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Does al-Azhar Speak for All Sunnis?

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.” 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.” 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.

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