President Sisi and Al-Azhar

Wresting religious authority from the Grand Imam

An arcane dispute between Egyptʹs president and Al-Azhar over how much society is threatened by debating the authenticity of hadiths and their role in Islamic law is really about moral leadership in society. By Nathan J. Brown and Cassia Bardos

Both Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar and President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi delivered formal addresses to dignitaries assembled for the prophetʹs birthday on 19 November.

Tayeb denounced those who questioned the authenticity of hadiths, since hadiths form the basis of much of Islamic law. While the Koran takes precedence, the holy bookʹs clearly legal statements are far fewer and sometimes more general in nature than hadiths, as Tayeb pointed out.

It was not surprising that he did so, since hadiths comprise the sunnah, or the practice of the prophet and the early community that gives Sunni Islam its name. There was little with which a pious Muslim Egyptian respecting the moral and religious leadership of Al-Azhar could disagree.

But when Sisi rose, he added extemporaneous comments to his prepared text, indirectly but unambiguously rebuking Tayeb. He did not question the authenticity of hadiths (this would be a bridge he showed no interest in crossing), but he dismissed the significance of the problem.

Picking a fight with the Grand Imam

The real threat, he averred, came not from questioning hadiths, but instead from perverse interpretations of religion. "The current dilemma worldwide is not about following the sunnah or not. It is about the wrong understanding of our religion," Sisi said, before asking: "Are those calling for the abandonment of the sunnah more wrongful than those who misinterpret our religion?"

Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo (photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd el Ghany)
More than just power politics: religion is very much at issue and the ostensible dispute – over the significance of challenging hadiths – is actually quite relevant. Sisiʹs focus on perceived security threats means he is looking for support to combat radical ideas, an effort he feels is hindered by the fetters and distractions of bookishness

What was going on? Why did the president feel compelled to do battle with a figure who poses as someone above politics on an issue that would appear abstruse to most political leaders? In one sense, the dispute is political. It has burst out previously on public occasions as the presidency strives to consolidate its hold over the Egyptian state and society.

The Egyptian state today – however wide its reach – has come to be dominated by the presidency and security institutions. Previously autonomous state actors, such as the administrative courts, have found their wings clipped. In society, almost all leading political figures have seen their voices and influence eliminated.

As Michele Dunne commented, "most Egyptians who had played important roles in public life between the mid-2000s and the 2013 coup [are] either in prison or in exile abroad in what [amounts] to a massive brain drain." The regime has also reined in trade unions and professional associations, other past sources of independent activism in Egypt.

Curbing religious independence

But Al-Azhar and the religious sector has retained something of an independent voice. This is true in a formal sense, as the institutionʹs leaders have blunted efforts by the state to reverse the autonomy Al-Azhar won in 2011. However, Al-Azharʹs autonomy relies on more than chains of command.

Tayeb also has constituencies willing to support him. Millions of graduates of Al-Azharʹs educational institutions, members of Sufi brotherhoods and southern Egyptian tribes linked to the grand imam and members of the religious public alienated by the regimeʹs 2013 violence – all will rally not to challenge the regime but to defend Tayebʹs integrity and position.

For its part, the regime has many tools to deploy that go far beyond public spats. It controls all media, so that when Al-Azhar scholars issue their opinions on religious controversies in the form of statements, media outlets can be told to ignore or delete coverage of these. This occurred recently, after the council of Al-Azharʹs senior scholars publicly attacked a Tunisian draft law granting equality in inheritance to men and women as representing a violation of very clear religious texts. Pro-regime media in Egypt may have been told not to report on the statement.

There are other tools as well. The Egyptian armed forces recently organised its tenth seminar for Al-Azhar students, which reportedly aimed to "increase the awareness of school and university students of the heroic actions of the armed forces to eliminate terrorism." Thus, for the well-armed regime, the grand imam of Al-Azhar may be annoying (and Sisi has said as much), but he is not threatening.

A grinding war of positions

So is the tension only about power politics, not principle? Actually, religion is very much at issue and the ostensible dispute – over the significance of challenging hadiths – is quite relevant to the matter. The president is focused on perceived security threats and is therefore calling for support in combatting radical ideas, an effort he sees as being hindered by the fetters and distractions of bookishness.

For Tayeb, the sunnah is central and those who are trained in interpreting an intellectual tradition that is over one thousand years old should be accorded respect and deference. Reform is very much in order, but to the grand imam textual fidelity is a sign of piety, expertise and righteousness, not obscurantism. Those who wish to squeeze new interpretations out of that tradition cannot abandon unambiguous Koranic texts or authentic hadiths.

Sunni clerics attend a "Fighting Extremism and Terrorism" conference at Al-Azhar in Cairo in 2014
Egyptian state to train imams: the Ministry of Religious Endowments is pushing an initiative in which imams will be trained at the National Academy, which is attached to the presidency, rather than at Al-Azhar. Training is due to begin by the end of January 2019. The curricula will reportedly include not only religious science but also law, politics, sociology and psychology – Sisi purportedly wishes to encourage enlightened thinking

In short, the conflict between Sisi and Tayeb is both religious and political, centering on leadership and the relative roles of civil authorities who lead the political system and religious scholars trained in textual interpretation. The president and grand imam are not engaged in a dramatic war of manoeuvre, but instead in a grinding war of positions, over the oversight of sermons in mosques, the issuing of fatwas and reform of the curriculum used to train imams.

Egyptian presidency muscling in on imam training

And it is this last area – what is taught – that may actually be the most important field of battle in the long term, even though the controversy is more complicated and quieter, as the regime attempts to wrest the matter out of Al-Azharʹs hands. The Ministry of Religious Endowments is pushing an initiative in which imams will be trained at the National Academy, which is attached to the presidency, rather than at Al-Azhar.

The ministry recently announced that it had finished preparing its curricula and will start training imams at the academy by the end of January 2019. The curricula will reportedly include not only religious science but also law, politics, sociology and psychology. Thatʹs because officials have often criticised Al-Azharʹs training programmes for including only religious science, which they say does not encourage enlightened thinking.

Going forward, the regime may have to double down on its attempts to subordinate Al-Azhar through more subtle means, so as not to push directly against a still widely venerated institution in Egyptian society and the Muslim world. Tayebʹs autonomy and constituencies allow him to strike an independent voice, making periodic bouts of public tension again likely in Egyptian political and religious life.

Nathan J. Brown and Cassia Bardos

© sada | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2019

Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.

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