Al-Azhar University is one of the world’s oldest educational institutions, founded in 972 by the Fatimids, and continues to serve as one of the most prominent centers of Sunni religious orthodoxy in the Muslim world. Many members of Egypt’s religious scholarly class, the ‘ulama, are graduates of al-Azhar. Al-Azhar has long played a role in Egyptian and wider Muslim politics, at times lending support and legitimacy to ruling powers and at other times serving to represent popular opinion against ruling powers.
Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser instituted changes to al-Azhar, making it dependent on the state, which included assuming the right to appoint university leaders such as the Grand Sheikh. In 1961, he oversaw further reforms to al-Azhar introducing a new curriculum that integrated secular and religious sciences. Ironically, this facilitated greater exchanges between some Azharis and Islamists, and paved the way for a greater political role for Azhar and its graduates in the 1980s. While al-Azhar’s dependence on the government was perceived as a major weakness by members of the Brotherhood and other Islamists, juridical opinions (fatwas) issued by Azhari scholars continued to carry weight in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world. While many of Azhar’s students are sympathetic with the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization and its faculty has traditionally been a counterbalance to Islamic reformist and Islamist movements.
Anwar Sadat relied heavily on al-Azhar to bolster his religious credentials in the face of policy decisions that were widely unpopular among Egyptians, from seeking peace with Israel to his infitah “open-door” policy towards western capitalism. Under both Sadat and Mubarak, al-Azhar received considerable authority to censor religious media in Egypt through their Islamic Research Center. Al-Azhar reviews all religious curricula for primary and high school education, which has expanded its range of influence and allowed al-Azhar to serve as one of the engines for rising Islamization beginning under Sadat and continuing throughout the 1980s.
Senior members of Al-Azhar were cautious during the Arab Spring. Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb affirmed the legitimacy of President Mubarak, and then Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa called upon protestors to return home, citing concerns for public safety. However, individual members of the faculty (including prominent members of the ‘ulama) and students did participate in demonstrations. Sheikh Emad Effat, a senior Azhari who advocated non-violent resistant and who frequented what had become anti-military protests during the period of transition government, was fatally shot by military police during a sit-in. Sheikh Emad became, alongside Khaled Said and protestors killed during the early days of the Arab Spring in Egypt, a prominent martyr icon that represented an alliance, whether real or symbolic, between protestors and Al-Azhar.
Certain changes have taken place within Al-Azhar as a result of political change in Egypt. In the weeks and months that followed the Arab Spring, faculty members and Egyptian society more broadly supported greater independence for Al-Azhar and its related institutions, for example, by making the position of Grand Imam an elected as opposed to government-installed position. On June 20, 2011, Al-Azhar issued the “Al-Azhar Document,” an 11-point program recommending changes to benefit Egyptian society, which promoted constitutional democracy. It also promoted its own institutional independence and its role as the highest Islamic authority in Egypt, the latter which was resisted by Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite public support of institutional independence, Al-Azhar remains under government oversight. However, these debates have exposed a variety of schisms within the ‘ulama including generational differences, relationships to the previous regime, support for Sufism or Salafism, and others that have heightened tensions within Al-Azhar.
Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib, a moderate liberal appointed by Hosni Mubarak in 2010, was among the opposition leaders to declare strong support for the military coup against Muhammad Morsi on July 3, 2013. Sheikh Ali Gomaa has also been outspoken in his support for General 'Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and has issued fatwas permitting the use of violence against pro-Morsi protestors. However, Azhari students have largely supported Muhammad Morsi and have participated in anti-government protests.
Leila Ahmed, A Quiet Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).
Amr Ezzat, “قصة «استغلال» الأزهر في القانون والدستور”, Al-Masry Al-Youm, November 4, 2012, accessed January 16, 2014.
Islamopedia Online, “Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta,” Islamopedia Online, accessed October 16, 2013.
Islamopedia Online, “Al-Azhar and The Government,” Islamopedia Online, accessed October 16, 2013.
Yasmine Saleh, “Senior al-Azhar Sheikh Emad Effat shot dead during Cairo protests,” Reuters, December 18, 2011, accessed January 16, 2014.