The Egyptian mosque-university, al-Azhar, is often called “Islam’s Vatican” and aspires to lead Islam’s renewal

This article was published in Oasis 25. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:57:30

The Egyptian mosque-university is often called “Islam’s Vatican”. This ancient institution is certainly one of the most prestigious centres of Muslim learning in the world but to accord it primacy in religious interpretation means not to understand the nature of authority in Sunni Islam. If it cannot claim that absolute leadership that the West attributes to it, today it nevertheless aspires to lead Islam’s renewal.


It is not unusual for the al-Azhar mosque-university to be called “Islam’s Vatican” and for its Grand Imam to be referred to as “Sunni Islam’s highest authority”. If these expressions seek to communicate the prestige that this Egyptian institution enjoys, they nevertheless conceal a basic lack of understanding about the nature of Sunni authority, which, scattered and little institutionalised, provides neither for magisteria nor for hierarchies. As Malika Zeghal and Marc Gaboriau wrote over a decade ago,


[Al-Azhar’s] alleged supremacy is constantly called into question by the existence, today, of a religious field that is extremely plural and therefore competitive, both in Egypt […] and at the global level.[1]


The two scholars nevertheless noted,


The centrality of the great places historically producing and transmitting religious knowledge demonstrates that it is possible to tone down the hypotheses that Muslim religious authority would nowadays be fragmented and decentralised, particularly through the phenomenon of religious authorities on the Internet. The persistence of the traditional religious authorities and their ability to adapt suggest that the phenomenon of self-proclamation by new, Islamist religious authorities has probably been overestimated and that important elements of a re-institutionalisation of religious authority have been neglected.[2]


Al-Azhar’s quest for the influential limelight in the context created first by the revolution in 2011 and then by the explosion of jihadist violence, above all, confirm this trend. Furthermore, the authority attributed to al-Azhar by Western media and scholars is now being claimed by the Egyptian mosque itself. It has not gone so far as to proclaim itself “Sunni Islam’s highest authority” but when Western journalists and politicians give it this title, it does not hesitate to repeat their words on its own site and through social media.[3]



A Glorious Past and a Difficult Renewal


Two dates stand out on al-Azhar’s coat-of-arms: 972 and 391. They indicate the year (according to the Julian and the Islamic calendars, respectively) in which the mosque was founded by the Fatimid dynasty. Thus al-Azhar bases its authority first and foremost on the depth of its roots, even if, by a quirk of fate, these roots are plunged in the soil of the Ismaili Shi‘ism with which the Fatimids identified. The mosque passed over to Sunnism under the Ayyubids (1174-1250), whilst under the Mamluks (1250-1517) it consolidated its institutional role in the transmission of knowledge, which activity continued during the Ottoman period (1517-1798) as well. In addition, the figure of the Shaykh al-Azhar began to emerge at the end of the seventeenth century. This would then become established as a pre-eminent religious personality during the course of the twentieth century.[4]


During the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt (1798-1801) that conventionally symbolizes the Muslim world’s encounter with European modernity, the Egyptian ulama not only did not lose their influence over society but actually increased it and to such an extent that they were a determining factor in Muhammad Ali’s rise to power.[5]


This state of affairs did not last long. The modernising and centralizing policy implemented by Muhammad Ali hit the status of the religious scholars hard. They lost their resources and prestige and saw themselves flanked and even supplanted by new élites linked to circles created by modern life. The ulama had a rather passive reaction, preferring to withdraw within their fortress rather than clash with the new power. Thus began a phase of material and symbolic decline for al-Azhar. However, if, at first, the mosque’s ulama continued to follow their traditional lifestyle undisturbed (although thwarted), they were directly implicated only too soon, being indicated as the people responsible for the developmental lag experienced by Egyptian society and Islam in general. It was in this context that the debate on the need to reform Islam and, consequently, also al-Azhar’s organization and teaching methods, was opened.


The debate centred on a couple of concepts taken from the Muslim jurists’ methodological arsenal, namely, taqlīd and ijtihād. The first may be translated as “imitation” but has ended up generally communicating the idea of tradition and it expresses the duty to follow the opinion of past jurists. The second, on the other hand, literally means “interpretative effort” and indicates the possibility, for particularly qualified jurists, of drawing directly on the sources and interpreting them. The tension between these two elements runs through the whole of Islam’s history. It assumed a broader dimension in nineteenth and twentieth-century reformist discourse, however. Taqlīd was associated with blind imitation and, therefore, the immobilism of a religion and a society incapable of renewal, whereas ijtihād was understood as the method by which reason could be re-accorded its rights and a general re-reading of Islam carried out. Al-Azhar’s ulama ended up being identified with taqlīd, which they defended, inter alia, as a barrier to interpretative chaos. Ijtihād, on the other hand, became the mantra of the reformists, from the pioneer Rifā‘a al-Tahtāwī to Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and his disciples Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashīd Ridā.[6]



The Reform Process


In any event, al-Azhar, too, was hit by the reform process in the end. Between 1872 and 1930, a series of provisions rationalized the mosque’s organization, standardized its programmes, introduced mechanisms for the formal verification of the ulama’s competences and initiated its transformation from a madrasa into a modern university, with the creation of the three faculties of theology (usūl al-dīn), law (sharī‘a wa qanūn) and Arabic. Resistance from the ulama slowed down reform of the teaching methods and content, on the other hand, but such fact did not prevent the mosque’s renewal. Indeed, during the period between 1927 and 1963, at least three of its grand imams, Mustafā al-Marāghī, Mustafā ‘Abd al-Rāziq and Mahmūd Shaltūt, were significant Islamic reformist figures.


The most incisive reform took place in 1961, however, when Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser made al-Azhar a tool of his religious policy and gave it a highly modernizing boost. The mosque was nationalised and its ulama lost their independence, having been transformed into state officials. The primary and secondary teaching institutes and the university were also reformed. New teaching subjects were introduced and new, non-religious faculties such as medicine and engineering were added. The Islamic Research Academy was also created. This was a body of ulama tasked with studying Islam’s position regarding contemporary issues. The mosque-university’s new configuration meant state surveillance over the ulama’s authority but, at the same time, by inserting them into an administrative hierarchy and providing them with adequate resources, it emphasised their position as religious specialists and also assigned them a precise political role. When, in the 1970s, the ulama were allowed to come out of the “administrative citadel” imposed by Nasser’s regime, they exploited the monopolistic position offered by the 1961 modernization in order to regain a wider margin for manoeuvre, above all when the regimes of Sadat and Mubarak mobilized them for an anti-Islamist purpose or as arbiters between secular and Islamist intellectuals.[7]



Between Revolution and Violence


The revolution in 2011 took the mosque by surprise. Its Grand Imam, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, had been appointed the year before by Mubarak and therefore could not boast many credentials when the square was calling for the “fall of the regime”. Nevertheless, after showing an initial caution, al-Azhar seized the opportunity provided by the revolutionary moment to claim a greater independence from the state. In addition, the sheikh promoted a series of declarations (the fruit of collaboration between ulama and intellectuals) through which the mosque stated its position on certain key themes during the post-revolutionary phase, such as the structure of the state and its relationship with religion and the various freedoms to be enjoyed. Then, when the Muslim Brothers came to power, al-Azhar – in the figure of its sheikh, as before – stood up as a religious counter-power in the face of the Islamist organization’s hegemonic claims.


But if the revolution allowed al-Azhar to increase its margin for manoeuvre at the domestic level, it was the violence perpetrated by ISIS in the name of Islam that put the Egyptian mosque at the centre of international attention, particularly after President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s famous call to carry out a “revolution” in Islamic religious discourse. In reality, al-Azhar has shown itself to be rather lukewarm about the president’s requests, probably because it does not want its priorities and its ways of interpreting religion to be dictated by those holding political power. Thus, in 2016, it contested the government’s plan to standardize the sermons given in mosques and, in 2017, it opposed al-Sisi’s request to reform the so-called “oral divorce”,[8] arguing the Islamic legitimacy of this practice.


At the same time, however, al-Azhar’s most senior figures have not withdrawn from the debate about reforming religious discourse. On the contrary, in the name of their authority and competence, they have claimed the right to establish the criteria and objectives. In an editorial published in the mosque’s weekly, Sawt al-Azhar (“Al-Azhar’s Voice”), Grand Imam al-Tayyeb has written, for example, that renewal means neither the elimination of religion (as the secularists would like) nor a mere return to the purity of Islam’s origins (a none-too-veiled criticism of the Salafis). Basing itself on the Qur’an and the Sunna, it must, rather, integrate “the contemporary era’s concepts” by making them interact with Islamic tradition. In the second place, renewal must create an opening out to the other, so as to create a common cultural framework. The imam has nevertheless added that the priority is to discuss the concepts being used by the extremist movements to legitimate their actions: concepts such as takfīr (the declaration of unbelief), jihad and caliphate. Finally, the article closes with an important observation on ijithād, the premise of every attempt at reform. Al-Tayyeb writes that the interpretative effort must be a collective one because the time for individual ijtihād is over: nowadays, in the face of the multiplicity of competences it requires, it is no longer possible to “go solo” in this activity. In this way, the imam is delegitimizing personal interpretations of Islam and assigning to the religious institutions the task of making religious discourse evolve.[9]


The sheikh’s words have materialized in certain events and gestures: on the one hand, the international conferences organized by al-Azhar with the participation of Muslim and Christian authorities, including the event that saw the simultaneous participation of Pope Francis, the Coptic Pope Tawadros II and the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew; and, on the other, a new disciplinary approach towards those of al-Azhar’s ulama who give a nod and a wink to extremist language and practices. The university’s rector, Ahmad Hosnī, is a case in point. He was removed from his post after declaring Islam Behery to be an apostate: Behery was an intellectual who had already been convicted of blasphemy after criticizing some of the Islamic Tradition’s texts.



Three Open Questions


There nevertheless remain some uncertainties about the effectiveness of the mosque’s initiatives. The first has to do with the fragmentation and pluralisation of religious authority. The imam Bin Bayyah who, together with al-Tayyeb, presides over the Muslim Council of Elders (a transnational network of ulama having the aim of “promoting peace in Muslim communities”), has stated that the Muslim umma finds itself today in a situation of “tashardhum marji‘ī[10]: an expression that could be translated loosely as a “Balkanization of authority”. It is true, as I wrote at the beginning, that we are witnessing a return of the institutional authorities. These, too, can enter into competition, however, as is evidenced by the international prestige enjoyed, on the one hand, by some of the Saudi ulama and Medina University (a centre of Wahhabist irradiation) and, on the other, by al-Azhar, with its vocation to represent a “middle path”, plural Islam.[11] In reality, this competition helps that same al-Azhar: if it cannot present itself as the highest form of authority for Muslims (as some Western observers would like), it can nevertheless gain credit as the point of reference for an Islam that is open and engaged in dialogue.


The problem is – and this is the second uncertainty – that not everyone is willing to place the Egyptian mosque amongst the “moderates”. Indeed, many Egyptian intellectuals contest the content of its teaching, which they accuse of being no less intransigent and threatening than that of the fundamentalists, and they criticize its hesitation in condemning extremism.


The possibly decisive issue, however, is the relationship between the ulama’s discursive authority and the militant jihadists’ action. The latter are, in actual fact, seeking a praxis rather than a religious knowledge (according to the influential Islamist ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, “the true ijtihād is jihād”) and they are therefore impervious to the ulama’s reflections. The sociologist Hamit Bozarslan has pinpointed this fact, availing himself of a great medieval historian’s observations: “These scholars with their so highly refined knowledge, who are capable of over-rarefying […] the circumstances that can invalidate a fast, have failed to understand the simple truth that Ibn Khaldun had grasped perfectly in his own day: the da‘wa (call, cause or ideology) […] must be rustic if it is to be memorized: it must be directly axiological, not theoretical or theological.”[12] And this is the greatest challenge. For al-Azhar as well.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Marc Gaborieau and Malika Zeghal, “Autorités religieuses en Islam,”  Archives des sciences sociales des religions 125 (February-March 2005), pp. 5-21 (this citation p. 14).

[2] Ibid., p. 13.

[3] It did so, for example, when the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, called the Shaykh al-Azhar “the highest Sunni authority in the world”, but also on numerous other occasions. See

[4] Daniel Crecelius, “The Emergence of the Shaykh al-Azhar as the Pre-Eminent Religious Leader in Egypt,” international conference on Cairo’s history (27 March-5 April 1969), Egyptian Ministry of Culture, (Il) Cairo 1972.

[5] Idem, “Non-ideological Responses of the Egyptian Ulama to Modernization,” in Nikki R. Keddie (ed.), Scholars, Saints and Sufis. Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500 (University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles, 1972), pp. 167-209.

[6] Indira Falk Gesink, Islamic Reform and Conservatism. Al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam (I.B. Tauris, London-New York, 2009), pp. 66-76.

[7] See Malika Zeghal, Gardiens de l’Islam. Les oulémas d’Al Azhar dans l’Égypte contemporaine (Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 1996).

[8] This is a form of divorce that the husband effects by uttering a simple formula three times.

[9] Ahmad al-Tayyeb, “Al-tajdīd alladhī nantaziruhu,” Sawt al-Azhar 913 (29 March 2017), p. 1.

[10] “Kayfa yarā al-‘allāma Ibn Bayyah al-nizā‘ al-yawm ‘alā sūrat al-Islām bayn marja‘iyyāt mukhtalifa? Wa kayfa yumkinu tajāwuz wad‘ al-tashardhum?”,

[11] According to reporting from agencies, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia called the Pope’s visit to al-Azhar “a sacrilege for the Islamic world” and accused al-Azhar of not “representing true Islam”, see

[12] Hamit Bozarslan, Révolutions et état de violence. Moyen-Orient 2011-2015 (CNRS Éditions, Paris, 2015), pp. 184-185.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “Does al-Azhar Speak for All Sunnis?”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 56-62.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “Does al-Azhar Speak for All Sunnis?”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: