Following the rise of jihadist terrorism, the university and mosque of Cairo has been accused of promoting the spread of extremism through its teaching methods

This article was published in Oasis 29. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:01:44

Following the rise of jihadist terrorism, the mosque-university in Cairo was accused of fostering the spread of extremism with its teaching methods. The leadership of the institution responded by starting up a textbook review programme. But this attention to the transmission of religious tradition risks overshadowing the responsibility of political power.


Throughout the history of Islam, there have been various models of teaching, each of which reflecting the Islamic culture and state of the scholarly community in a particular era. Religious teaching began with the oral transmission of the various branches of Islamic knowledge, to then be consolidated in writing and through the classification, division and grouping carried out by religious scholars. At the end of the fourth century of the Islamic era (tenth century of the Christian era, Ed.), all the sciences had already been instituted and their methodologies established. In all these phases, knowledge provided a faithful picture of the various aspects of Islamic society. In particular, however, it has to be said that the state of the sciences and teaching methods was a reflection of the relationship between the political power and the intellectual community, and of the latter’s entrenchment in Muslim society.


The Freedom of the Scholarly Community


However much political power may have stabilized over Islamic history, no authority has ever become so centralized as to control the evolution of knowledge and teaching programmes. All in all, free from political pressure, the scholarly community has been able to act according to its own criteria.


Indeed, even in those madrasas born under the aegis of political power, such as the Nizāmiyya[i] in Baghdad, or the schools established in Egypt, the East and other areas,[ii] the study programmes were defined solely by the ulama tasked with teaching based on the requirements of the scholarly community and its dialectic with society. Each sheikh or imam set up a specific teaching programme which he imparted to his students according to what he deemed appropriate. For example, at the Nizāmiyya, Abū al-Ma‘ālī al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085) taught the methodology, which al-Ghazālī would then comment, noting it down in his Mankhūl. At the al-Ashrafiyya madrasa in Damascus, Abū ‘Amr ibn al-Salāh al-Shahruzūrī (d. 643/1245) had begun to teach the science of the hadith following an almost unprecedented order, which he then set down in his famous work Ma‘arifat anwā‘ ‘ilm al-hadīth [Knowledge of the Categories of the Science of Hadīth]. And numerous other examples could also be given.


What fundamentally enabled the scholarly community to escape the pressure of power was the system of pious endowments (nizām al-awqāf), which safeguarded its independence and financial resources. According to Islamic jurisprudence, the waqf system, also known as habs, lays down that the original owner transfers all ownership rights over the asset (mawqūf), solely maintaining any obligations that may have been agreed.


Hence, teaching methods and programmes could become consolidated, outliving the rise and fall of the various Islamic dynasties, as well as their periods of expansion and regression. For a long time, this system did not undergo any substantial changes and the waqf continued to guarantee the freedom of the scholarly community, removing it from the influence of political power. Moreover, the latter did not have the monopolizing trait that it instead possesses today, and it did not aim to manage every aspect of everyday life. After operating for many centuries, this system underwent a decisive change in the contemporary era when the states extended their jurisdiction over the waqf and subjected it to their own control. This would be the first step towards state involvement in reviewing the teaching programmes.


In Egypt, the situation did not change even after the birth of the modern state at the hand of Muhammad ‘Alī Pāshā: the methods used at al-Azhar remained linked to the traditional knowledge that had formed over the history of Islamic power and could only be decided by the sheikh and the ulama who taught there.


It was with the measures undertaken by president Gamal Abdel Nasser, and in particular with the al-Azhar reform law of 1961, that the Egyptian state took control of the mosque-university, transforming it into a branch of the state machinery. With the land reform, implemented with the laws of 1952 and 1961, the state also took possession of the waqf assets that had guaranteed the independence of the teaching and intellectual movement within al-Azhar. At the same time, the Ministry of Religious Affairs (Awqāf) was being established and the sharia courts abolished, which enabled the state to consolidate its control over both the intellectual and judiciary dimensions of the mosque.


The Dialectic Between the State and al-Azhar After 2011


As of the Nasser era, the dialectic between the Egyptian state and al-Azhar thus took on the form of an attempt by the former to extend its control over the second, by incorporating it within its structures. So, when the revolution happened in 2011, not only was al-Azhar already annexed to the state machinery, but the state tried to further increase its dominion, by dismantling all remaining forms of the mosque’s independence. Nevertheless, it was a new type of control, exercised from a different perspective, with more precise and at the same time less visible methods than Nasser’s, who, in addition to controlling al-Azhar, strove to benefit from its immense financial resources.


It was in particular the military coup which overthrew president Muhammad Morsi, elected in 2012, that changed the form of the relationship between the state and many institutions, starting from al-Azhar itself. Even though only formally, the Grand Imam of the mosque, Ahmad al-Tayyib, supported the military intervention, and on 3 July, during the live television announcement of Morsi’s ousting, he appeared seated behind General al-Sisi. All the same, relations between the imam and Cairo’s new strong man were soon to become more and more tense.


After the total failure of the Islamist government, the troops moved to spark a new, “post-Islamist” era in Egypt, beginning with the declaration of the coup in 2013, which proclaimed the failure and the end of the Islamist movements. Second, the state laid the groundwork for the plans of certain regional powers, in particular the United Arab Emirates, which had supported the coup. The aim of one of these projects, which is radically transforming the region at all levels, in particular in intellectual terms, is to replace the traditional interpretations of Islam with a series of conceptions and new readings of the tradition and teaching methods, no matter whether they are correct, or if they are consistent with past legacy.


The first indicator of this process was the invitation to renew the religious discourse launched by Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, while he was in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, on 1 January 2015, for the celebration of the Prophet’s birth. On that occasion, the Egyptian president declared he was “determined to fight this great intellectual struggle.” I will not pause to deconstruct this affirmation and explain its problems here. I will just point out that, in the immediate wake of the president’s appeal, some commissions were set up and various preparatory meetings were held to follow through his request.


It was at this point that the attitude towards al-Azhar changed. Pressured by the political community, rumours began to circulate, above all from Egyptian journalists and writers, that al-Azhar and its teaching methods were responsible for terrorism. Hence, the Islamic university was asked to alter its study programmes so as not to sow what could be considered the seeds of extremism and guarantee that al-Azhar would produce moderate, balanced students untainted by fundamentalism or violence.


The Reform of the al-Azhar Study Programmes


As a result, al-Tayyib decided to establish the “Council for Pre-University Teaching”, comprising around one hundred ulama from al-Azhar and other institutions, and entrusted its presidency to his ex-deputy ‘Abbās Shumān. In addition to managing some administrative issues, this body was tasked with reformulating particularly sensitive concepts and areas such as equality, the inviolability of the human person, the principles of citizenship and the relationship with non-Muslims, in order to adapt them to the present-day social and political climate. At the same time, it was requested to remove some anachronistic sections of Islamic jurisprudence such as the chapters relating to jihad and slavery, and the regulations relating to dhimmī (the “protected” Christians and Jews who, in exchange for payment of a tax and observing some conditions, were entitled to live in the Islamic community, Ed.).


Despite having reached the end of the curricula revision process, hitherto the commission has issued no official declarations on the results of its works. It would have been better to do so, as this would have lessened the pressure exercised by Egyptian public opinion in its accusations against al-Azhar of cultivating the roots of violence and terrorism and spreading these concepts through obsolete teaching programmes.


Some members of the commission whom I was able to contact thanks to the intermediation of people close to them[iii] made two remarks in this regard.


The first concerns primary teaching, in which all the ancient texts have been replaced by more simple manuals suited to present-day students. Instead, most importantly, in secondary teaching, for law, theology and creed the traditional texts have been maintained, but they have undergone a revision process. For example, in Hanbali jurisprudence they continue to study the texts taken from the Al-Rawd al-murbi‘. Sharh Zād al-Mustaqni‘ by sheikh Mansūr bin Yūnus al-Buhūtī (d.1051/1641), but some sections have been taken out, in particular the most controversial and problematic chapters, such as those relating to jihad and slavery or the regulations relating to dhimmis, which had led to the accusations against al-Azhar. This means that there has been real progress in the commission’s work, even though the results have not been announced owing to administrative problems.


Al-Sisi’s invitation and what happened thereafter can be seen as a first step towards the renewal which Islamic thought needs, both in terms of its revealed law (sharia) and positive law, to adapt to the present times and progress. This is true, but, in my opinion, it is not sufficient, nor does it express the whole truth of the question. Indeed, two other aspects need to be considered.


First of all, it must be recognized that, for at least one hundred and fifty years, Islamic thought has had a real problem which the passing of time only makes more complicated. In particular, this problem resides in the relationship between the invariability of the text, whose meanings, however wide, are limited by the linguistic framework, and the present reality with its contingent events. The question is how to make what is constant interact with what changes. This issue is not new. The necessity to consider both aspects in the process of issuing fatwas, by adapting the text to the present day, had already been raised by some ulama in the past, such as, among others, Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī (d. 684/1285), Taqī al-Dīn Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 751/1350).


Today, however, the real problem consists of the fact that many lawmakers and Islamists active in the political sphere have extremely little knowledge of the two terms in the equation, that is, the text and the present situation. Not only is their capacity to understand the texts, sources and resources of the sharia in no way comparable to that of their predecessors, they do not understand the many new aspects or developments of the present world either. For example, most of them are unable to grasp the very conception and problems of the modern state, or its relationship with the revealed law, and make do with highlighting the problems using general categories and making simplistic comparisons.


Second, existing power relations or political pressures cannot be left out of the question when considering these appeals for religious renewal in both the common public discourse and teaching methods.


Renewal As An Instrument of Power


On reflection, the insistence of the Egyptian powers-that-be on the necessity to renew the educational programmes demands some considerations. First of all, by placing all the blame for extremism on the teaching programmes, attention is distracted from the oppression exercised by regimes past and present, as if responsibility for the corruption in Egypt could be attributed solely to al-Azhar and the inaction of its ulama rather than placed with those in power. Second, the state seems willing to prepare Egypt at the intellectual level for regional plans—extending over various countries through the creation of research centres and funding for researchers working towards these ends—which, as we have said, aim to produce a new religious discourse. Last, the pressure exercised by al-Sisi prompted a new period of power conflicts between the Egyptian presidency and al-Azhar.[iv] This has resulted in the destruction of the mosque from the inside, its incorporation into the state, and the elimination of everything that might appear to contrast with the president’s will.


Hence, the renewal ploy and the circulation of similar concepts in Arab and Egyptian thought arouses doubts and suspicions. Without doubt, Muslims need renewal and development, but these categories and their contents first need to be clarified and their essence and various elements be outlined in a scientific manner.


For many centuries, the textbooks railed against first by the Egyptian president, and then by some political currents, had been taught and studied in an even more systematic form than at present. Yet, news had never reached us of extremists blowing up churches or suicide bombers blowing themselves up during a Christian celebration. On the contrary, until the middle of the last century, most voices went against this dismal picture.


To neglect the role of authoritarian regimes, who wear down people’s resources, lives and humanity, in the birth of what today is called “terrorism”, is to expose people to immense falsification and manipulation. Most of the takfirist and jihadist currents are simply the result of the repression implemented by Gamal Abdel Nasser, while, more recently, it is unlikely that any extremist jihadist movements have arisen without interference from the secret services of some state which has created them from scratch and directs them according to particular interests.


The world’s states and regimes are not so innocent as to force us to seek the seeds of extremism in the books of authors who died centuries ago. Rather than pointing the finger at books on yellowing paper,[v] the responsibility for terrorism should be put down to political despotism, the regimes that govern the Arab world and the states that support them. If, after taking this aspect into consideration, the phenomenon of terrorism were still to remain partially unexplained, then we could implicate Islamic tradition.


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

[i] The Seljuk vizir Nizām al-Mulk (d. 485/1092) had this madrasa built in 459/1065. Thereafter, other madrasas would be established in Balkh, Nishapur and other cities.
[ii] For more details on this topic, see ‘Abd al-Qādir bin Muhammad al-Nu‘aymī, Al-Dāris fī tārīkh al-madāris. Dār al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, Bayrūt 1410/1990.
[iii] Amongst whom, Sāmī Muhammad Ma‘ūz, assistant at the Faculty of Arab Language at the University of al-Azhar.
[iv] The latent disagreement between the two institutions is not a secret. In January 2019, the president of the republic ended up issuing a decree preventing anyone who covered the function of prime minister from travelling outside the country without an official permit from al-Sisi himself. This decree was directed at none other than the Sheikh of al-Azhar.
[v] The reference is to the texts of the Islamic tradition, also known as “yellow books”. Owing to their great size, these books were printed on very thin, cheap paper, which hence went yellow quickly (Ed.).


To cite this article

Printed version:
Ahmad Wagih, “The Reform of the al-Azhar Textbooks: A Political Question”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 32-38.

Online version:
Ahmad Wagih, “The Reform of the al-Azhar Textbooks: A Political Question”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: /en/the-reform-of-al-azhar-textbooks