Dismay in Egypt as al-Azhar reform fails to materialise

Efforts to reform al-Azhar fail because those who control the Sunni Islamic institution do not believe in reform, critics said.

Looking backward? Muslim scholars wait for the meeting between Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, al-Azhar’s grand imam, in Cairo, last April. (AP)

2017/05/14 Issue: 106 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Hassan Abdel Zaher

Cairo- Efforts to reform al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest seat of Islamic learning, fail be­cause those who control the Sunni Islamic institu­tion do not believe in reform, work hard to hamper it and are unquali­fied to be part of it, critics said.

“Al-Azhar scholars are only good at reviling those with different views and calling them infidels,” said Gaber Asfour, a former culture minister who is a staunch critic of al-Azhar. “They think reform will be bad for their institution.”

Reforming al-Azhar, Egypt’s old­est and highest-ranking religious body, has turned into a major is­sue in Egypt with the Arab country waging its own fierce war against Islamic extremism.

Debates on reforming the insti­tution morphed into a draft bill in parliament that would trim the au­thority of al-Azhar’s grand imam, limiting his time in office and pro­viding a mechanism to remove him if he failed to lead the required re­forms.

Nevertheless, any such reform ef­fort is expected to be nipped in the bud because of the lack of enthusi­asm inside al-Azhar itself, experts said.

The need to reform al-Azhar re­verberates loudly in Egypt with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi call­ing for a “religious revolution” and demanding al-Azhar undergo mod­ernisation and reform.

Sisi has said he wants to turn the religious establishment into a powerful tool in the fight against ter­rorism as Egypt battles the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai. Sisi seems, however, to be failing to convince al-Azhar scholars to make changes, analysts said.

Islamic researcher Youssef Ziedan said reforming al-Azhar cannot happen by presidential de­cree. “Reform will only come from within,” Ziedan said. “It must hap­pen as part of a religious and in­tellectual uprising inside al-Azhar itself.”

Nevertheless, reforming al-Azhar is imperative for the fight against extremism, experts said, and this institution cannot play an effective role while it nourishes extremism, they pointed out.

An al-Azhar scholar who hosts a religious programme on local Me­hwar TV has called on Christians to convert to Islam and said their faith is “incorrect.”

“Leaving al-Azhar as is can be catastrophic,” said Khaled Mon­tasser, a TV commentator. “The conduct of such an important insti­tution is enough to give terrorists carte blanche to kill.”

Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.

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