Faisal Foundation: the unflinching allegiance and loyalty he had shown toward his country’s leader, President Hosni Mubarak, through those fatwas.

Nine days after Tantawi’s death and while recovering from gallbladder surgery in Germany, Mubarak issued a presidential decree appointing his successor. The new Imam and Grand Sheikh of Cairo’s Al-Azhar would the current president of its university, 64-year-old Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed el-Tayeb.

Before heading the university in 2003, el-Tayeb had been Egypt’s Grand Mufti the year prior (the Grand Mufti ranks second only to the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar in authority and heads Dar al-Iftah or the “House of Fatwas;” the state-sanctioned body that issues religious judgments and rulings on a variety of subjects).

As Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, el-Tayeb will now oversee the entirety of its operations. These include not only the university and mosque, but many schools and educational institutions across Egypt and beyond; all tasked with sending scholars to teach and provide religious guidance and instruction worldwide.

Like the Grand Mufti, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar is an appointed position. It was Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, who in the early 19th century overturned the prevailing tradition of electing the Grand Sheikh by consensus of a committee of scholarly peers. In 1961 it was President Gamal Abdul Nasser who ratified a law giving the government the official right to select the Sheikh.

A decade after Egypt’s 1952 revolution, control of Al-Azhar’s religious trust (Waqf), the selection of its Grand Sheikh and the country’s Grand Mufti, had all effectively been brought under government jurisdiction. Is it therefore any surprise that the head of the foremost seat of learning in Sunni Islam often parrots the positions of the government and conforms his rulings to them?

Tantawi, for example, had no trouble with Mubarak’s lifelong candidacy in office. He advocated banning the niqab or face veil as a measure Mubarak hoped would curb extremist tendencies. He sanctioned the barrier being erected by the regime cutting Gaza off from Egypt. He very publicly (yet “accidentally”) shook hands with the reviled Israeli president, Shimon Peres. He ruled that the collection of interest—equated with usury and forbidden under Islamic law—is acceptable under certain circumstances, giving religious cover to the government’s support for interest-bearing Western banks.

“Tantawi was not only pro-Western, he was often pro-authority and did his best to satisfy such authority, even if it meant that he had to cut corners with the body of ethical and moral rulings in Islamic teachings,” said associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University Ebrahim Moosa (Newsweek, 12 March 2010).

Will el-Tayeb be any different?

By all indications, no.

Known for his dislike of the (banned) Muslim Brotherhood, he said of a 2006 parade conducted by Brotherhood students at Al-Azhar that the facemasks worn made them look “like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Republican Guard in Iran.” One hundred students were subsequently arrested. No doubt his animosity toward the Brotherhood and Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran endear him to Egypt’s dictator.

But the telltale sign that el-Tayeb will simply reflect the regime’s wishes is his membership in Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)—the only political party in Egypt that matters.

He is also a member of the NDP’s policies committee, chaired by Mubarak’s son Gamal no less. Gamal is widely expected to succeed his father if and when he steps down. With both houses of parliament having solid NDP majorities, Hosni Mubarak was able to easily pass a series of constitutional amendments making it nearly impossible for any outside or independent candidate from challenging Gamal. Despite his recent appointment, el-Tayeb has refused to resign from the NDP.

It thus appears Mubarak and son will now have the requisite backing of Egypt’s preeminent spiritual authority in their quest to achieve dynastic authoritarian rule.

Many in the West regarded Tantawi as a progressive, liberal voice against a backdrop of extremism, and believe similarly of the Sorbonne-educated el-Tayeb. But “moderation” should not be confused with transforming the political directives of a secular dictatorship into religious edicts. This not only damages the reputation of a great institution, but adversely affects the authenticity and credibility of the religion itself.

Unfortunately, Mubarak’s latest political appointee, the new Grand Sheikh, gives no hint he will end this lamentable practice anytime soon.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri [at] yahoo [dot] com.




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