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Middle East and Africa

The Islam of al-Azhar, between extremists and modernists

A street in Cairo during the demonstrations of last December, 25th

In a rare and extended interview with the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, explains the position of this great Egyptian institution in respect of al-Sisi's invitation to promote a more enlightened perspective within Islam. In particular, he addresses the issue of violent deviation by certain elements who claim to be Muslims, and of the actual role of al-Azhar within the Muslim community.

Whilst Egypt is still going through a period of political upheaval on the fourth anniversary of its revolution, the debate on Islam and its interpretations continues, following an intervention on 1st January when the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for the Islamic authorities to ‘depart from’ a strand of religious thought perceived as a threat by much of humanity, in order to bring about a more ‘enlightened’ perspective. At the end of his appeal, Sisi solemnly addressed Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar: ‘You have a great responsibility before God. The whole world is counting on your words’.



The Grand Imam's response has been almost immediate. Among the initiatives promptly undertaken by the important religious leader following al-Sisi's request, one extensive interview that appeared in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 14th January stands out; as the newspaper proudly reported, this was his ‘first interview with a Middle Eastern newspaper since he took office’. The Sheikh touched on many different subjects: the role of al-Azhar, Islamic extremism, the training of Imams, religious teaching, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian State.



‘Al-Azhar's mission’, said el-Tayeb, ‘is to present the median, tolerant side of Islam [...]. Al-Azhar is fully aware of the fact that we are in the midst of raging upheaval brought on by great changes and by political, economic, social and cultural conflicts, and that religion is one of the cards that the disputants are trying to play in this conflict [...]. Al-Azhar is striving day and night to counter this upheaval [...], but we should not be doing it alone; it is the responsibility of that State in conjunction with the Ministry of Education’. Moreover, the Imam added, ‘no one can say that extremism will be easily or swiftly eradicated from society. We are facing a social phenomenon with roots that stretch back a decade’.



The interview then spends a great deal of time on an issue that is very ‘Egyptian’ but nonetheless resonates with the debate going on in other contexts, including the West; namely the profile and the training of preachers who speak from the pulpits of mosques. Commenting on the decision by the Egyptian State to prohibit access to the pulpit to those who do not have a diploma from al-Azhar, the Imam is convinced that this is ‘a step in the right direction’, given that ‘considering their role and their relevance, we cannot leave the pulpits in the chaos they were in before’.


Asked for a response to al-Azhar's teaching methods, which have recently come under fire from certain intellectuals, el-Tayeb invited the interviewer to consider the fact that ‘with just one exception, none of the extremist and radical ideologues throughout the world is a graduate of al-Azhar [...] and it is therefore quite regrettable that al-Azhar is constantly accused of being responsible for terrorism’.



With regard to the attacks in Paris, the Grand Imam stated that ‘barbaric killing and massacres cannot be used in defence of Islam and the Prophet and the price for this is being paid by Muslims in every corner of the world’, and pointed out that ‘Muslims everywhere are being called upon to condemn and to publically refute criminal acts like the Paris attacks’. However, when asked about how it can be possible for a person who utters the Shahâda (the profession of faith) to decapitate another human being whilst claiming to be a Muslim, el-Tayeb refers to the distinction between sinner and unbeliever, which has been a crucial and hotly debated issue from earliest theological thought dating back to the seventh century. Jihadists are still Muslims and cannot be considered unbelievers, otherwise an endless cycle of mutual condemnation would be set in motion. El-Tayeb in fact wonders: ‘Under what rule does a Muslim who decapitates another Muslim act?’ In retaliation, is the answer. ‘He should be killed just as he himself has killed, but he is not an unbeliever. Unbelief is another thing altogether, and he who believes in God, in his angels, in his books, in his Prophet, in the day of judgement and in the divine decrees is a believer and cannot be accused of being an unbeliever. And if he commits a serious sin such as killing another human being or drinking wine, does he become an unbeliever? No. [...] If we open the door to anathema, no one will be saved’.



Finally, it is interesting to note how el-Tayeb insists on carefully defining the function and the powers of the al-Azhar mosque, an institution that is often wrongly described as the centre Sunnism, or even the ‘Vatican of Islam’: ‘al-Azhar's opinions are not binding, and we are not a judiciary that issues sentences, nor an executive body that issues decrees. We do not brandish a stick with which to punish those who do not conform to our opinion. [...] We do not exercise any protection, nor are we a religious power’.



In general, the Imam does not deny the existence of problems within the mosque, but constantly rejects attempts to paint it as an instigator of the violence which is an ailing part of the Muslim world today.


The words of el-Tayeb are representative of a religious culture probably quite widespread in Islamic societies, which condemns unreservedly the violence perpetrated in the name of God, but experiences more difficulty in interacting positively with issues of contemporary society and the aspirations that the Arab revolutions have brought to the surface although in a seemingly fleeting manner.


It is an awkward position to be in too, because it is caught between two objections. On the one hand there is the Islamist assertion, which maintains that the quantity and quality of Islam's presence in society is never sufficient. The day before publication of the interview, a leading scholar of the al-Azhar mosque, Muhammad Imara, a man close to the Muslim Brotherhood, denounced ‘the drying up of the sources of religion in Egypt’.



On the other hand there is the modernist position. While it does not directly question the role of religion in society, it seeks an Islam that is finally reconciled with reason and science, and is able to put behind it a tradition that contemplates the killing of apostates, that discriminates between Muslims and non-Muslims, and that subjugates women, as the analyst Adil Numaan commented in the same newspaper that published the interview with the Grand Imam.


Following President al-Sisi's speech, the clash between these different interpretations is open, at least in Egypt. In the absence of a religious authority entrusted with the ‘correct interpretation’ of Islam (the Imam himself noted this fact), the role of the arbiter will likely fall to politics, and, providing it has the strength to do so, to Civil Society.