Having returned to the Middle-Eastern religious and political centre stage, Muslim clerics are split between supporting rulers, on the basis of a shared hostility towards political Islam, and contesting authoritarianism in the name of an Islamic democracy

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:56:38

Giving the lie to those who had decreed their irrelevance, Muslim scholars have returned to centre stage in many Middle Eastern countries over the last few decades. The uprisings in 2011 and the subsequent explosion of jihadist violence have opened a new phase, in which religious experts are faced with an old dilemma: either to support rulers, under the banner of hostility to political Islam, or to contest despotism with a view to building an Islamic democracy.


For five decades, from 1961 to 2011, the Sunni scholars of Islamic theology and law – the ulama – in Egypt lived, and thrived, with state authoritarianism. So did the ulama of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq. Whether monarchies or republics, the Arab regimes carved out a politically confined space for their ulama which also offered them resources, economic security and an instrumental role in the promotion of state priorities. From the 1970s, the “Arab cold war” with its ideological polarization gave way to a long period of religious awakening (the so-called sahwa) which offered new opportunities to the ulama, in preaching, teaching, writing, and, increasingly, on television – all with the state’s blessing.


While most ulama stayed loyal to the regimes, and remained on their payroll, some moved towards more critical and challenging positions. Some of them embraced a rising Islamist trend, which would play out differently in Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but very few went so far as to become associated with violent jihadi groups. These groups, in turn, developed a marked anti-Clericalism.


When the Arab revolutions broke out in early 2011, the ulama, as much as anyone else, were taken by surprise. Many people were looking to them for guidance, but it appeared that the calm and cozy co-existence with existing regimes had been shattered. Hard choices had to be made.


This paper will look at types of responses adopted by the ulama, the regimes, and the political Islamic currents. In conclusion, the paper will discuss the viability of what may be called new madhhabism, i.e. neo-traditionalism, as a counterweight to Salafism, and where this leaves more reformist ulama.



Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Long considered a socio-political group on the wane, the ulama have become the object of new scholarly attention. This is in no small measure due to their increasing reassertion and visibility in the Muslim world itself, as a group and individually. Muslims, too, have had to familiarize themselves with scholarly authorities – from Khomeini to al-Qaradāwī – who have emerged from the more anonymous shadows of the ulama. Special studies have emerged on the reassertion of the ulama, the most well-known, by Muhammad Qasim Zaman, bearing the title Custodians of Change to alert us to the fact that the ulama have been part of social change, albeit handling it more than embodying it.[i]


Forming from 1958 to 1961 the United Arab Republic under President Nasser, Egypt and Syria both developed into authoritarian states, first with an Arab Socialist ideology and later with a neo-liberal economic policy. In the field of Sunni Islam, both countries would run their religious sector through a Ministry of Religious Endowments, headed by a politically appointed minister, selected from among the ulama, and both would make use of the office of State Mufti to derive legitimization for their policies. Moreover, from the time of Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood, the main political contender with an Islam-based ideology, was banned in both countries.


There were, however, obvious differences between the religious policies of the two states. First of all, Syria was composed of many more religious sects than Egypt, and through the whole period its rulers (from 1970 the al-Assad family) were not Sunni, but Alawite, and opposed by Sunni Islamists not only for what they did, but for who they were. In Egypt, by contrast, the Islamist challenge was an intra-Sunni rivalry. In Syria, a major Sunni Islamist revolt from 1979 was brutally suppressed in 1982, while a much more limited attempt at revolt in Egypt resulted in the assassination of President Sadat, but little else. Sadat and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, managed to contain and partly co-opt the main Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, while concentrating on fighting smaller jihadist groups. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood was defeated and ousted, but the Syrian intelligence occasionally supported Islamist movements in other countries, notably Lebanon and later Iraq. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, had given asylum to fleeing Islamists from Syria and Egypt in the 1960s and integrated them into its education and international organizations of Islamic mission, but from the early 1990s it became increasingly uneasy about their loyalties.


In all three countries, then, the ulama were seen by the rulers as a bulwark against Islamism and jihadism. Ironically, in the eyes of these regimes, it was the supposedly quietist stand of the ulama that made them a political asset.



Revolution and its Aftermath

During Egypt’s revolution in January-February 2011, a small number of turbans were visible in Tahrir Square, and one sheikh died in a later demonstration. In the weeks of the revolution the Friday sermon was itself a mass demonstration, with the preacher of the local mosque delivering important messages from the Square to the world. Nevertheless, the top ulama stood firmly with President Mubarak, and their supreme head, the Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb, issued a decree condemning demonstrations setting out from mosques. As so often before, al-Azhar was divided between a politically docile leadership and a more radical tendency among its students and younger teachers.[ii]


In the aftermath of the confrontations, the leadership of al-Azhar was quick to support the revolution and make public demands for a severing of state ties (but continued state support). This point was taken up by its old rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the political party they were now allowed to establish (the FJP), whose program called for a formal independence of al-Azhar from the state.


In the summer al-Azhar hosted an important meeting on Egypt’s way forward towards Democracy, but its inclination towards authoritarian politics had not evaporated: while the first free elections were taking place in January 2012, a new law for al-Azhar was passed by the interim ruler, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, thus also assuring the continuation of the existing Azhar leadership.


A difficult year ensued. The Islamist Freedom and Justice Party won the elections, and along with the more Conservative al-Nūr party it held a majority in Parliament. Contrary to many predictions, these two parties did not set out on an agenda of Islamization of Egypt, and three months later the lower chamber of the Parliament was dissolved by a court order. In its stead, and only with a small margin, the Muslim Brother Muhammad Morsi won the presidential elections in May 2012. During his year in power, Morsi did not pursue an aggressive Islamizing agenda, either, and yet by forcing through a new Constitution (with clear Islamizing potential) he antagonized all other political forces to the point that, when the military took over and deposed the elected president, this was supported by large strata of the population. Morsi did his best to court al-Azhar, giving his first significant political speech at its premises, and appointing several sheikhs to sit on the committee preparing the new Constitution.


The anti-Islamism of the Azhari leadership was, however, well known – this was a main reason why the Mubarak regime had appointed them in the first place – and when in July 2013 the military took over, the Sheikh al-Azhar was seen standing next to the new strongman, Field Marshal Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. That attitude is only partly shared by the ulama rank-and-file. Since the military coup, Azhari students and teachers have demonstrated against security measures in the university itself, but there is little doubt that some of the anger reflects sympathy with the ousted president and the Brotherhood whose leaders are now imprisoned, awaiting or serving harsh sentences in court cases that have been widely criticized by international human rights organizations. Other Muslim Brother leaders have taken refuge in neighboring countries, especially in Turkey. Very few of them are ulama.



The Breakdown of Social Order

Inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians also rose up in the spring of 2011. Right from the outset, however, there was nothing festive and visionary about the Syrian uprising. It was an outraged response to abhorrent violence by the regime’s security forces in the Southern town of Daraa. Peaceful demonstrators willingly faced death by snipers at marches and funerals. By early 2012 the conflict between the regime and demonstrators was taking place all over the country, many soldiers were defecting and armed rebel groups had taken control over local villages and neighborhoods. The regime still had full control over the air force and artillery and was pounding rebel-held neighborhoods, forcing people to flee their homes in the millions. By 2018, foreign forces, principally from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Russia, were supporting the regime, which has consolidated its position, despite there is little chance of it regaining full control over all of Syria’s territory.


Representing the majority sect, but not that of the regime, the Sunni ulama of Syria were in a delicate position. Having weathered a Sunni Islamist uprising in the early 1980s, the Syrian regime had worked hard to ensure ulama loyalty.[iii] The Muslim Brotherhood was completely banned, and the anti-Islamism of the leading Syrian ulama was more pronounced than among their peers in Egypt, but quietist Salafism had made inroads among other ulama. This, however, was not an Islamist uprising, but a popular rejection of dictatorship. In Damascus, some of the most respected ulama resorted to the historical strategy of proffering a note of advice (nasīha) to the ruler, thus assuring their loyalty whilst voicing their concern. Several ulama gave such advices, asking the ruler to heed the concerns of the Syrian population, rather than suppress the protests. The preachers were probably under no illusion that they could influence the president, but hoped to salvage themselves and indicate that, in situations of extreme social tension, the normally a-political men of religion had a duty to step in. Ignored by the regime, a few of the sheikhs took the logical step and gave a sermon denouncing the ruler ‒ classically known as kalimat al-haqq (“a word of truth”) – and fled. One of the leaders of these ulama, Sāriya al-Rifā‘ī, claimed that in 2012 more than fifty ulama had followed him into exile.[iv] These Syrian sheikhs found asylum in Turkey where they established an alternative umbrella organization of Syrian Sunni ulama.


The Syrian regime, on the other hand, maintained the support of its leading ulama, the Mufti of the Republic and the muftis of the major cities. Even more importantly, the “grand old man” of the Syrian ulama, Sa‘īd Ramadān al-Būtī (1929-2013), staunchly defended Bashar al-Assad, just like in the early 1980s he had defended his father, Hafez. In response to the uprising, the regime gave in to al-Būtī’s long-held ambitions of establishing an Islamic television channel and setting up a league of Syrian ulama, and until his murder in 2013, al-Būtī duly preached and issued fatwas in support of the regime and its policies, including fatwas exculpating soldiers who had shot at random into crowds.[v]



The International Dimension

The revolutions and counter-revolutions have altered the map of international ulama organizations in a number of illustrative developments. After many conferences and failed attempts, the ulama finally acquired their international organizations in the early 1960s. As part of the 1961 reforms of al-Azhar, an international Academy of Islamic Research was established in Cairo, tasked with studying and proposing solutions to issues when new Islamic thinking was needed. Since this was seen as a way for Nasser to internationalize and promote his Arab Socialist reading of Islam, Saudi Arabia responded in 1962 by setting up a rival organization, the Muslim World League. As products of the Arab cold war, both of these quite partisan organizations were eclipsed by the more truly international Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC, 1973, in 2005 renamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), a more political organization employing ulama in its special branches.[vi]


In 2003, the Islamist preacher Yusuf al-Qaradāwī drew on his television popularity and the rise of the internet to establish yet another ulama organization, the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS). Registered in Dublin to remain out of the reach of any Muslim government, the IUMS enjoyed considerable success in attracting many individual ulama and acting as a representative of Muslim concerns in international affairs, such as the various affairs stemming from insults of the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper (2005), Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture (2006) and others. An Islamist ideologist much admired by the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaradāwī was significant in criticizing Arab autocrats and calling for democratic reforms – changes he knew would benefit the Islamists – thus breaking with an earlier anti-democratic Islamism. Al-Qaradāwī was thus well positioned in 2011 when the revolutions broke out. He vigorously supported them in his program on the al-Jazeera satellite channel and was invited to give the sermon on Tahrir square on February 18th, the first Friday after the demise of Mubarak.[vii]


Given al-Qaradāwī’s status and strong support for the revolution, it is obvious that non-Islamist ulama were moved to counter him. Throughout 2011 and 2012 al-Qaradāwī several times called upon al-Būtī to leave the “tyrant” Bashar al-Assad. When on February 27 al-Būtī answered by calling Bashar al-Assad the “Saladin of our time”, al-Qaradāwī on the same day expressed the wish of leading the prayer in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.[viii] Similar rows ensued with the leading pro-regime ulama in Egypt, Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayyeb and former Mufti Ali Gomaa, when al-Qaradāwī called upon Egyptians to rise up against the new military ruler.


According to classical ulama ethics, the most prominent scholars should respect each other, and the above-mentioned scholars would all recognize the others’ scholarly achievements, even if they would be in scholarly disagreement. Their mutual accusations typically focus on political alliances to specific states and their interests, with al-Qaradāwī accusing the others of being puppets of their respective regimes, and the others accusing al-Qaradāwī of being a tool of Qatar’s foreign policy.


The struggle over the revolutions, and al-Qaradāwī’s political agitation, has led to his isolation and revealed the degree to which the IUMS was an Islamist organization. Hence, with the support of the staunchly anti-Islamist UAE, a counter-organization was set up in 2014. Headed by the Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayyeb and ‘Abdallah Bin Bayyah, a former ally of al-Qaradāwī, the Council of Muslim Elders (Majlis Hukamā’ al-Muslimīn) has held annual conferences to shore up Islamic opposition to terrorism and extremism, and, by implication, Islamism. In a conference held in Grozny, Chechnya, in 2016, some members of the Council denounced Wahhabism as a deviance of true Sunni Islam. However, supported by the UAE and al-Sisi’s Egypt, this organization has no history of opposing autocracy, leaving Muslim scholars the choice between an organization supporting Islamism and another supporting authoritarianism.



An Alternative to Salafism, Reformism and Islamism

Sa‘id Ramadān al-Būtī, the Syrian scholar supporting Bashar al-Assad, may well be considered an early and eloquent representative of this new anti-Islamist tendency. Is his book Al-Lā-madhhabiyya akhtar bid‘a tuhaddid al-sharī‘a al-islāmiyya (“Abandoning the Schools of Law is the Greatest Innovation Threatening the Sharia”), al-Būtī opened a new line of defense against not only Salafism but also the modernist trends in Islamic thought which since the nineteenth century had transformed Islamic legal thinking. Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb and especially former Egyptian Mufti Ali Gomaa, can be seen as contemporary representatives of this line of thinking, insisting that true Islamic learning has to follow a legal school (Madhhab) and traditional theological doctrine (either Asharism or Maturidism). That is, there must be a madhhabiyya (allegiance to this traditional body of learning) to combat the prevailing and destructive lā-madhhabiyya (abandonment of the legal schools). Apart from the open commitment to the teachings of established legal and theological schools, Ali Gomaa and his disciples are also Sufis and consider Sufism an integral part of this traditional Islamic culture and thought. During most of the twentieth century, Sufism has been on the defensive in many Muslim countries, criticized mainly by Salafis, but sometimes also by Islamists and Muslim modernists.


While supporting al-Sisi’s coup d’état and later election as President of Egypt, al-Tayyeb has vigorously resisted al-Sisi’s demands of “reforming Islam.” Not being able to resist the political pressure entirely, in 2016 and 2017 al-Tayyeb produced two serials of television interviews where he talked about heritage (turāth) and renewal (tajdīd). In these programs he explained that true Islam is not something that needs to be “reformed” or “moderated,” but something that needs to be preserved and carefully updated to serve as the moral compass to Muslims in any age and time. This requires an in-depth knowledge of the tradition of Islamic learning and the moral and spiritual training of the individual actor in that process. Needless to say, this duty, to al-Azhar, is the prerogative of the ulama.


[i] Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam. Custodians of Change (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2002).

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

[iii] See Thomas Pierret, Baas et Islam en Syrie. La dynastie Assad face aux oulémas (PUF, Paris, 2011).

[iv] See “Dawr al-‘ulamā’ fī ’l-mujtama‘,” Al-Jazeera, 15 July 2012, https://bit.ly/2L6i5Jv

[v] Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, Clergy and Conflict Intensity. The Role of the Ulama in the Syrian Conflict, in O. Waever, I. Bramsen and P. Poder (eds), Resolving International Conflict: Dynamics of Escalation and Continuation (Routledge, London, in press).

[vi] Reinhard Schulze, Islamischer Internationalismus im 20. Jahrhundert (Brill, Leiden, 1990).

[vii] David Waaren, “The ‘Ulamā’ and the Arab Uprisings 2011-13. Considering Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the ‘Global Mufti,’ between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Legal Tradition, and Qatari Foreign Policy,” Brismes New Middle East Studies 4 (2014), http://www.brismes.ac.uk/nmes/archives/1305

[viii] Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, Clergy and Conflict Intensity.