FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Al-Azhar’s New Grand Sheikh

by RANNIE AMIRI

“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.

 

 

WORDS THAT STICK

Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Rogue Elephant Rising: The CIA as Kingslayer
Matthew Stevenson
Is Trump the Worst President Ever?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flynn?
John Wight
Brexit and Trump: Why Right is Not the New Left
Diana Johnstone
France: Another Ghastly Presidential Election Campaign; the Deep State Rises to the Surface
Neve Gordon
Trump’s One-State Option
Roger Harris
Emperor Trump Has No Clothes: Time to Organize!
Joan Roelofs
What Else is Wrong with Globalization
Andrew Levine
Why Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban?
Mike Whitney
Blood in the Water: the Trump Revolution Ends in a Whimper
Vijay Prashad
Trump, Turmoil and Resistance
Ron Jacobs
U.S. Imperial War Personified
David Swanson
Can the Climate Survive Adherence to War and Partisanship?
Andre Vltchek
Governor of Jakarta: Get Re-elected or Die!
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Destruction of Mosul
Norman Pollack
Self-Devouring Reaction: Governmental Impasse
Steve Horn
What Do a Louisiana Pipeline Explosion and Dakota Access Pipeline Have in Common? Phillips 66
Brian Saady
Why Corporations are Too Big to Jail in the Drug War
Graham Peebles
Ethiopia: Peaceful Protest to Armed Uprising
Luke Meyer
The Case of Tony: Inside a Lifer Hearing
Binoy Kampmark
Adolf, The Donald and History
Robert Koehler
The Great American Awakening
Murray Dobbin
Canadians at Odds With Their Government on Israel
Fariborz Saremi
A Whole New World?
Joyce Nelson
Japan’s Abe, Trump & Illegal Leaks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump 1, Tillerson 0
Yves Engler
Is This Hate Speech?
Dan Bacher
Trump Administration Exempts Three CA Oil Fields From Water Protection Rule at Jerry Brown’s Request
Richard Klin
Solid Gold
Melissa Garriga
Anti-Abortion and Anti-Fascist Movements: More in Common Than Meets the Eye
Thomas Knapp
The Absurd Consequences of a “Right to Privacy”
W. T. Whitney
The Fate of Prisoner Simón Trinidad, as Seen by His U. S. Lawyer
Brian Platt
Don’t Just Oppose ICE Raids, Tear Down the Whole Racist Immigration Enforcement Regime
Paul Cantor
Refugee: the Compassionate Mind of Egon Schwartz
Norman Richmond
The Black Radical Tradition in Canada
Barton Kunstler
Rallying Against the Totalitarian Specter
Judith Deutsch
Militarism:  Revolutionary Mothering and Rosie the Riveter
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir Evoked a Lot More International Attention in the 1950s Than It Does Now
Adam Phillips
There Isn’t Any There There
Louis Proyect
Steinbeck’s Red Devils
Randy Shields
Left Coast Date: the Dating Site for the ORWACA Tribe
Charles R. Larson
Review: Bill Hayes’ “Insomniac City”
David Yearsley
White Supremacy and Music Theory
February 16, 2017
Peter Gaffney
The Rage of Caliban: Identity Politics, the Travel Ban, and the Shifting Ideological Framework of the Resistance
Ramzy Baroud
Farewell to Doublespeak: Israel’s Terrifying Vision for the Future
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail